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Secrets from JFK's Speechwriter

Ted Sorensen's new book stresses the power of ideas and the importance of simplicity, clarity, and organization to a truly persuasive speech

In his new book, Counselor, Ted Sorensen, adviser and legendary speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, describes the events that shaped the Kennedy years along with his relationship to the President and his family. Sorensen will always be remembered for turning phrases that ignited the imagination of a generation.

In his book, Sorensen also outlines the basic rules that made JFK's speeches powerfully persuasive. They apply to all types of presentations, not just formal speeches. You can make your next business presentation more effective by following them.

1. Less is almost always better than more. When attempting to persuade, less is more. If it takes you five minutes to answer a question that you could have answered in 45 seconds, you will lose the attention of your listener. If it takes you one hour to give a presentation that, with better organization, could have been delivered in 20 minutes, you will lose your audience. Be more persuasive by speaking less.

2. Choose each word with precision. A few weeks ago, I met an executive of a software company in Silicon Valley. When I asked him to describe his company's product, he said: "Our solutions represent best-of-breed platforms that reduce time to market…." The rest of the description could have gone "blah, blah, blah" because it made no sense to me. Words like "solution," "best-of-breed," or "platforms" are empty terms that can muddle business conversations and are anything but persuasive. Take a lesson from Kennedy: Don't rely on hackneyed phrases. Be specific.

3. 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—makes it easier for your listeners to follow. I once heard a sales manager kick 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 will make it more memorable.

4. Use variety and literary devices to reinforce your message, not to confuse and distract. It's no coincidence that the Democratic Presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama, is a fan of Sorensen's use of language. It's evident in many of Obama's speeches (, 3/3/08) when he uses rhetorical devices such as alliteration or rich imagery. Sorensen and JFK used a device known as "the reversible raincoat." For example, "Let us never negotiate out of fear but let us never fear to negotiate." Use rhetorical devices to spruce up the language of your presentation to keep your listeners' attention and to create a memorable message.

5. 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. Kennedy kept his sentences short and his words comprehensible. He understood the importance of avoiding terms so esoteric they could not be understood easily by the average listener.

6. Substantive ideas are the most important part of any speech. Sorensen reminds us that a speech is only as good as its ideas. "A great speech is great because of the strong ideas conveyed…if the words are soaring, beautiful, eloquent, it is still not a great speech if the ideas are flat, empty, or mean-spirited," Sorensen writes. All too often, I watch as executives spend thousands of dollars on the venue (audio/video, presentation design, etc.) and very little time on developing ideas. Presentation design is critical, and we've covered the topic before, turning to the design team behind An Inconvenient Truth for pointers (, 4/10/07). But I've never heard: "Great presentation. I especially liked the design on slide 14." Instead, I am more likely to hear, "Great presentation. I think our company could reduce our expenses by adopting your ideas." The effectiveness of your message 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 listeners either wildly excited 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."

Carmine Gallo is a communications coach for the world's leading brands. He is a speaker and author of the new book "Fire Them Up"

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