On Nov. 19, 1863, 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. It was 271 words. Lawyers can learn from its brevity and persuasive powers.
No. 1: Create a strong establishing shot. The first scene in a movie is the establishing shot— think “Casablanca” or the original “The Godfather.” The same is true in a presentation. Lincoln invoked the Bible and the Declaration of Independence: “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.”
He was inspired by Proverbs 90:10, “The days of our years are threescore and ten. …”
Lincoln’s opening channels Shakespeare, who Lincoln read throughout his life. In his plays, Shakespeare simply started: no throat clearing, no lengthy introductions, no pointless meandering. It’s like a good trial lawyer who starts with, “We are here today because of XYZ”
No. 2: Use the rule of three. Roy Peter Clark’s insightful new book, “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times” explains the power of grouping ideas into threes.
Lincoln uses it over and again: “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground,” and “the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Three is just right. It is just enough to drive home the point but not enough to dilute it. Imagine if Lincoln had used only one or two ideas in these passages instead of three. The persuasion is not there, and neither is the poetry.
No. 3 Tap into your emotions. All great talks—from the Gettysburg Address to a jury argument—result from emotion, not facts. And by emotion, I do not mean cheap sentiment, emotive histrionics or fake sympathy. I mean authentic feelings.
Here is the scoop, as recounted in an amazing book, “Writing the Gettysburg Address” from Martin P. Johnson. On Nov. 18, the day before the address, Lincoln toured the battlefield, in particular the place where Union General John F. Reynolds was killed. Lincoln described Reynolds as “our gallant and brave friend.”
According to Johnson, Lincoln was so moved that he changed the speech. Before the visit, Lincoln wrote, “The world can never forget what they did here.” But after the visit, he underlined the word “did,” so that, when he spoke, he would stress the events, make them vivid and bring them to life.
This is also true with lawyers. Here are two stories, both involving empathy.
Story No. 1: I was taking depositions in the offices of a very effective plaintiff’s lawyer. I asked her about the art on the conference room walls. She told me she attended a trial school run by a famous trial lawyer, who believed that an attorney must feel his own pain before advocating on behalf of others and explaining their pain. So, the artwork on the walls was painted by the firm’s lawyers, with the only instruction being to paint what they felt.
Story No. 2: I helped try an age-discrimination case recently. The first-chair lawyer argued in his closing, “Make no mistake about it, the plaintiff is not accusing XYZ Co. of discrimination. He’s accusing [name of individual manager] of discrimination.” Bottom line: Do not fear feelings, embrace them.
No 4: Move from static to dynamic. Lincoln’s visit to the battlefield changed the speech in its most important section. The president needed to pivot from what had happened to what needed to happen. He originally wrote, “It is for us the living, to stand here, ….”
Johnson writes that “even when employed metaphorically, [standing]. … is almost inevitably static, it is a status.”
So, Lincoln cut “standing” and used “dedicated.” The result: “It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on.”
Wow. And that small difference made all the difference.
No 5: Use good, simple words in good, simple propositions. There is a popular notion that repetition of words or themes is unpersuasive. That’s wrong, especially if the words and themes build upon and complement one another, as Andrew Dlugan points out in “What the Gettysburg Address Teaches Every Presenter” from the Ragan.com blog of Nov. 28, 2011.
Dlugan writes that Lincoln’s overarching message was to tell the world that, “Like the men who died here we must dedicate ourselves to save our nation.” In doing so, Lincoln used “we” 10 times, “here” eight times, “dedicate” or a variation six times, and “nation” five times—all in a speech of only 271 words.
The words are concrete and evocative. “Here” brings the listener into the reality of the moment. “Dedicate,” as we saw above, is a powerful verb that invokes a call to action. “We” and “nation” create a feeling of a common purpose. He picked his words for maximum effect and used then again and again. We should do likewise.
No. 6: Tell the audience where you are going, and tell them what you want. Jury consultant Laurie Kuslansky writes in an Oct. 3 post, “Your Trial Presentation Must Answer: Why Are You Telling Me That?” in The Litigation Consulting Report, “It’s much easier for a jury to remain focused and motivated and to understand the relevance of information when the jury has a headline that helps it know where the information is going and that it is worth paying attention to the information. Although counsel knows where he or she is going, the jury may not.”
Lincoln, the great trial lawyer that he was, knew this. After his strong establishing shot, and in answer to the question of where he and his listeners were going, Lincoln answered, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
In other words, he is talking about survival, both individual and national.
To the question on what he wanted, he wrote, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
And as to that, we all, to the greatest secular prayer ever written, need only say a simple “amen.”