It’s been a while since my last installment of ‘What Journalists Can Learn From’ — it’s the first in this Jewish new year, actually — but I’ve just finished reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent “Team of Rivals,” and I saw more than a few lessons in Abe Lincoln’s words. Three especially pertinent thoughts for journalists:
Pick your words carefully: Here’s something I didn’t know about the Gettysburg Address: Lincoln wasn’t the featured speaker of the day. That honor went to Edward Everett, who gave what amounted to two hours of play-by-play about the battle of Gettysburg. Then Lincoln came up and delivered his 10-sentence-long Gettysburg Address.
After the speech was over, Everett told Lincoln, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
There’s something to be said for brevity, for giving careful thought to each word. And for this, too: A man should start talking only when he knows what to say. (1)
Give the audience time to react: With any new initiative, timing is key. With any really good idea, the creator needs to give the audience time to understand and adopt the idea. Take Twitter, for example. The site was around for more than a year before it started to really gain traction. But when it caught on, its growth was exponential.
Or, consider this incredible fact about the Gettysburg Address: when it was over, no one clapped. Lincoln took it as a sign that the crowd didn’t like his speech. Really, they were too astonished by what they’d just heard to even react.
The point is this: push the limits with your ideas, and give them room to grow. The audience might really like your idea, but they also might need some time to show their appreciation.
Brace yourself for any result: Of course, it’s important to remember that plenty of good ideas fail. So take the advice that one supporter gave Lincoln before the Republican primary in 1860. No one knew whether or not Lincoln would be able to pull off the upset, as he had entered the convention as a long shot. Lincoln had Presidential aspirations, but he had no idea if he’d even get a chance at the presidency. So his so supporter’s words? “Brace yourself,” he said, “for any result.”
For the uncertain world of modern journalism, truer words could scarcely be spoken.
- That, actually, is a quote from a former Washington Nationals beat writer. ↩