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ACHIEVING SCALE

6 Lessons from JFK's Inaugural Address

As we remember Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his passing, it's timely to explore what leaders can learn from this landmark oration.

All leaders make speeches. Great leaders are remembered for theirs.

John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, certainly, is one speech for which the 35th President is remembered. Well known for the line "Ask not what your country can do for you," the speech offers numerous lessons for business leaders looking to bolster their own presentation skills. Here are six tips, culled from Thurston Clarke's Ask Not, the 2004 book devoted to the history and composition of the speech.

1. Keep it short. JFK's inaugural address is 1,362 words long. The total time of delivery is under 14 minutes. It is the fourth-shortest inaugural address in history.

2. Study your predecessors. Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's main speechwriter, studied all 43 previous inaugural addresses. He specifically studied them for length. His handwritten notes--from a meeting he had with JFK after the 1960 election--read: "Count words in Ike '57, FDR '41, Wilson '17, Wilson '13" and "Make it the shortest since TR (except for FDR's abbreviated wartime ceremony in 1945)." 

3. Don't talk about yourself. Another Sorensen note reads: "Eliminate I specifics." Which meant, reduce use of the first-person singular. Indeed, the speech uses "I" quite sparingly. There's an "I" in its opening paragraph ("For I have sworn before you and Almighty God"), before it shifts largely into "we" and "our" and "us" for the remainder. Exceptions come toward the end, when Kennedy invokes "my fellow citizens" and "my fellow Americans." He also states, in the fourth-to-last paragraph: "I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it." 

4. Rank your priorities. Sorensen's marginalia include the following:

4--E areas of agreement

1--C disarmament

5--D United Nations

3--B negotiate

2--A our objectives

"The numbers," writes Clarke, "appear to rank the topics in order of importance." The letters, in turn, "set out their logical sequence" in the speech. 

5. Solicit ideas from minds you respect and trust. While Sorensen was Kennedy's main speechwriter, he was hardly the only one who influenced the form and content of the inaugural address. Between the election and early January, 1961, the Kennedy team solicited ideas from a group including former Democratic candidate for president Adlai Stevenson and Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Many of these ideas found their way into the final speech.

6. Write it yourself. Whether Kennedy deserves credit as the author of his speech, whether Sorensen does, or whether the final product is an amalgam, is debated to this day. Clarke posits that Kennedy deserves credit as the author. A recent article in Slate leans toward Sorensen. But the point is, people care

Yes, you want to solicit ideas from others. But it matters--for you and your legacy--that the speech is truly yours. "More than any of the countless books about JFK, it is his inaugural that explains the Kennedy phenomenon to the heart as well as the mind," writes Clarke, in stating the importance of Kennedy's authorship. "To deny him full credit for it not only diminishes his legacy and weakens his claim on the hearts and minds of future generations, it also distances him, and us, from a speech that is a distillation of his experiences, philosophy, and character."

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