Writing rules of JFK's speechwriter

Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy's "intellectual blood bank", and his speechwriting principles which are still relevant in 2020

Hello everyone, and happy Monday.

Today, I want to share Ted Sorensen’s speechwriting principles with you. Ted was John F. Kennedy’s advisor and speechwriter, and a contributor to many of JFK’s famous speeches and writings, including Kennedy’s correspondence with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Ted Sorensen’s rules of crafting a powerful speech are enduring, and as relevant in 2020, a year of global calamity, as they were during the Cold War.

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Why am I fascinated by Ted Sorensen

I am currently reading Ted’s memoir, Counselor: A life at the edge of history. Ted wrote it just two years before passing away in 2010. In the book, Sorensen talks about his experience working with JFK, starting as a legislative assistant to the newly elected senator in 1953, and until Kennedy’s assassination a decade later. Ted’s account is of a humble, idealistic, devoted advisor, serving both John F. Kennedy and America through the crucial days of the world’s history.

Kennedy’s electrifying, yet simple and easily digestible speeches are part of American History and serve as an inspiration to many until today.

Ted Sorensen was the man who wrote most of these speeches. Or, as he humbly puts it himself, substantially contributed to drafting them.

I’m talking about speeches like Kennedy’s iconic Inaugural Address of 1961, with JFK’s probably most-well known quote:

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.

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.”

Or Kennedy’s Address to Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort in 1962, better known as “We choose to go to the moon” speech:

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Six rules of Ted Sorensen

Sorensen’s speechwriting principles are both timeless and universal. Sorensen says that every great speech has to consider these six rules.

  1. Less is better than more.

    Omit unnecessary words, and make it as direct and straightforward as the Ten Commandments. Instead of stretching as few thoughts as possible into as many words as possible - do just the opposite.

    Translating this into advice for 2020: cut your 2-page emails, 50-slide presentations, and 15-minute long monologues on Zoom. Less is more.

  2. Choose each word precisely.

    Care and prudence in selecting the right words, and their sequence, is paramount. Avoid the terminology trap. Metaphors can be powerful - but use them sparingly. Also, remove divisive or alienating metaphors altogether.

    In our times, every piece of written and spoken language sticks. And mistakes are costly for individual careers and multinational brands alike. Carefully considering the implications of wording and tone you use is good advice.

  3. Organize your communication

    There should be a logical order to your communication. Have the outline, number your points, and use paragraphs when writing. The same applies to speeches.

    Nobody will read an unstructured memo or act on a request that isn’t well specified. Organizing your communication for the recipient increases your chances of getting the required attention.

  4. Vary your writing and speech to reinforce, not confuse or distract

    Use repetition and rhyming to make your points memorable. Add the right quotations to strengthen your message. Your ultimate goal is to make your message easy to digest, without confusing the recipient.

    The way I apply this principle in my emails is by putting my crucial message at the forefront. I then elaborate on it in the email body and conclude with the same statement. Through this, I have repeated my substantive point from multiple angles, making it easy for the recipient to follow.

  5. Elevate, yet simplify

    Use communication to motivate and inspire others. However still, keep your sentences short, your words understandable, and your ideas clear.

    Sorensen stresses that elevation doesn’t have to be achieved by using unusual wording or sentence constructs. Quotes all of us know from the most memorable speeches and writings are rarely hard to understand. It’s the simplicity that makes them stand out, not complexity.

  6. The substantive idea is at the core of communication.

    A speech should be built on top of your key message, not the other way around. No communication can be excellent if the ideas behind it are flat and empty.

    It’s the “idea first” principle for me here. Ultimately, it is not the speech or the writing that resonates with the audience. It is what’s being talked or written about.

The relevance of Ted’s ideas for 2020

Communication channels have changed massively since the 1960ies. The amount of information processed by each individual is ever-growing. Attention spans are getting shorter.

Most of us aren’t trying to de-escalate the Cold War or to win over the hearts of a nation with what we’re saying or writing. Instead, we are preparing investment proposals, providing project updates, and elevating our teams ahead of a complex project phase.

Yet, rules for crafting and delivering a powerful message, either spoken and written, are still mostly the same.

Be concise and to the point. Choose your words carefully for maximum impact. Use structure to make the message easy to digest. Reinforce what you say to make it stick. Elevate through simplicity, not complexity. And, first and foremost, focus on the quality of your message itself.

That’s it for this week. I hope you enjoyed my take on Ted Sorensen’s timeless communication principles. Stay tuned for the next issue.