Article Category: Speech Critiques

Speech Analysis: Gettysburg Address – Abraham Lincoln


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:

  1. Watch the video with a recitation by Jeff Daniels;
  2. Read the analysis in this speech critique, as well as the speech transcript below; and
  3. Share your thoughts on this speech in the comment section.
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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. [1]

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

Want to learn more?
To learn more about the speaking skill of Abraham Lincoln, check out Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln (read the Six Minutes review).

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.” [6]
  • “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” [10]
Second, he uses contrast wonderfully:
  • “… for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” [4]
    (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.” [8]
    (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

Want to learn more?
More examples of three part speech outlines are described in Why Successful Speech Outlines follow the Rule of Three.

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. [1]
  • 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” [8], to not let those who died to “have died in vain” [10]. 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

[1] 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.

[2] Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

[3] We are met on a great battle-field of that war.

[4] 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.

[5] It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

[6] But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.

[7] The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

[8] The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

[9] 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.

[10] 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:

 

This article is one of a series of speech critiques of inspiring speakers featured on Six Minutes.
Subscribe to Six Minutes for free to receive future speech critiques.

Comments icon9 Comments

  1. John K says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Wonderful insights and tools about how speakers can have an effective profound impact on their listeners.
    I always like reading your entries.

  2. Thank you for this. I will use this and the other speech critiques with my clients. I just finished reading The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs just a week before his death… we can learn so much from these great presenters.

  3. Ben Burns says:

    What an excellent and timely analysis of Lincoln’s address. I especially appreciated your thoughts on Lincoln’s rhetorical devices. In our age of technology and it’s pragmatic focus on precision, efficiency and productivity, the poetic and reflective communicators stand out. I have really enjoyed your blog and resources. Thanks, Andrew. I’ll be back!

  4. Roxanna Medeiros says:

    I think that Lincoln was a compelling speaker who was able to contrast the negative with positive. His ability to be passionate, to me, shows his genuine sincerity about what he speaks. He really believed in equality for all and it was expressed in his words and their tone. What I took away as important for the speaker is to know your audience and what will move them to action. I think Lincoln was an inspiring speaker that spoke from his heart.This is a truly wonderful way to address others whether or not you are using public speaking as a forum.

  5. Am teaching this right now and your article on the Gettysburg Address dovetails with what I am trying to teach really well. Am going to a link to my blog. Thanks. Dave

  6. Rose Terry says:

    Abraham Lincoln’s speeches are always compelling, but this is address is by far my favorite. His way to deliver and emphasize on hi significant points is powerful.

  7. Anderson says:

    I would like to use this 2011 analysis “Speech Analysis: Gettysburg Address – Abraham Lincoln” in an upcoming academic presentation. Anyone know a way to get the author’s permission?

  8. Ryan Inscoe says:

    Wow, I am impressed and learned so much about using past and present then future references. Ab Lincoln was a lyrical genius

  9. Kate S. says:

    Thank you so much for your website–you have so many wonderful resources! You have helped me with several ideas for a new speech and debate class that I am teaching to 8th graders next year!

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Great Speaker.org @pr_ninja — Nov 16th, 2011

Gettysburg Address Analysis: http://t.co/ap8v6VXP

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Carol Fredrickson @cfredrickson — Nov 16th, 2011

5 solid speech techniques presented by Andrew #Dlugan based on the Gettysburg Address http://t.co/jKjmqZ9N #speech #presentationskills

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Dennis Shiao @dshiao — Nov 25th, 2011

5 key lessons you can learn from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to apply to your own speeches. http://t.co/SkyR4Ah6 via @6minutes

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Exceptional Speech Analysis: Gettysburg Address – Abraham Lincoln. http://t.co/b7SpIUS3 via @6minutes

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