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GETTING MORE WITH LESS – Lessons from the Gettysburg address

Kevin Coluccio with Coluccio Law

We are taught in law school and often as young lawyers to make long and detailed arguments – to speak with big words and to sound both important and smarter than anyone else in the courtroom. We are also taught to drive home our arguments by repeating ourselves, over and over again.

What I have found over time is that there are much more power and persuasion in talking less, quickly getting to the point, and sharing only what really matters.

Get to the point and consider simplifying your case to its bare essentials and the message you want the jury to focus upon.

Most folks do not know that the principal speaker at Gettysburg on November 19th, 1863 was not Abraham Lincoln, but Edward Everett a famous politician and the President of Harvard at the time. He was considered a “spellbinding” orator.

Lincoln and Everett traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania that day to dedicate a national cemetery, a cemetery that was needed because of the tremendous death toll of the Civil War.

Everett spoke for two hours and no one remembers a word of his speech.

Lincoln’s speech was comprised of 10 sentences and only 272 words. In those words, and in a speech that lasted about 2 minutes, he struck a chord that would not only resonate with his audience but one that would resonate through time and forever.

Later, here, is what Everett said to Lincoln:

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.

I have asked myself “why” was the speech so powerful and what lessons could I take away from Lincoln’s speech.

Here are 10 points that show the power of the speech:

  1. Lincoln began by telling a story. He did not use the standard “once upon a time”, but an opening that has become iconic.
  2. Lincoln reminded the audience of the basis on which our country was founded: Liberty & Equality. These simple principles acknowledged something that everyone could easily agree upon.
  3. Lincoln used the pronouns “we” “ our” and “us” throughout his two-minute speech.
  4. He signaled a challenge – namely that the founding principles of our nation were under attack.
  5. He expanded the significance of the war beyond the borders of the US – those giving the importance of winning the war a greater significance.

    He used contrast effectively, by comparing “those who here gave their lives that this nation might live” – maybe the ultimate contrast – life vs. death. People are naturally attracted to opposites – opposites create energy.
  6. He did not repeat himself, but used the power of three – “We cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground”.

    A more recent example of this was heard in Obama’s first inaugural Speeches when he said:
    “…we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
  7. Lincoln showed respect in his words – he expressed that the actions of others, those who had died fighting and those continuing the fight, spoke much louder than his words;
  8. He appealed to something larger – make others feel affected or in harm’s way – this is a common principle taught to us;
  9. And, in his final sentences, he made a call to action.

After I sat back and thought further about Lincoln’s speech, I realized that one of the most important aspects of the speech was that he “involved his listeners” – he spoke with them, not at them. Other examples of the power of brevity can be seen in Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech – which consisted of 1667 words and 16 minutes and in John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech, which consisted of 1392 words and lasted under 5 minutes. The point is that you can do more in very little time and with few, but select words.

To accomplish more with less, you must first know your case. You must be able to peel your case back to the point of being able to describe what your case is about and what your case means in just a few sentences.

To be successful, you must figure out the “bare essence of your case” both in terms of liability and damages. You must find ways to make your case about more than just your client. Think about the reasons your case is compelling and why it will motivate jurors.

Take nothing for granted, make no assumptions. Focus not on what happened, but why it happened. Look for “system” failures, lapses in required standards, or the disregard for the safety of others.

Spend time with your clients in their environment. Observe and experience, as best you can, their struggles. Check-in with their thoughts and feelings. Be quiet and listen.

It is about their experiences, their losses, their harms, and what they have been left with because of the wrongdoing.

Saying less and focusing only on the essence of your client’s claim, is not easy. It takes a great deal of courage, effort, preparation, time, and trust.

Mark Twain said it best:

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.