History will decide how President Barack Obama's speech this week compares with other inaugural addresses. But most agree that President John F. 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 more important than talent
I'm often asked whether is possible to develop into a great speaker or 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 The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, his 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, Kennedy had 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 it was Kennedy's turn. "I seem to be the only person here tonight who didn't come up the hard way," he saidand suddenly there was a grin and the audience roared with laughter.