What You Can Learn from JFK About Public Speaking

I don’t know of anyone who was born a great public speaker. In fact, most people can’t put two words together when they’re born. President John F. Kennedy was no different. He learned how to be a memorable public speaker. Read this article by copywriter and author John Forde and you’ll improve your public speaking as well.

What JFK Knew: Six Secrets You Should Know Too — by John Forde

A little after 12:30 in the afternoon, a young woman fed her seven-day-old son. They were, in fact, just two days home from the hospital.

Like a lot of young mothers, she was just then coming to grips with how much her life had already changed — when it changed again.

That was my mother and brother, on the day Kennedy was shot. Where was I? Not even an idea yet.

But growing up Irish Catholic… in definitively Democratic Philadelphia… there was no debate: Kennedy, we were all taught, had been a hero.

These days, you might not have to look too hard to find people who question that assessment. I’m pretty sure, in fact, a few would love to tear down that version of history.

But even they might have to agree, if there was one thing about Kennedy — other than his family money and his weakness for Hollywood starlets — it’s that the guy sure could deliver a great speech.

And what is a speech, dear reader, but a format-test on a kind of persuasive sales piece?

Think about it…

Kennedy knocked the cover off the ball with his “Ask not…” inaugural address. It’s been called the best inaugural speech ever given.

Kennedy did it again with “Ich bin ein Berliner,” delivered to thundering applause in West Berlin.

He also famously used words to undo the Cuban missile crisis. Not a shot was fired.

And then there’s that time he challenged America to walk on the moon, “because it’s there,” delivered in a speech he gave to the graduating class of Rice University.

The examples could go on.

But, as we close in on tomorrow, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, I’ll bet there are a few things you didn’t know. For instance, according to historian Robert Caro, Kennedy wasn’t always so great at the pulpit.

Says Caro…

“[Kennedy’s] early speeches… were read from a prepared text with all the insecurity of a novice, in a voice ‘tensely high-pitched’ and “with a quality of grave seriousness that masked his discomfiture . . . He seemed to be just a trifle embarrassed on stage.”

Once, goes the story, Kennedy was so nervous about forgetting a speech while he was running for Congress, his sister Eunice stood in front of the stage, mouthing the words to help him remember.

That changed with practice on the campaign trail. It also changed when Kennedy started working with his great speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, who became Kennedy’s wingman (and possibly more, though Sorensen always insisted otherwise) on all those Kennedy “moments” we still talk about now.

What also made a big difference, according to Sorensen and many others, was that Kennedy and his writing team mastered six powerful secrets rhetorical persuasion — all six of which seem worthy of using in your sales copy writing, too.

Which six? Per the BBC, Kennedy’s secret sauce drew largely from the following list…

1.) The Power of Contrasts, as in Kennedy’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”

2) The Power of Threes, especially in lists, like in the Kennedy line, “Where the strong are just, and the weak secure and the peace preserved.”

3) The double-punch you get by combining lists and contrasts together, as in the line, “Not because the communists are doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.”

4) The Apt Application of Alliteration, as you see (and hear) in a line like Kennedy’s, “Let us go forth to lead the land we love.”

5) The Pull of Powerful Imagery, like he gave us in the simple phrase, “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

6) The Simple, Sensible Secret of Knowing Your Audience. Kennedy’s was the first inaugural speech delivered to a global audience, in real time. And he (and Sorensen) made sure everybody knew it, with no fewer than six lines that directly addressed allies and enemies overseas.

Again, this isn’t just for speechwriters… or Presidents. These are tricks you can lean on too. Just something to think about, as the airways echo Kennedy’s words on the big day tomorrow. . . .

I’ve read John Forde’s articles for years to learn more about the art and science of copywriting. You can learn more about effective writing effective ads by signing up for his free e-newsletter. You’ll get $78 worth of free gifts as John’s way of saying thanks. http://copywritersroundtable.com

Picture credit: © Arthur Rickerby—Black Star/PNI

Richard Emmons