Communicate with Simplicity and Emotion
Be concise. But more importantly, be interesting.
“Brevity is the sister of talent.” — Anton Chekov, 1889
Quick: who spoke before Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg?
If you said Edward Everett, then well done. You’re either a student of history or a devotee of trivia.
Everett was a noted orator of the time, an educator and pastor, and a politician who inhabited such offices as U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, and Governor of Massachusetts.
Such were the qualifications that made him a featured orator at the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery, where he spoke for two hours.
Now, more to the point: what did Everett say in his speech?
Accounts of his speech that day say that he relived the battle and renounced the enemy, moving the audience to tears.
And yet, no one remembers what he said.
President Lincoln, on the other hand, gave one of the shortest speeches of his life and though he self-effacingly included the line “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” it is literally etched in stone for posterity.
Just 272 words in length, it took Lincoln approximately two minutes to read.
And it still resides in our lexicon today.
“One should use common words to say uncommon things.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
If only we could follow Lincoln’s example more frequently. We don’t because simplicity is difficult. It takes effort.
Either we don’t have the time to dedicate to crafting better communications, or we’re lazy.
Think about every app you’ve downloaded. Have you read through the terms of service of each in their entirety?
I’d wager you didn’t—just like 97% of Americans.
And why would you? The shortest (Instagram) clocks in at 2,451 words, which would take you nine minutes and 42 seconds to read. To yourself, not out loud (assuming 240 words per minute).
For comparison, the code of Hammurabi is 6,390 words long. The U.S. Constitution is 4,543 words.
TikTok’s terms take 31 minutes and 24 seconds to read — that’s 130 times longer than the average length of the top 100 performing videos.
The longest? That honor belongs to Microsoft, whose terms last 15,260 and would take you one hour, three minutes and 30 seconds to read.
It’s almost as if the lawyers for these companies don’t want you to read their finely crafted prose.
Although I’ll hand it to LinkedIn—they have plain language explanations alongside the legalese.
Hold Your Audience
Part of Lincoln’s skill was in his ability to connect with his audiences. He was plainspoken and used examples that were simultaneously elegant yet simple.
He had the uncanny ability to identify what his audiences were thinking and feeling, and he told stories that connected.
After a campaign speech in New Hampshire on March 2, 1860, a reporter wrote, “Mr. Lincoln spoke nearly two hours and we believe he would have held his audience had he spoken all night.”
If we could only hold our audiences for a fraction of that time.
Make it simple. Make it connect.
Don't miss the sequel to this essay, for Premium subscribers:
If you missed the live recording of Timeless Leadership on Fireside Chat with my guest Tamsen Webster — author of Find Your Red Thread: Make Your Big Ideas Irresistible — you can catch the replay on the podcast player of your choice.
If you don’t yet subscribe to the podcast, please do so today:
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.