What the Gettysburg Address Can Teach Us About Content Marketing
It’s that time of year, with football on hold until August and my favorite TV shows wrapping up for the season, when I go foraging for new forms of entertainment. For this year’s hunt, upon scrolling through the millions of options at my friendly neighborhood Netflix account, I stumbled across a little gem about which I’d heard many good things but had never taken the time to dive into: Ken Burns’ masterpiece The Civil War.
“How have you managed to not see The Civil War?” my history-buff hubby quipped. Truth is, when the series first aired in September 1990, I was just starting grad school at Columbia, with no access to a TV and with a mind firmly focused on my studies. And in the ensuing years it just never crossed my radar, until the day it popped up in my Netflix suggestions.
So dive into Burns’ world I did, and the storyteller’s mastery held me captivated from beginning to end. (I even put out a “Marketing Mojo” video about it.)
One part of the series that captured my attention was the episode around the Gettysburg Address. It’s one of those milestones we all learn about in our American history classes and then rarely give more than a moment’s thought.
But of course, now I’m a content marketer, and as such I found riveting new insights in Lincoln’s most famous of speeches that can inform and inspire my mission … and yours. (Before reading on, take 60 seconds to read the speech here.)
Keep It Simple
A man of humble origin, Lincoln steered clear the flowery, aristocratic language so often employed by politicians and other orators of the day. He became known for his simple, straightforward communication style, and the Gettysburg Address is no exception.
Many stories have emerged about how Lincoln wrote the speech … but none of them involve a thesaurus.
Just out of curiosity, I ran the address through a readability tool, and the most striking result was the average number of syllables per word: 1.33. Of the speech’s ten most frequently used words, only one has more than two syllables:
Lincoln understood the power of simple words. They slide through our brains and get straight to our emotions. We remember them. They’re what we marketers like to call “sticky.”
Speaking of marketing, think about some of the most famous taglines of all time: “It’s the real thing.” “Just do it.” “Be all you can be.” Notice a pattern here?
Yes, Lincoln would’ve killed it on Madison Avenue. And he would’ve been a kickass content marketer.
Content Marketing Takeaway: No matter how highly educated your audience may be, simple, straightforward language will deliver your message far more effectively than complex sentences and multisyllabic jargon.
Emphasize Common Ground
Take another look at the text of the Gettysburg Address … and consider what’s not there.
Lincoln never mentions the Union or the Confederacy.
Also missing: the words “I” and “me.”
By November 1863, the American Civil War, which many had predicted would be mercifully short, had dragged on for more than two years. As the body count escalated on both sides, so did the bitterness that divided families as deeply as it divided the nation.
But Lincoln could see past current circumstances toward a brighter future. He begins by referring to an event common to all Americans’ history: the founding of the nation just 87 years earlier. His “we” refers on the surface to those present at the event (dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery), but later rises to encompass all those who uphold the Founders’ values of freedom and democracy.
Lofty stuff, huh? So, what does it mean for us poor schlubs trying to crank out a decent blog post?
People don’t engage with our content to encounter a finger pointing at them while a booming Voice of Authority tells them what to do. They come to get friendly advice from someone who knows them, with whom they share common ground. Someone who can say, “Oh, you’re dealing with X problem? Yeah, we’ve dealt with that ourselves. Here are a few ideas for you to think about …”
Content Marketing Takeaway: Never talk down to your audience, and never lecture them. Invite them into a conversation and offer what you’ve learned from the same situations they might be dealing with.
Keep It Right and Tight
279 words. 10 sentences. 3 paragraphs. That’s what makes up one of the most famous speeches in American history.
Did you know that President Lincoln was not the keynote speaker at that Gettysburg Cemetery dedication? That honor fell to the Honorable Edward Everett, a revered orator and pastor from Massachusetts.
Everett spoke for two hours. Lincoln spoke for two minutes. Which speech has stood the test of time?
This doesn’t mean that shorter is always better. (If so, this post is in trouble.) It means we would all do well to observe a certain economy with our words.
Lincoln lays out his thesis in three beautifully delineated segments:
- “That was then.” (The United States was established as one nation.)
- “This is now.” (The nation is divided.)
- “Here’s what we’re going to do about it.” (Strive to restore the nation along the same principles under which it was established.)
As content marketers, we tackle topics ranging from simple to complex, and when we create content around those topics, each offering find its own “right size” that conveys the message effectively without wasting words.
Yes, by now we all know that Google shows preference to longer-form content, but that doesn’t mean we need to blow up 500-word posts into 6,000-word monstrosities.
Some of the most common questions I receive from marketers are “How long should my blog posts be?” “How long should my videos be?” “What’s the best length for a podcast?” Every time I refer them to the Miniskirt Rule: It should be long enough to cover the basics, but short enough to be interesting. This little rule, silly as it may seem, imparts a certain wisdom that defies prescribed word counts.
Content Marketing Takeaway: Be economical with your words, and be ruthless in cutting any fluff that pops up in your draft.
Believe it or not, not all who heard the Gettysburg Address appreciated its brilliance. Lincoln himself, upon taking his seat, is said to have commented to his friend Ward Hill Lamon, “Lamon, that speech won’t scour. It is a flat failure.”
The editors of the Chicago Times were equally blunt: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame,” they wrote, “as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”
And yet here we are, more than a century and a half later, lauding Lincoln’s brilliance and taking to heart the lessons his simple speech imparts.
Few of us content marketers would dare to envision our work appearing in the annals of history. But we can apply Lincoln’s lessons to the task that does stand before us: touching the hearts and minds of our audiences to make a lasting impression that keeps them coming back for more.
Find out why Joe Pulizzi, Founder of the Content Marketing Institute, had this to say about The Content Marketing Coach: Everything You Need to Get in the Game … and WIN:
“A simple yet effective guide to an approach that most businesses get flat out wrong. Do yourself and your business a favor and take a deep dive into this book. You won’t regret it.”
About the Author
A self-described geek who can recite entire episodes of South Park by heart, Rachel Parker has had a passion for content ever since she was old enough to hold a crayon (purple, please).
As Founder and CEO of Resonance, Rachel helps businesses publish content that connects with their audience … and converts those followers into customers. She’s also the host of the Content Marketing Podcast and author of the book The Content Marketing Coach: Everything You Need to Get in the Game … and WIN!
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