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JFK at 100: The Two Techniques Behind JFK's Best Speeches

Posted on May 29, 2017 at 10:25 AM

May 29, 2017 marks the 100th birthday of President John F. Kennedy (JFK). While his assassination cut his presidency and life tragically short, his legacy lives on in many ways, including his speeches. JFK was able to connect with people by explaining complex issues in an easy-to-understand and memorable way. There were two rhetorical techniques he used frequently to do that. 

Technique #1: "Not This, But That"

JFK's simplest tool to define a complex issue was to first say what it was not. This also allowed him to create some of the most simple argument constructions so they could become memorable. Examples include (with underlines added to identify the technique):

"The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises-- it is a set of challenges." (Nomination Acceptance, 1960)

“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.” (Inauguration, 1961)

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” (Inauguration, 1961)

“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” (Inauguration, 1961)

"This is not a sectional issue. Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue." (Civil Rights, 1963)

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard..." (Rice University 'Moon speech', 1962)

"What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time." (American University 'Nuclear Test Ban' Speech, 1963)

Technique #2 - The Sacrificial Strawman

A more elaborate version of the “Not this but that” tactic had JFK building arguments against his own position just to tear them down so people had to settle for his answer. They key to identifying this technique is when JFK mentioned things like "they say" or "I've heard." Examples include (with underlines added to identify the technique):

“I know that there are those who want to turn everything over to the Government. I don't at all. I want the individuals to meet their responsibilities and I want the States to meet their responsibilities. But I think there is also a national responsibility... I don't believe in big government, but I believe in effective governmental action...” (First Presidential Debate with Nixon, 1960)

I hear it said that West Berlin is militarily untenable. And so was Bastogne. And so, in fact, was Stalingrad. Any dangerous spot is tenable if men--brave men--will make it so.” (Berlin Crisis, 1961)

"Some say that it is useless to speak of peace or world law or world disarmament, and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitudes, as individuals and as a Nation, for our attitude is as essential as theirs." (American University 'Nuclear Test Ban' Speech, 1963)

“First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man.” (American University 'Nuclear Test Ban' Speech, 1963)

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?” (Rice University 'Moon Speech', 1962)

There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say -- There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.” (Berlin Wall, 1963)

This speech at the Berlin Wall in June 1963 was JFK's most rousing public speaking performance. He simplified the Cold War conflict by pointing to the Berlin Wall as the clearest example of the difference between the two sides. He also added the "Let them come to Berlin" chorus that sounded like a campaign call to action. JFK was hitting his rhetorical stride as he headed into his reelection year. It is unfortunate that he never got a chance to be reelected.

PS - Some may say that JFK’s success as an orator was due solely to the talent of his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen. To them I would say that Sorenson didn’t start working for JFK until 1953 and JFK’s first public speech in 1942 (when JFK was age 25 and Sorensen was age 14 in Nebraska) used these same techniques. Let them go to the JFK Presidential Library website to also review transcripts of his speeches.

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Categories: Communication Skills, People Leadership, Mission Statement