272 Words


272 words. That’s all Abraham Lincoln needed for his Gettysburg Address.

His compelling short speech resulted in the abolition of slavery. It is still one of the most recited speeches to date.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation challenged popular scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson to give a 272-word speech about the benefits of science. He succeeds remarkably because his speech has clarity, brevity and impact. Watch the result here.

Clarity comes from the words he uses and the structure in which he gives his talk. There’s no jargon, no science buzzwords, no expressions an ordinary person can’t understand. Using normal language while talking about science is not easy but Mr Tyson nails it. The structure is clear and takes the shape of a straightforward “problem-solution” narrative: “I’ve been given a challenge, here’s the result”. State upfront why an audience is listening and build from there. Don’t leave the conclusion to the end.

Brevity comes from the constraint of having to convey a message in 272 words. Always welcome a constraint because it sets clear guidelines. Some of the world’s most beautiful art is due to constraints: the size of a painting’s canvass, the 14 lines of a sonnet, the 17 syllables of a haiku. Working within a constraint requires real thought.

Impact comes from the fact that Mr Tyson takes time. A hundred words per minute is about right. The listener needs to be able to digest the ideas that are being conveyed. The job of a speaker is to make the listener think.

Black Isle Group’s flagship program is called Clarity, Brevity, Impact for good reason. You should check it out.

(Guess how many words in this article)