Lincoln, Mark Twain, Einstein and Lingerie

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief…

“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

This month we celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.  It’s appropriate to remind ourselves of some of the lessons we can learn from this great man’s life.

The list is extensive, and so, in the interest of brevity, which is what this is article is really about, I choose to focus his Gettysburg address.

His famous speech, given on a Thursday afternoon, November 19, 1863, has remained one of the most enduring speeches in American History.  Its stated purpose was to dedicate a new cemetery at Gettysburg where just three months before 7500 soldiers had lost their lives in one of the worst battles of the Civil War.  As an interesting historical aside, he may have had another reason, which was to muster support for the war because he felt he was going to lose the next Presidential election.

Lincoln clearly achieved both objectives, but what has always impressed me about his address was its brevity.  Few people know that he was actually the second speaker at the event, following Edward Everette, a widely famed orator, who had just given a 13000 word, two hour speech.

President Lincoln then got up and spoke ten sentences – the Gettysburg address — in it’s entirety.

That was it.  Imagine the contrast if you were there in the audience.

Which takes us to our topic of brevity, and how effective it can be.

Clearly effective in this case because Lincoln’s speech was remembered.  Everette’s 13,000 word oration was not – indeed, Everette himself is forgotten.

So if brevity is so powerful why does it seem to be so rare?

Because it takes effort to distill an idea down to brevity.  The effort is why it is often not done.

Contrary to a common myth, Lincoln had put some effort into his ten sentence speech.  Beginning his writing in Washington D. C., he wrote at least five drafts, dispelling said myth that he completed his address while on the train and wrote it on the back of an envelope.

Other famous people have labored at  brevity as well.  Supporting the idea that concise writing takes effort is Mark Twain’s comment to a friend when  he said, “Sorry about the length of the letter, if I’d have had more time it would have been shorter.”

And he illustrated how it can cost you dollars when he told the story that “when he had listened for five minutes to the preacher telling of the heathen, he wept, and was going to contribute fifty dollars, after ten minutes more of the sermon, he reduced the amount of his prospective contribution to twenty-five dollars, after half an hour more of eloquence, he cut the sum to five dollars.  At the end of an hour of oratory when the plate was passed, he stole two dollars.”

All that said, no one can beat my final famous person in the area of brevity.  I’m referring to Albert Einstein.  He wrote a book (among others) entitled The Special Theory of Relativity.  I’ve read that book (not saying I understood all of it) and Einstein takes the cake.  His summary of it was just five characters.


Which lead to the atomic bomb.  That’s fairly effective, I would say.

So it’s clear that brevity can lead to enduring fame, effectiveness, and save you money.  Fair enough, you say.  But what does lingerie have to do with it?

While researching this post, I stumbled upon a fun quote I just thought I’d share with you so you can use it as a memory aid.  The most effective memory aids, it is said, are those that cause you to create a vivid mental picture.  So here’s the quote.  It’s by Dorothy Parker, an American short-story writer and poet (1893-1967).

Dorothy said, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”

I’ll leave you with that memory aid, and brief(s) thought-picture.

Have a nice day – J. Daniel (chuckle)

P.S.  Feel free to send your comments by clicking the post name at the top of the page and writing in the box below.  And no need to be brief with them – we love to hear from you.

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