Six secrets of President Kennedy's rhetorical success

JFK's inaugural speech: Six secrets of his success

By Max Atkinson
Rhetoric expert

Published 19 January 2011

John F Kennedy delivers his inaugural speech
The poetic "ask not" quotation is among the speech's most memorable lines

President John F Kennedy would have been delighted to know that his inaugural address is still remembered and admired 50 years later. 

Like other great communicators - including Winston Churchill before him and Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama since then - he was someone who took word-craft very seriously indeed. 

He had delegated his aide Ted Sorensen to read all the previous presidential inaugurals, with the additional brief of trying to crack the code that had made Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address such a hit.

Fifty years on, the debate about whether he or Sorensen played the greater part in composing the speech matters less than the fact that it was a model example of how to make the most of the main rhetorical techniques and figures of speech that have been at the heart of all great speaking for more than 2,000 years. Most important among these are: 

  • Contrasts: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"
  • Three-part lists: "Where the strong are just, and the weak secure and the peace preserved"
  • Combinations of contrasts and lists (by contrasting a third item with the first two): "Not because the communists are doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right"

If the rhetorical structure of sentences is one set of building blocks in the language of public speaking, another involves simple "poetic" devices such as:

  • Alliteration: "Let us go forth to lead the land we love"
  • Imagery: "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans"

In general, the more use of these a speaker makes, the more applause they will get and the more likely it is that they will be recognised as a brilliant orator.

But great communicators differ as to which of these techniques they use most. 

Presidents Reagan and Obama, for example, stand out as masters of anecdote and story-telling, which didn't feature at all in JFK's inaugural. Mr Obama also favours three-part lists, of which there were 29 in his 10-minute election victory speech in Chicago. 

Stark warning

Kennedy, however, used very few in his inaugural address. For him, contrasts were the preferred weapon, coming as they did at a rate of about one every 39 seconds in this particular speech. Some were applauded and some have survived among the best-remembered lines.

He began with three consecutive contrasts:

  • "We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom" 
  • "Symbolizing an end as well as a beginning"
  • "Signifying renewal as well as change" 

From the 20 or so he used, other widely quoted contrasts, all of which were applauded, include:

  • "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich"
  • "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate"
  • "My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man"

The speech also bristled with imagery, starting with a stark warning about the way the world has changed because "man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life." 

People of the developing world were "struggling to break the bonds of mass misery."

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan was a master of 

JFK vowed to "assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty" and that "this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house."

He sought to "begin anew the quest for peace before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity", hoped that "a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion" and issued a "call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle."

First inaugural designed for the media?

Impressive though the rhetoric and imagery may have been, what really made the speech memorable was that it was the first inaugural address by a US president to follow the first rule of speech-preparation: analyse your audience - or, to be more precise at a time when mass access to television was in its infancy, analyse your audiences.

In the most famous fictional speech of all time, Mark Antony had shown sensitivity to his different audiences in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar by asking his "Friends, Romans, countrymen" to lend him their ears. But Kennedy had many more audiences in mind than those who happened to be in Washington that day.

His countrymen certainly weren't left out, appearing as they did in the opening and towards the end with his most famous contrast of all: "Ask not..." But he knew, perhaps better than any previous US president, that local Americans were no longer the only audience that mattered. The age of a truly global mass media had dawned, which meant that what he said would be seen, heard or reported everywhere in the world.

At the height of the Cold War, Kennedy also had a foreign policy agenda that he wanted to be heard everywhere in the world. So the different segments of the speech were specifically targeted at a series of different audiences:

  • "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill"
  • "To those new nations whom we welcome to the ranks of the free"
  • "To those in the huts and villages of half the globe" 
  • "To our sister republics south of the border"
  • "To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations"
  • "Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary"

The following day, there was nothing on the front pages of two leading US newspapers, The New York Times and the Washington Post to suggest that the countrymen in his audience had been particularly impressed by the speech - neither of them referred to any of the lines above that have become so famous.

The fact that so much of the speech is still remembered around the world 50 years later is a measure of Kennedy's success in knowing exactly what he wanted to say, how best to say it and, perhaps most important of all, to whom he should say it.

Dr Max Atkinson is the author of Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Public Speaking and Presentation and Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy.


The windows firm, based in Cuffley in Hertfordshire, was plunged into crisis in March when the lockdown made it impossible for staff to make sales and installation visits to customers’ homes.Everest has been been sold back to its private equity owner Better Capital via an insolvency procedure known as a “pre-pack” administration. 

The windows firm, based in Cuffley in Hertfordshire, was plunged into crisis in March when the lockdown made it impossible for staff to make sales and installation visits to customers’ homes.

Everest has been been sold back to its private equity owner Better Capital via an insolvency procedure known as a “pre-pack” administration. However, the company said 188 redundancies were being made across the business.

Alistair Massey, a partner at FRP, the advisory firm that handled the sale, said Everest was an “iconic British brand” with an enviable market position in its specialist field.

“In the face of incredibly challenging trading conditions in recent months, the business required restructuring to ensure a sustainable future,” he said. “This deal secures a significant number of jobs and personal livelihoods for many affiliated roles.” 

Everest works with around 600 self-employed fitters.

The deal will involve the transfer of 413 full-time jobs in manufacturing and sales to new trading company Everest 2020 which has taken over the order book. Better Capital is investing £3.2m in the new vehicle.

Everest has made losses for several years, with the last set of accounts filed at Companies House showing a £9.3m loss on sales of £105m for 2018. The company has 18 distribution centres as well as two factories: in Sittingbourne, Kent, and Treherbert, Wales.

(The Guardian, June, 2020)




The first I heard about this was when yesterday's mail came with a free leaflet from Everest advertising their current sale and wonderful offers of double-glazed windows, etc., etc.

As we've been having problems with our expensive Everest sash windows for years (and especially recently, see left), phoning them was at the top of my list of stuff to do. 

When I did so, I was told more or less the same story as that in The Guardian. When I asked if the original Everest guarantees (all of which I still have in a file) would still be honoured, the reply was "As we're a new company, I'm afraid not."

When I asked if that was legal, she said she wasn't a lawyer and therefore didn't know.

I'm looking into it and would be glad for any comments readers may have.

We who went to Guy Fawkes's old school

  • Guy Fawkes was caught trying to blow up Westminster Palace on November 5

    He was born on April 13th 1570 in Stonegate in York, and was educated at St. Peter's School in York, preferring to be called Guido Fawkes

    My brother and I, as too did some of Guido's colleagues in in the plot, went to the same school.

    When we were there, this local (and rather ancient) history was used as convenient excuse for not allowing us anywhere near a bonfire or fireworks - after all, it was "bad form" to burn an old boy of the school.

    Many years and many headmasters later, the policy changed dramatically. Nowadays old boys get  annual invitations to attend the school's bonfire celebrations!

    But did I know him?

    On 5th November a few years ago, when my wife was listening to primary school pupils reading, she said to one little boy: "My husband went to the same school as Guy Fawkes."

    Obviously impressed, he replied: "Did he know him?"