November 29, 2020

A Brief Lesson for Speakers


150 years ago this week, Abraham Lincoln gave “dedicatory remarks” at Gettysburg, Pennysylvania to consecrate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, four months after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Considered perhaps the most important speech in U.S. history, the president’s remarks contained —

  • 272 words,
  • 10 sentences,
  • and lasted less than 3 minutes.

Earlier, Edward Everett had offered the main speech of the day — the Gettysburg Oration — which contained over 13,000 words. His speech lasted more than 2 hours.

Guess which speech we remember?

Did you hear any news this week about celebrating the anniversary of the Gettysburg Oration?

When speaking, say it well and keep it brief.

At my college graduation, the commencement speaker told those of us who were going to be ministers, “If you don’t strike oil in 20 minutes, stop boring.”

Lincoln hit the mother lode in 3 minutes, and the oil is still flowing.


  1. Ah yes, but if Lincoln had PowerPoint, he could’ve really spiced it up, like this:

    • David Cornwell says

      Poor Lincoln, had to do so much without the tech!

      • As the old saying goes: power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.

      • Actually, tech had a lot to do with the popularity of this speech. A recent PBS special on the Gettysburg Address described this very well. Because the speech was so concise, it was ideal for communication via telegraph – the “high tech” of the day.

        I think it is a good example of how technology is not the enemy of communication or literature; rather, technology can be used to enhance communication. Twitter, for example, has been derrided as diminisihing communication. I would consider technology like Twitter as a challenge to say what you mean in an effective way in as few words as possible. The challenge is how to write a “tweet” with the same poetic prose as Lincoln used in his address.

        I think it is strange that Christian ministers have been bucking the trend of concise, content-rich communication. A good example of how short, inspiring homilies have been replaced with hour+ rambling sermons.

  2. In other words….

    be brief, be brilliant and be gone.

  3. Bravo…. if you don’t have it said in 25-30 minutes, it’s just not your day, have a seat and call it quits. I think it’s the unusual sermon/message that really needs that extra 15 to 30 minutes. I miss the 45 min. sermons from my old church like I miss walking pneumonia. Needed post, CM: and congrats for your ceremony last week .

  4. David Cornwell says

    Although not in the same category as this speech, another example of brevity is the Lords Prayer.

    So much truth can be contained in just a few words.

  5. Andrew Sullivan and The Dish were posting a couple retrospectives on the address this week.

    At least one author claimed that with those short 300 words, Lincoln managed to change the very way we think of our country; the United States went from being a plural noun (The United States are…) to singular (The United States is…).

    Another said that the original audience response was relatively uninspiring. American tastes have, over the years, grown more appreciative of, more in line with the address; rather than becoming dated sounding, it sounds fresh.

    I feel much the same way about the address that I do about – and forgive me for this comparison – The Velvet Underground’s eponymous album. John Cale just left, Lou Reed isn’t yet “Lou Reed”, and the album they put out sounds… like 2010 folk songs. Not the whole thing, but enough to be eerie for me. “What Goes On” and “Candy Says” sound like modern radio singles.

    With the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln carved the future. It’s humbling.

  6. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    Well said. Back before my trip down the Canterbury Trail, I preached a lot, and my rule was to keep it to 20 minutes. I knew my attention span for a monologue sermon wasn’t much more than that, and that most preachers I knew had a lot of unnecessary fluff or unfocused rabbit trails in their 30-60 minute sermons. Plus, my homiletics professor advised us to keep it under 20.

    Once I became an Anglican, I didn’t have the opportunity to preach quite as often. At my home parish, I preached once as a postulant, once as a deacon, and once as a priest. Our rector believes that he ought to steer the ship from the pulpit, and I’m the most junior of the four priests at the parish. Thus I don’t get to preach much. At another local parish where I’ve subbed six times since the Summer, I got to preach each time (after all, I was the only priest there on those weeks). While my home parish typically has a 30-35 minute sermon, the one I subbed at typically has 10-20 minute homilies. I felt really good about each of those six homilies, and got really good feedback.

    Well, that third time preaching at my home parish occurred immediately after several weeks subbing at the other parish. And it also occurred 18 months to the day after the last time I had preached at my home parish. I found it incredibly difficult to work within an expected 30-minute-ish time frame. In fact, at the early service I went for 48 minutes because of that. Obviously that was NOT a good thing, and I got a lot of flack from our pastor and assistant pastor after the early service for going 48 minutes. But you know what? Both of them have done that on NUMEROUS occasions! Neither had anything to say about the content. That told me that even long-winded preachers don’t like long-winded preaching!

    After trimming it down to 23 minutes for the second service, I got much better feedback from them and the congregation. Of course, that hasn’t inspired our pastor to trim his! In fact, when I mentioned that at the other parish they expect only 10-20 his response was “What? That’s barely enough time to get warmed up!” Oh, well.

  7. I’ve been told that someone once said (and perhaps it was Lincoln) the following words about writing a letter – “I was going to write a one page letter but I didn’t have time, so I wrote a three page letter instead.

    Longer often means less well prepared.

  8. I have a lot to say about this subject…but won’t… 😉

  9. Roger Ebert used to say, “No good movie is too long, no bad movie is short enough.” If you really love listening to speeches (or sermons, or lectures) then this concept probably applies there too. But for the general public, just be brief, and if you can blow something up!

  10. To be fair, there are good teachers who can go for 45 minutes and hold a crowd. I have run into a few.

    Very few….

    • You use the word “teachers,” which reminds me that there are different forms of address, and different lengths and complexities associated with each. Nevertheless, good preparation is still essential with each form so as to promote clarity and vividness.

    • This is very true. I had a history professor in college who taught ancient military warfare – a potentially VERY dry subject – but he was riveting. His hour-long classes flew by.

  11. Martin Luther on prayer:

    “Few words and much meaning is Christian. Many words and little meaning is pagan.”

    I guess that is related, sort of.

    • I think that is accurate. The greek word used in the gospels which is typically translated “vain repetition” really has to do with long-winded, verbose, self-centered speech. Who hasn’t been in a prayer meeting where someone goes on and on and only draws attention to themselves? But it’s the devout monk reciting the Jesus Prayer who is called a pagan.

  12. I once heard it said that a homily should be about 2 things
    1) about God
    2) about 10 minutes
    I agree

  13. I had a bible professor who used to say about an essay, “It’s not the length, it’s the strength.”

    And another prof, in a not-so-Christian college, who used to say that an essay should be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to be interesting.

  14. You know who else was a great public speaker? Hitler!

  15. So Paul was wrong to speak too long in Acts 20? (of course someone did have a mishap during that)

  16. someone in passing says

    As the saying goes in my profession, only an attorney can write a 30-page document and call it a brief.