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The art of words—what JFK can teach us about speech writing

Today’s post was written by John Evans, lecturer at Stanford University.

As a congressman and senator, and later as the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy kept a coconut on his desk. The coconut was old and dried. Etched across its husk was a simple message: “11 Alive. Need Small Boat.” “11” was a designation for Kennedy’s patrol boat, which he commanded in the Pacific during World War II. One night, after the patrol boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer, killing two of his crewmembers, Kennedy had risked life and limb to take his crew to safety on a nearby island, where, lacking pen and paper, Kennedy had improvised a distress signal, the coconut. Kennedy eventually flagged down a local fishing boat and gave them a coconut, which they took to a nearby Allied naval base. For his cunning and valor, Kennedy received the Navy Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart, two distinguished war decorations. But what Kennedy displayed for the rest of his life was the coconut.

I offer this brief and popular anecdote as a way to begin thinking about what JFK can teach us about writing, and how we can learn to communicate effectively by his example. During his life, Kennedy was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and an articulate conversationalist. But where his gift for communication really stood out was in his speech writing. Working alone and in collaboration, on deadline and off the cuff, often even dictating his speeches while doing other things, Kennedy was a masterful communicator.

In a chaotic and information-saturated age, Kennedy’s most famous speeches offer a model for how to make one’s thoughts heard and understood. Kennedy communicated clearly and with power. Whether addressing the nation at his inauguration or offering his view of world peace at a university, in testimony to a beloved colleague or challenging the nation to send a person to the moon, Kennedy wrote speeches that captivated the national imagination: to serve, to spread freedom throughout the world, to embrace a destiny, to seek peace.

How did he do this? No doubt, there was some magic in his method. But much of Kennedy’s method can be understood. As a writing teacher, I look to Kennedy’s method with fascination. As in much of literature, I see a mix of the wonderful and the practical, and in the practical I see a path forward to following his example. As the poet T.S. Eliot once quipped, “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.” There is greatness to steal in Kennedy, and it begins with a few simple tricks common to all effective writing.

Cultivate your voice

It is surprising to think now but writing didn’t come naturally to Kennedy, especially in his speeches. Throughout his early public life, Kennedy was criticized for sounding “young,” “cold” and “impatient.” In reality, those adjectives described him very well. Because he sounded “like himself,” he drew criticism. But Kennedy did not let these early struggles define him. He learned to cultivate a voice that projected an image at least slightly different from the “real” Kennedy: an erudite man of letters, rather than the C student whose teachers had often noted his reluctance to work hard at the things that did not inspire him.

Kennedy was a passionate student of politics. He studied the great presidential speeches of the past. He consulted an old notebook from his student days filled with quotations from famous speeches, plays and works of literature. Kennedy rode on the shoulders of these great writers by quoting them liberally in his speeches, and even sometimes asking them to write for him. Kennedy hired a speech coach. As Election Day approached, Kennedy’s speaking voice became deeper and more sonorous, nearly a full register lower. He spoke slowly and confidently, and often poetically, making a beautiful tempo while using many poetic devices. As his writing became more literary, Kennedy’s style became positively “presidential.” In what is one of the great historical examples of the chicken-and-egg conundrum, Kennedy’s speeches became exactly what he had always envisioned: great pieces of rhetoric that moved audiences and the nation.

Write with meaning

Kennedy wrote hundreds of speeches during his presidency, but regardless of the topic, all of Kennedy’s speeches meant something.

The historian Thurston Clarke calls this meaning the “hidden heartbeat of Kennedy’s speech.” Through the choice words he used to talk about the nation, Kennedy gave the nation a youthful and positive idea of itself at home and in the world. He inspired an ideal of service to others. He invoked a deep religious strain of the American character that believes in a higher purpose. He affirmed the worth of every life. He strove for peace. He summoned the wisdom of the founding fathers and the ideals on which the nation was (more or less) founded.

Is it any wonder that, as Clarke notes, “Ask not what your country can do for you…” moves so many listeners, then as now? That it has become the message of the Kennedy presidency itself: to serve, to spread freedom throughout the world, to embrace a destiny, to seek peace?

Unlike other, less memorable inaugural addresses, Kennedy steps to the podium knowing what he wants to talk about. He knows what it means. And, at the end of the speech, he finds a memorable line to bring the two together.

Be poetic

Kennedy is remembered as an accomplished wordsmith, whose beautiful speeches often sounded like great poetry. His speeches sounded like poetry because they used poetic devices that made his writing musical, surprising, energetic, vivid to imagine and easy to remember. These devices also made the speeches beautiful to hear, read and re-read—so much so that high school students from across the country regularly translated his speeches into Latin and Greek, and then mailed them to the White House.

Some of his most frequently used—and easily imitated—poetic devices are:

Blank verse—Like the soliloquies of Hamlet or Milton’s descriptions of Eden, Kennedy speaks in a loose, unrhyming iambic pentameter called “blank verse.” “Blank verse” is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poetic line. It lasts about as long as the average breath can sing or say a line, and so, it sounds musical and formal to the listener. Blank verse is especially poetic because it supports complicated sentences, words and ideas. Blank verse is also the format in which three-fourths of poetry in the English language has ever written. So, to hear it, is to unconsciously hear so many beautiful and famous poems before it.

Metaphor/image—Kennedy’s images are often arresting and memorable. This is because he uses images that connect to each other in a speech—images that stick in the minds of his listeners long after the speech has ended. Consider this lovely comparison of the waxing and waning of the tide with the inevitability of high and low points in international relations, from later in the “moon speech”:

“However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors.

Or, from the inaugural address, his lovely figure of exploration as fellowship, to explain the possibilities of what the United States and Soviet Union might do together as allies, rather than as enemies:

“Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.

Lists—As his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, noted in his memoirs, time and again Kennedy preferred to work in lists. Kennedy believed that using simple lists made points memorable, because they were easily repeated. Sometimes, those lists followed the “rule of three,” or “tricolon,” making sure to use three images, arguments or examples.

Other times, Kennedy made longer lists by using “anaphora”: repeating one word several times to expand a list and continue an over-long sentence well past the rules of grammar.

Kennedy often used the classical literary device, “chiasmus,” to invert the word order in a sentence and make a new meaning.

Consider how Kennedy uses the rule of three and chiasmus to begin his inaugural address:

“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.”

The art of words 3

Interestingly, Kennedy rarely used poetic devices during important national addresses, when he needed to share information directly and efficiently. The most famous example of this absence of poetic devices is his announcement of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That speech uses only one metaphor, though it is quite memorable:

“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth.”

—John Evans