JFK's inaugural speech: Six secrets of his success

John F Kennedy delivers his inaugural speech The poetic "ask not" quotation is among the speech's most memorable lines

President John F Kennedy would have been delighted to know that his inaugural address is still remembered and admired 50 years later.

Like other great communicators - including Winston Churchill before him and Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama since then - he was someone who took word-craft very seriously indeed.

Recipe for Success

  • 1. Contrasts
  • 2. Three-part lists
  • 3. Contrasts combined with lists
  • 4. Alliteration
  • 5. Bold imagery
  • 6. Audience analysis

He had delegated his aide Ted Sorensen to read all the previous presidential inaugurals, with the additional brief of trying to crack the code that had made Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address such a hit.

Fifty years on, the debate about whether he or Sorensen played the greater part in composing the speech matters less than the fact that it was a model example of how to make the most of the main rhetorical techniques and figures of speech that have been at the heart of all great speaking for more than 2,000 years. Most important among these are:

  • Contrasts: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"
  • Three-part lists: "Where the strong are just, and the weak secure and the peace preserved"
  • Combinations of contrasts and lists (by contrasting a third item with the first two): "Not because the communists are doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right"

If the rhetorical structure of sentences is one set of building blocks in the language of public speaking, another involves simple "poetic" devices such as:

Watch JFK's speech

JFK's speech highlights
  • Alliteration: "Let us go forth to lead the land we love"
  • Imagery: "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans"

In general, the more use of these a speaker makes, the more applause they will get and the more likely it is that they will be recognised as a brilliant orator.

But great communicators differ as to which of these techniques they use most.

Presidents Reagan and Obama, for example, stand out as masters of anecdote and story-telling, which didn't feature at all in JFK's inaugural. Mr Obama also favours three-part lists, of which there were 29 in his 10-minute election victory speech in Chicago.

Stark warning

Kennedy, however, used very few in his inaugural address. For him, contrasts were the preferred weapon, coming as they did at a rate of about one every 39 seconds in this particular speech. Some were applauded and some have survived among the best-remembered lines.

He began with three consecutive contrasts:

  • "We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom"
  • "Symbolizing an end as well as a beginning"
  • "Signifying renewal as well as change"

From the 20 or so he used, other widely quoted contrasts, all of which were applauded, include:

  • "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich"
  • "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate"
  • "My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man"

The speech also bristled with imagery, starting with a stark warning about the way the world has changed because "man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life."

People of the developing world were "struggling to break the bonds of mass misery."

Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan was a master of anecdote

JFK vowed to "assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty" and that "this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house."

He sought to "begin anew the quest for peace before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity", hoped that "a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion" and issued a "call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle."

First inaugural designed for the media?

Impressive though the rhetoric and imagery may have been, what really made the speech memorable was that it was the first inaugural address by a US president to follow the first rule of speech-preparation: analyse your audience - or, to be more precise at a time when mass access to television was in its infancy, analyse your audiences.

The Gettysburg great

Lincoln's short Gettysburg address had caught JFK's eye. Here is a sample of the speech:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this."

In the most famous fictional speech of all time, Mark Antony had shown sensitivity to his different audiences in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar by asking his "Friends, Romans, countrymen" to lend him their ears. But Kennedy had many more audiences in mind than those who happened to be in Washington that day.

His countrymen certainly weren't left out, appearing as they did in the opening and towards the end with his most famous contrast of all: "Ask not..." But he knew, perhaps better than any previous US president, that local Americans were no longer the only audience that mattered. The age of a truly global mass media had dawned, which meant that what he said would be seen, heard or reported everywhere in the world.

At the height of the Cold War, Kennedy also had a foreign policy agenda that he wanted to be heard everywhere in the world. So the different segments of the speech were specifically targeted at a series of different audiences:

  • "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill"
  • "To those new nations whom we welcome to the ranks of the free"
  • "To those in the huts and villages of half the globe"
  • "To our sister republics south of the border"
  • "To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations"
  • "Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary"

The following day, there was nothing on the front pages of two leading US newspapers, The New York Times and the Washington Post to suggest that the countrymen in his audience had been particularly impressed by the speech - neither of them referred to any of the lines above that have become so famous.

The fact that so much of the speech is still remembered around the world 50 years later is a measure of Kennedy's success in knowing exactly what he wanted to say, how best to say it and, perhaps most important of all, to whom he should say it.

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