JFK's inaugural speech: Six secrets of his success





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"



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list