Copywriting Lessons From Our 16th President

Abraham Lincoln was not only one of our greatest presidents, he was also the most skillful writer ever to occupy the Whitehouse. His moving and eloquent Gettysburg Address contains valuable copywriting and communications lessons for business people and communicators at all levels. This article points out how you can apply these lessons to make your copywriting, marketing communications and business presentations more memorable and effective.

It is a crisp, clear autumn afternoon. About 1:30. A full sun hangs in a bright blue sky. A large crowd mills about.

The date is November 19th. The year is 1863. And the place is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are there. You jostle for position. You strain your neck to get a glimpse. And you cup your hand behind your ear…as the 16th President of the United States steps to the center of the platform and begins his “few appropriate remarks.”

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Thus begins one of the most memorable pieces of American prose ever written. Pick any adjective of praise to describe The Gettysburg Address and it’s probably appropriate. Elegant. Eloquent. Evocative. Profound. Poetic. Poignant.

Yet at the heart of this speech is a simple collection of mostly one syllable words. To be exact, two hundred and twenty out of two hundred and seventy one. What is it then about this memorable speech that causes it to so completely communicate its message? What lessons can we learn from it that will make our own communications efforts more memorable and effective? These are the questions I want to address in today’s article.

The Central Idea of the Occasion

The day after the Gettysburg dedication ceremonies Lincoln received a letter at the White House. It was from Edward Everett. Everett was the most renowned orator of his generation and it was he, not Lincoln, who had been the featured speaker at Gettysburg. By all accounts, Everett had delivered a stirring 2-hour oratory replete with a virtuoso verbal re-enactment of the battle itself. And yet, his letter to Lincoln read in part:

“Dear Mr. President,

I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Everett’s correspondence hits on a key point. The Gettysburg Address communicates so effectively because it captures, encapsulates, and illuminates a monumental moment in American history. It does so with clarity and brevity while at the same time informing us and fully engaging our emotions. A good example of this clarity and brevity can be found in the opening lines of Lincoln’s conclusion wherein he says:

“But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

With these two eloquent lines Lincoln simply, effectively and beautifully articulates “the central idea of the occasion.” And, offers a moving and prayerful tribute to those who struggled there.

A Great Writer At Work

In a February, 1991 Life magazine essay, Garry Wills wrote: “Abraham Lincoln is our only Chief Executive who became a great president because he was a great writer.” To study the Gettysburg Address is to witness a great writer at work. A writer so in step with the rhythm of his language and so vivid in his imagery. A writer with an attentive heart and keen ear for just the right word, just the right phrase. A few examples:

“conceived in liberty,” “engaged in a great civil war,” “a final resting place,” “who here gave their lives that that nation might live,” “the last full measure of devotion,” “a new birth of freedom.”

In studying the Gettysburg Address we gain an acute awareness of all the power and all the beauty that great prose can possess. And although the speech is meant to dedicate a graveyard its rich rhetoric reverberates with the rhythm and imagery of life. It is precisely this rhythm, this imagery and this breath of life that has enabled Lincoln’s magnificent words to live beyond that November day in Gettysburg, seven score and 2 years ago.

As business owners, salespeople, and marketing professionals our livelihood and well-being depend in large part on our ability to communicate. And as we prepare for our next sales presentation, public speaking opportunity — or, produce marketing communications — we would do well to call to mind the lessons to be learned from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

We should, for example:

Focus on the “central idea of the occasion”
Write and speak from the heart, with clarity and brevity
Infuse our communications with rhythm, imagery and life.
For if we do, while it’s doubtful we’ll make history, I do believe our presentations and communications will be duly noted and well received.

© 2006 Ernest Nicastro

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