Secrets from JFK’s speechwriter

19 01 2011

Ted Sorensen was one of the great wordsmiths in American history.

An advisor and legendary speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, Sorensen will always be remembered for penning some of the most eloquent and inspiring language ever spoken by a U.S. president.

Sorensen — who died at the age of 82 in October of complications from a stroke — wrote eight books from 1965 to 2008. In his final book, Counselor, he outlined the basic rules that made JFK’s speeches powerfully persuasive. These rules apply to all types of presentations, not just formal speeches. You can make your next presentation more effective by following them:

1. Less is almost always more: A presentation or speech should be lean and mean. When attempting to persuade, less is more. Keep your focus narrow, and be direct. Nobody ever says, “Gee, I wish that speech was longer.”

2. Organize the text to simplify, clarify and emphasize: According to Sorensen, speeches should have a “tightly organized, coherent, and consistent theme.” Setting the theme of your presentation from the beginning — and providing guideposts along the way — make it easier for your audience to follow.

A good example would be a sales manager who kicks off a presentation by saying: “Today we’re introducing a new software tool that will help you meet and in many cases exceed your quarterly quotas [sets the theme]. There are three features of this software that I would like to highlight for you today. Let’s start with the first one [provides verbal guideposts].” An organized theme repeated consistently throughout the presentation is easier to follow and more memorable.

3. Use variety to reinforce your message: Variety can keep your audience engaged. For instance, funny stories are great, but a half-hour of nothing but funny stories will have the audience viewing you more as a stand-up comic than an expert on a subject. Pelting listeners with factoids for 40 minutes is usually a mistake, but removing them altogether is also an error. Mix it up.

4. Employ elevated but not grandiose language: According to Sorensen, JFK believed in elevating the sights of his listeners (“We choose to go to the moon…”) and simplifying his language at the same time. Sorensen and Kennedy kept the sentences short and the words understandable. They grasped the importance of avoiding terms that could not be understood by the average listener.

5. Substantive ideas are the key to any speech: “A great speech is great because of the strong ideas conveyed,” Sorensen writes. “If the words are soaring, beautiful, eloquent, it is still not a great speech if the ideas are flat or empty.” Often, executives spend thousands of dollars on the venue (audio/video, presentation design, etc.) and not enough time developing ideas. No one ever says, “Great presentation. I especially liked the design on slide 14.” Instead, you are more likely to hear: “Great presentation. I think our company could reduce our expenses by adopting your ideas.” The effectiveness of your presentation will ultimately rest on the power of your ideas.

Whether you are delivering a PowerPoint presentation or a formal speech, the way you craft and deliver your ideas will leave your audience either inspired and energized or bored to tears. Sorensen says: “A speech can ignite a fire, change men’s minds, open their eyes, alter their votes, bring hope to their lives, and, in all these ways, change the world.