A Lesson In Letter-Writing From Abraham Lincoln
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
If you’ve done much communication with leaders of large organizations, you already know that their messaging typically is brief, crisp, almost never wordy.
(When I was a faculty member at North Carolina State University, and head of the national evaluation of a federal program, I was required to send my final report and recommendation to the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. Prior to sending in the report, I met with him and asked what kind of report he preferred. He pointed across his huge office to stacks of reports several feet high. “Do you see those?” he asked. “All reports. I will never read any of them. Send me your recommendation on one page. No, send it to me on a postcard.” Months later, I send him the final report as a three-sentence telegram.)
There’s good reason for their aversion to long-windedness. They understand what their time is worth. They don’t have time to be bothered with rambling presentations. If they are really good, their own written messages resemble the strokes of skillful artists—seldom tentative, almost always confident and sure.
Abraham Lincoln became a master at this kind of communication. During his early days as President, he was not. But as time went by, his confidence and skill increased. Once Lincoln had made up his mind, he was, in his own words, so clear that no honest man could misunderstand him and no dishonest man could misrepresent him.
Toward the end of the Civil War, as General Grant closed in on Richmond, General Phil Sheridan gave the President his assessment of the situation. General Sheridan’s observations so impressed Lincoln that he sent a telegraph to General Grant, a message that today is considered a classic. Here it is: “Gen. Sheridan says, if the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender. Let the thing be pressed.”
If you get a request for detailed information, send it. Otherwise, get to the point. Quickly, Clearly.
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