We not only lost a young, extraordinary leader 51 years ago, we lost one of the truly great orators and speakers of that or any generation and probably the best Presidential orator in American history other than the incomparable Abraham Lincoln.
In just 1,000 days, John F. Kennedy gave the world some of the most memorable speeches of all time. Imagine how much more he could have inspired us had he been allowed to finish out his term and perhaps win another. 2,920 days of JFK speech genius, instead of just 1,000.
Historians generally say that JFK's "Ask Not" Inaugural was his greatest. It was, in fact, voted to be the 2nd greatest speech of The 20th Century.
But I'm not sure I agree. I chose his "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech for my book, "Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events", but I think I have a new favorite, his 1962 "We're Going To Send A Man To The Moon" Speech at Rice University. It defines the art of visionary leadership.
So, whether it was his January, 1961 Inaugural Address, (highlight at 9:38 - 10:26) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0a61wFaF8A
His 1962 Rice University "Moon" Speech, (highlight at 10:26 - 12:18) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0a61wFaF8A
His 1963 American University speech on foreign policy or
His 1963 "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech delivered just 16 days later (highlight at 10:26 - 12:18) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0a61wFaF8A
that was his best, this is an unbelievable legacy for 2 and 1/2 years. It is almost the public speaking equivalent of Einstein's 1905 "Miracle Year" of physics.
So, why? What made JFK such a great speaker? Like with the other greats, it boils down to seven prime metrics:
Secret #1: JFK's words, with the help of his constant aide, Ted Sorensen, were spectacular. Pure speechwriting gold
Secret #2: JFK's Voice Tone. This part of one's communication arsenal impacts audiences far more than just the words - as much as 38% by some studies - and President Kennedy's had everything that a speaker should have. It had variation in pace (sometimes fast, sometimes slow), variation in volume (sometimes loud, sometimes soft) and variation in pitch. The "Ask not!", for example, was delivered at a much higher frequency than the rest of that sentence, adding greatly to its impact. Also factor in great vocal punctuation and dramatic, yet natural, pauses.
Secret #3: His Body Language. He won the Nixon-Kennedy debate with it - on television - and continued to use it to engage and charm every audience. Presidential yet warm and accessible. Strong and determined, yet playful and relaxed, all at the right time.
Secret #4: What I call The "Laser, Compelling Message". The speeches were constructed and arranged with content flowing effortlessly from the powerful headlines. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country", is perhaps the most famous. "Ich bin ein Berliner" is a a brilliant LCM as well. In almost every speech, though, he knew how to avoid the classic trap of throwing out random and often endless data and always knew how to wrap it into a beautiful, tight little bow with a powerful theme.
Secret #5: Instead of giving a "Performance" AT us, or a "Presentation" TO us, JFK almost always - like FDR and two brilliant communicators to follow him - Reagan and Clinton - knew how to have a "Conversation" WITH his audiences. This is, perhaps, the finest art form of great speakers.
Secret #6: Charisma occurs when one is able to neurologically communicate with each of "The 4 Languages" of communication. These are four different neurological frequencies that relate to the five human senses. Only about 1/2 of 1% of people can do this. JFK spoke all four - The "Visual", the "Auditory", the "Auditory Digital" and the "Kinesthetic". And he did it masterfully.
Secret #7: The most important - Authenticity and Passion, or what I call "Authentic Passion". JFK was on a mission, with almost every speech and one sensed that the words, and that mission, came from deep within. Authenticity, in short supply in political and business presentations, is what audiences (and voters) crave most and JFK brought it to every speech!
So, as we reflect on the life of John F. Kennedy, let us thank him for his charm, his charisma, his bringing "Camelot" to The White House, but let us not forget that this young man was not just one of America's greatest speakers but one of the greatest the world has ever seen.
Richard Greene is a Communication Strategist and Speech Coach and Author of the classic "Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events". His recent TED Talk on "The 7 Secrets of The Greatest Speakers in History", including a discussion of three of JFK's speeches, was just published. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0a61wFaF8A