A Star is Born: Abe Lincoln Wows Gettysburg
We all know what a wonderful thing digital technology is. Loads of benefits, no question.
Unfortunately, reducing the office workload isn’t one of them.
On the contrary, the ubiquity of ‘labour-saving’ software has enabled companies to get by with a lot less labour – and the people still left occupying desks have found themselves with more and more work to do, in a lot less time. Today’s average office worker accomplishes no more than 45 minutes of actual productive work a day.
People are their own worst enemies.
Before digital came along, financial data had to be entered laboriously in a ledger, checking every entry as you went. Letters had to be dictated and checked. Reports had to be written by hand, then sent to the typing pool. Marketing material had to be laid out with scalpels and pencils and gum, and sent to the printer for proofing, and painstakingly copy-edited. Presentations had to be supported by photographic slides, and the fastest you could see the results was in a couple of hours – if you were lucky to have a processing lab nearby.
These days, that stuff is easy. It’s all right there, on your computer: a mountain of constantly-updating data – about sales and clients and customers and market segments and trends and curves and strategies and systems. And right alongside it – look: right there, on your desktop – sits a plethora of tools for processing that data, for cutting and pasting and interpreting it in columns and colours and bullets; for testing and budgeting and analysing and processing it; above all for disseminating it in every direction at once, via the magical jujitsu of email, to anyone who might have the slightest interest in it, but probably doesn’t – and won’t have time to digest it.
Sixty years ago, Winston Churchill refused to read any report prepared by his advisers that didn’t fit on a single sheet of foolscap paper. That’s a gnat’s whisker bigger than A4. He was busy fighting to save the free world, and knew he didn’t have time for deep detail. He trusted his civil servants to get to the point.
So how come we insist on over-complicating our business processes with the kind of information Winston’s people would have tossed straight in the wastepaper basket?
Because we can.
Because we have the technology.
Because the technology has taken away our capacity to think.
Hell, it’s even taken away our capacity to talk, if some of the business people out there are anything to go by.
Here’s another example, well-known in America but less so in Europe.
It’s November 19th, 1863. We’re standing in the brand-new Gettysburg National Cemetary, alongside an estimated fifteen thousand people gathered to commemorate the terrible battle of the preceding summer. The keynote speaker is one Edward Everett, a noted orator from Massachusetts.
He speaks, in the powerful voice of an experienced politician, about Plato and Persia and ancient burial ceremonies and the history of the battle and how we should honour the dead, and much more besides.
For two hours solid.
He is followed by a lean and ungainly figure: the current President of a deeply disunited States, Abraham Lincoln.
Who speaks for two minutes – a grand total of 267 words – and delivers one of the most enduring and beautiful pieces of rhetoric in recent history: the Gettysburg Address.
Less is more.
Clarity is communication.
Curiously, we’re told by historians that it was actually Everett’s speech that received the warmest applause on the day. Go figure. Maybe if you’d taken the time to trudge all the way from the old farm homestead to Gettysburg you wanted to feel you were getting your money’s worth. But the words that passed into history were Lincoln’s – and Everett himself had the humility to applaud the President for his clear thinking:
“I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
Everett had all the data. He’d studied classics, and the history of warfare down the centuries (he even managed to include a reference to the fall of Robespierre). He’d pored over the details of the battle – the charges and skirmishes and the generals involved, and the numbers of the dead – and he poured it all in, the better to impress the crowd and secure his place in the pantheon of great orators.
And some were impressed, if we believe the historians, just as some of today’s audiences are impressed by speeches and presentations that include everything you might possibly ever need to know about the subject in hand, lovingly laid out in Powerpoint and Excel, with bar charts and footnotes and complex numerical breakdowns.
Because data makes you sound important.
But it was Lincoln who got the message across. In 267 words, and not a detail among them.
We work busy, we present busy. We’re so tied up by the data on our computer and Blackberry screens that when the time comes to communicate with our colleagues or customers we fool ourselves into believing they need to hear it too.
They don’t. Good communication is not about raw information. It’s about making a simple emotional connection that plants a seed of belief in the listener’s heart.
At risk of upsetting Microsoft:
Excel is just a means of organising information.
Powerpoint is just a way to illustrate your point.
Word is just a tool for organising your thoughts.
It’s the thought that counts. So be clear about what you’re thinking. The communications business is stuffed to the gills with agencies and service companies who’ll tell you they deal in ‘experiential marketing’ or ‘brand experiences’ or ‘event-based brand enhancement’. The communications business is no different from the business world in general: it likes to appear busy and important, and it thinks big words and flowery concepts are the way to do it.
The best communicators simplify. You can muster all the communications media in the world - all the technology and talent, and a wonderful environment to show it off – but none of it will amount to a hill of beans if you haven’t first decided:
What you want to say.
Why you want to say it.
Whether you’re the right person to say it.
Whether this is the right time to say it.
Who you want to say it to.
And whether you need to say it at all.
Ask those questions first. Then organise your thoughts. You can use a word processor, a pen and paper, or a pointed stick in the dust. They’re all valid.
Next, illustrate your thoughts. In the right circumstances, you can do this with a flipchart. You might want to think about video – moving footage can be very persuasive, which is why we’re all so happy to watch TV of an evening. You could add some photographs or visuals, to help you get over the stuff that can’t be expressed in words. You might even want to add some back-up data, in the form of an occasionalsimplified and comprehensible graphic. Just remember to ask yourself if it’s legible at the back of the hall, and (even more important) whether it adds anything to what you’re saying.
Now decide who’s going to do the talking. It could be you. It could be a professional facilitator. It could be a well-known figure from stage or screen. It could be a disembodied computer-animated robot floating sixty-five feet above the headwaters of the Zambesi River. Or a combination of all these things.
Then figure out where you’re going to be putting your thoughts across. This might mean the fourth-floor meeting room with the squeaky chairs or it might mean a purpose-built environment in the grounds of a five-star hotel in Dubai or the Bahamas. Or the Zambesi River basin. Or anywhere in between.
Then tell them what you’ve got to say. Clearly. Just like Abraham Lincoln.
It’s that simple.