The art of rhetoric and speech-making has been lauded and scrutinised in equal measure since the days of antiquity. The classical period was littered with prominent figures inspiring audiences, stirring them to action and swaying them with reason.
Whether it was Pericles honouring the Athenian war-dead, Demosthenes banishing the apathy of Greeks as Phillip of Macedon made incursions into the Peloponnese, or one of Cicero’s many speeches to the Roman courts and Senate, oratory skill lives long in the collective memory, passed on by both folklore and the historical record.
Yet each of these example speeches was designed to have a more immediate effect on its audience. While posterity has treated them well, each individual orator’s words focused only on those listening there and then. When we fast forward to the modern day, however, the dynamics change dramatically, with news of high profile speeches hurtling around the planet – and keynote speakers must bear in mind that the make-up of their audiences have altered for good.
President John F. Kennedy, had he lived, would surely have been pleased to know that, among many of his speeches, his inaugural address is still admired more than 50 years after he gave it in early 1961.
From a technical perspective it was without doubt finely crafted by the young politician and his aide, Ted Sorensen, using a number a classic rhetorical devices to reinforce his vision. He used contrast liberally throughout, most famously when he implored Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.
He combined that element with the reliable three-part list device when he justified his policies as “not because the Communists are doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. Kennedy’s use of bold imagery and alliteration both ran as strong threads through the piece too, yet the speech’s ultimate success lay in something else.
Like many of history’s great orators, Kennedy took his word-craft extremely seriously and in the changing post-war world he knew his words would be heard much further afield than those of his predecessors. In essence, this inaugural address was faithful to the first rule of speech preparation – analyse your audience!
An age of truly mass global media had dawned, with television in its infancy and with radio entering a classic period of its own, and Kennedy knew he had to appeal to a number of different constituencies. While he could not neglect his domestic agenda, the Cold War was at its height and he had to set out his foreign policy messages.
He spoke “to those new nations whom we welcome to the ranks of the free”, “to the huts and villages of half the globe” and “to our sister republics south of the border.” He addressed “that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations” and perhaps most pertinently talked “to those nations who would make themselves our adversary.”
Many argue that this was the first inaugural address designed for the mass global media and possibly the speech made more waves around the world than it did at home. Yet that it is remembered as triumph today speaks of Kennedy’s knowing precisely what he wanted to say, how best to say it, and most important of all, who was listening.
Champions Speakers have a vast stable of eminent business and motivational speakers, ready to add quality insight to your next corporate event. The key to their quality channels Kennedy in obeying that very first rule of audience analysis and then adding rich layers of oratory style and substance.
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