No one knows how history will ultimately judge President Obama’s recent inaugural address. But most agree that President Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961 – “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country“ — was among the best ever.
But when JFK started in politics, he was a mediocre speaker. By looking at how he grew into a great speaker, we can all learn to connect better with our audiences.
Work Is More Important than Being Gifted
I’m often asked whether it is possible to develop into a great speaker: whether you must be “born with it.” But JFK developed into a great speaker over time with lots of practice.
Kennedy’s political career started in 1946 when he ran for Congress in Boston. He was a poor speaker, according to Robert Caro, writing in his book “The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power.” The fantastic book deals with the relationship between Johnson and Kennedy. Describing a speech during that first campaign, Caro wrote:
His early speeches all seemed to be, a biographer has written, “both mediocre and humorless . . . read from a prepared text with all the insecurity of a novice, in a voice “tensely high-pitched” and “with a quality of grave seriousness that masked his discomfiture . . . He seemed to be just a trifle embarrassed on stage.” Once, afraid he was going to forget his speech, his sister Eunice mouth the words at him from the audience as he spoke.
Of course, when you’re giving dozens of speeches during a political campaign, you improve. That’s what happened with JFK.
How to become a great speaker? Practice.
Learn to Play Up Your Strengths
Sometimes the key to improvement as a speaker is to play to your strengths. JFK had a gift for witty comments. Caro describes how, even before he was accomplished as a speaker, JFK occasionally flashed what would become his trademark wit.
At one forum in which all the candidates spoke, the master of ceremonies, no friend to Kennedy and eager to emphasize that he was a rich man’s son, made a point of introducing each of the others as a “young fellow who came up the hard way.” Then was Kennedy’s turn. “I seem to be the only person here tonight who didn’t come up the hard way, “ he said – and suddenly there was a grin and the audience roared with laughter . . .
Today, in addition to his inaugural speech, Kennedy is perhaps most famous for his self-deprecating wit. Check out his press conferences on YouTube.
The lesson is that we should focus on our strengths as speakers. Some people are great at Q&A. Others thrive with story telling. Still others know how to coin a clever phrase. Follow Kennedy’s lead. Develop and emphasize your strength.
Walk in with Power
Another Kennedy lesson is to enter a room with confidence. For most of his life, Addison’s disease and back problems dogged Kennedy. He often looked sickly. He was often in pain. But, Caro recounts, when he came into the room, he put away his crutches and strode in with a big smile as if he felt great.
We urge our clients to walk into the room “wearing boots and spurs.” You want to look excited and eager to connect with the audience.
Even if you never give an inaugural address, you want to look like you could.
Joey Asher has worked with thousands of business people helping them learn how to communicate in a way that connects with clients. His new book 15 Minutes Including Q&A: a Plan to Save the World from Lousy Presentations” is available now. He is also the author three previous books including “How to Win a Pitch: The Five Fundamentals That Will Distinguish You from the Competition”, “Selling and Communication Skills for Lawyers” and “Even A Geek Can Speak.”