JFK speeches and using contrasts

By January 21, 2011Presentation Skills

We can learn so much from the greats. Along with the Gettysburg address and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”, JFK’s inaugural speech is often cited as one of the great American political speeches. To commemorate its fiftieth anniversary, there is a full video and fascinating dissection of the speech on the BBC website by Max Atkinson.

Now I’m going to admit something terrible. I don’t enjoy the speech. It is technically brilliant, a carefully worked combination of allusion to the past, rhetorical devices and powerful imagery. I admire the paintwork: Ted Sorensen’s account of its drafting and re-drafting in his biography of JFK reveals dozens of the most skilful hands touching it up. I recognise its historic importance as a live televisual event and the wave of optimism surrounding the election of a young President who broke the mould. It is no surprise that people look back on it with admiration.

But its outstanding feature is the use of contrasts and the modern world has hardened my heart towards them. Beyond the famous line “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”, there are more than 20 others in almost 1,900 words: “symbolising an end as well as a beginning”, “signifying renewal as well as change” and so on. A victim of its success, contrast has become the most hackneyed device in modern political discourse. David Miliband’s Labour leadership bid promised “a people’s party, not a politician’s party”, “community activists not election time passers by”, “acting together so that even though we are out of government, we are not out of power”. In just 500 words he used 10 contrasts, four times as many as JFK. See for yourself . Nor is he alone. It’s as if politicians have invented a new language of their own, with contrast after contrast after contrast.

Why? – because they work. I hate telephone-number jingles on local radio but I can remember the number. I don’t like TV adverts which are louder than the show I’m watching, but they make me look at the screen. And while I hate contrasts, my brain makes a quiet choice between the two options presented whether I like it or not. The great enduring power of “ask not” is that our choice is the noble one. It contains something counter-intuitive, that element which makes the aphorisms of Oscar Wilde so memorable.

We can use contrasts to reframe our conceptualisation of an issue – “not an expensive luxury, but the minimum price for quality”. We can offer the hope of having our cake and eating it – “a car that is sleek and sporty as well as being safe and sensible”. We can highlight the novelty of an idea – “product testing not in laboratories, but in people’s living rooms”.

By using contrasts, we create two images in the mind. See the sleek and sporty car? See the safe and sensible car? Once we start visualising, we are hooked. Can you imagine the car which fulfils the dream combination? Do you want to buy it?

Thanks to contrasts, we can not only speak honestly but also powerfully. Oh, no, now I’m doing it…

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