Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous, most quoted, and most recited speeches of all time. It is also one of the shortest among its peers at just 10 sentences.
In this article, we examine five key lessons which you can learn from Lincoln’s speech and apply to your own speeches.
This is the latest in a series of speech critiques here on Six Minutes.
Speech Critique – Gettysburg Address – Abraham Lincoln
I encourage you to:
- Watch the video with a recitation by Jeff Daniels;
- Read the analysis in this speech critique, as well as the speech transcript below; and
- Share your thoughts on this speech in the comment section.
Lesson #1 – Anchor Your Arguments Solidly
When trying to persuade your audience, one of the strongest techniques you can use is to anchor your arguments to statements which your audience believes in. Lincoln does this twice in his first sentence:
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. 
Among the beliefs which his audience held, perhaps none were stronger than those put forth in the Bible and Declaration of Independence. Lincoln knew this, of course, and included references to both of these documents.
First, Psalm 90 verse 10 states:
The days of our years are threescore years and ten…
(Note: a “score” equals 20 years. So, the verse is stating that a human life is about 70 years.)
Therefore, Lincoln’s “Four score and seven years ago” was a Biblically evocative way of tracing backwards eighty-seven years to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. That document contains the following famous line:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
By referencing both the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln is signalling that if his audience trusts the words in those documents (they did!), then they should trust his words as well.
How can you use this lesson? When trying to persuade your audience, seek out principles on which you agree and beliefs which you share. Anchor your arguments from that solid foundation.
Lesson #2 – Employ Classic Rhetorical Devices
Lincoln employed simple techniques which transformed his words from bland to poetic. Two which we’ll look at here are triads and contrast.
First, he uttered two of the most famous triads ever spoken:
- “…we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.” 
- “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” 
Second, he uses contrast wonderfully:
- “… for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” 
(the death of the soldiers contrasts with the life of the nation)
- “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” 
(remember contrasts forget; say contrasts did)
How can you use this lesson? While the stately prose of Lincoln’s day may not be appropriate for your next speech, there is still much to be gained from weaving rhetorical devices into your speech. A few well-crafted phrases often serve as memorable sound bites, giving your words an extended life.
Lesson #3 – Repeat Your Most Important Words
“When trying to persuade your audience, seek out principles on which you agree and beliefs which you share. Anchor your arguments from that solid foundation.”
In the first lesson, we’ve seen how words can be used to anchor arguments by referencing widely held beliefs.
In the second lesson, we’ve seen how words can be strung together to craft rhetorical devices.
Now, we’ll turn our attention to the importance of repeating individual words. A word-by-word analysis of the Gettysburg Address reveals the following words are repeated:
- we: 10 times
- here: 8 times
- dedicate (or dedicated): 6 times
- nation: 5 times
While this may not seem like much, remember that his entire speech was only 271 words.
By repetitive use of these words, he drills his central point home: Like the men who died here, we must dedicate ourselves to save our nation.
- “we” creates a bond with the audience (it’s not about you or I, it’s about us together)
- “here” casts Gettysburg as the springboard to propel them forward
- “dedicate” is more powerful than saying “we must try to do this”
- “nation” gives the higher purpose
How can you use this lesson? Determine the words which most clearly capture your central argument. Repeat them throughout your speech, particularly in your conclusion and in conjunction with other rhetorical devices. Use these words in your marketing materials, speech title, speech introduction, and slides as well. Doing so will make it more likely that your audience will [a] “get” your message and [b] remember it.
Lesson #4 – Use a Simple Outline
The Gettysburg Address employs a simple and straightforward three part speech outline: past, present, future.
- Past: The speech begins 87 years in the past, with the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the formation of a new nation. 
- Present: The speech then describes the present context: the civil war, a great battlefield (Gettysburg), and a dedication ceremony. The new nation is being tested. [2-8]
- Future: Lincoln paints a picture of the future where the promise of the new nation is fully realized through a desirable relationship between government and the people. [9-10]
Note that “the nation” is the central thread tying all three parts together.
How can you use this lesson? When organizing your content, one of the best approaches is one of the simplest. Go chronological.
- Start in the past, generally at a moment of relative prosperity or happiness.
- Explain how your audience came to the present moment. Describe the challenge, the conflict, or the negative trend.
- Finally, describe a more prosperous future, one that can be realized if your audience is persuaded to action by you.
And, speaking of being persuaded to act…
Lesson #5 – State a Clear Call-to-Action
The final sentences of the Gettysburg Address are a rallying cry for Lincoln’s audience. Although the occasion of the gathering is to dedicate a war memorial (a purpose to which Lincoln devotes many words in the body of his speech), that is not Lincoln’s full purpose. He calls his audience to “be dedicated here to the unfinished work” , to not let those who died to “have died in vain” . He implores them to remain committed to the ideals set forth by the nation’s founding fathers.
How can you use this lesson? The hallmark of a persuasive speech is a clear call-to-action. Don’t hint at what you want your audience to do. Don’t imply. Don’t suggest. Clearly state the actions that, if taken, will lead your audience to success and prosperity.
Speech Transcript – Gettysburg Address – Abraham Lincoln
 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.
 Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
 We are met on a great battle-field of that war.
 We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.
 It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
 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.
 The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
 It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
 It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they 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.
Other Critiques of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
For further reading, you may enjoy these excellent analyses:
- Nick Morgan — The greatest 250-word speech ever written
- John Zimmer — The Gettysburg Address: An Analysis
- Christopher Graham — A poetical analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
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n November 19, 1863, United States president Abraham Lincoln delivered a famous speech, Gettysburg Address. At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he presented the speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, honoring those who died in the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg.
Lincoln gave this speech to honor all those who had given their lives in the Civil War. He also may have seen the dedication as an opportunity to reveal his evolving thinking about the War, as a fight not only to save the Union, but also the need to be united in preserving the ideals and meanings upon which it was founded, the ideals our soldiers were dying for. The idea Lincoln is trying to persuade the audience to support is that we must dedicate ourselves to preservation of a united nation and a new birth of freedom. He provides three arguments in support of this idea. One is that we should honor the dead by dedicating ourselves to preserving the nation so that they did not die in vain. Secondly that this war is a test of the Union endurance and the task of preserving it remains unfinished. And lastly, because the nation is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and is a government of, by, and for the people, to preserve it is great and worthy cause.
Lincoln's speech is set up chronologically in order to explain or demonstrate the steps needed to achieve, what he will explain, as united goal. Lincoln begins with the past when the nation was originally created, moving next to the present civil war that nation is now engaged in, and last concentrating on where the present situation should take us and what we should hope to accomplish from this war. This organizational technique was particularly effective in this situation. Because Lincoln was speaking to a divided audience, it was imperative he provide common ground and unity in order