Historical Speakers

Remembering John F. Kennedy – Speaking Lessons from a Heroic Orator

When asked to describe John F. Kennedy, many people mention the phrase “great speaker.” It’s true. Watch any of his speeches and you’ll see someone who looks natural and elegant in front of a crowd. He had a cunning wit and easy charm. He was articulate, intelligent, direct, and inspiring. Most of all, he looked comfortable.

But comfortable he was not. Over the last two weeks I have watched numerous documentaries about JFK’s life and realized once again that in addition to being a great speaker, he was also a very ill man, plagued with serious diseases from Crohn’s to Addison’s. As James Blight of The Daily Beast explained, “JFK—once believed to be the paragon of “vigah,” health, and vitality—was in reality one of the sickest, most physically compromised American presidents in U.S. history. He was given last rites by a priest at least four times, and possibly a fifth—the latter while he was president, in June 1961.” JFK’s various conditions were treated with steroids and other strong drugs that caused severe side effects and weakened his spine, resulting in chronic pain.

Now think about this: If JFK was in pain most of his life that would mean he was giving some of the best speeches of the 20th century while enduring extreme discomfort, debilitating illnesses, and numerous medication side effects. It’s challenging enough for most people to give a speech to a large crowd when they’re in perfect health and under ideal circumstances. Imagine having to give a critical speech when you are in extreme pain. Yes, it could be that he was carried along on pain killers, other drugs, and pure adrenaline, and that he may not have felt distressed while giving a speech. However, he certainly felt it after the adrenaline wore off and the “performance high” abated. Either way, it’s unimaginable.

Many of us have had the experience of having to give a presentation when we’ve not been at our best—either with a cold, a headache, or with some other physical or emotional challenge. And most of us can “rise to the occasion” in these stressful times and perform effectively. But these situations are infrequent. For JFK, on the other hand, coping with discomfort was a fact of everyday life. He not only rose to the occasion with every speech he gave, but he also set a new standard of leadership through his powerful and eloquent communication.

In a way, it’s a bit ironic. Here was a man who couldn’t even lift his own children due to his illnesses, yet he had the backbone to lead the American people through tumultuous times. Here was a man wracked with pain, yet when he stood in front of an audience of thousands he spoke with passion and certainty—as though he actually had the “vigah” he spoke of.

So, the next time you hear one of JFK’s speeches, listen with a new ear. Think not about just the content of his message; think about the content of his inner strength—of his ability to rise above his own pain so that he could uphold his duty as president and inspire others through his oratorical greatness.

Fortunately, most public speakers will never have to overcome such a challenge. However, if you’re ever in the situation when you have to present with a cold, a headache, or even a heartache, take a lesson from JFK. As he so eloquently said: “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.”

Click here to view some historic speeches from the JFK library.

Did Obama’s Speech Keep Dr. King’s Dream Alive?

I was an elementary student at Calvert School in Washington DC in 1963. Our school was connected to St. Matthews Cathedral, a prominent Catholic Church in the city noted for the fact it held the Catholic Funeral Mass for John F. Kennedy after he was killed. If you go to St. Matthew’s today you will see a large circular marble mosaic in the floor near the sanctuary with the words, “Here rested the remains of President Kennedy at the requiem mass, November 25, 1963 before their removal to Arlington where they lie in expectation of a heavenly resurrection.” Of the thousands of people in attendance at his funeral, Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of them.

During those years of the civil rights struggle, St. Matthew’s was a voice for social justice. One of the younger priests in residence at the church took it upon himself to expose the Calvert School elementary students to the social issues of the day, particularly the Civil Rights movement. It was with him and a few of my classmates that I attended the March on Washington and heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We heard numerous speakers throughout the day and to my young ears they were all loud and exciting. But Dr. King’s speech was thunderous and drove the already elated crowd to a state of rapture. Even though I could not comprehend the scope of the issues that drew people to the mall that day, I too was caught up in the magic of the moment.

As I watched the “Let Freedom Ring” speeches today I was stuck by how little and how much has changed since August 28, 1963. As Jimmy Carter, Forrest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, Congressman John Lewis, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama summarized, today, as in 1963, we as a nation are still struggling with issues of discrimination and injustice such as entrenched poverty, homelessness, voting rights violations, racial profiling and the high rates of incarceration of young black men, just to name a few. Of course, there has been progress over the decades as well. According to Census reports, the percentage of blacks who graduated from high school jumped to 85 percent in 2012, from 25.7 percent in 1964, while the number of black Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree rose to 5.1 million from 365,000. Additionally, the percentage of blacks working in executive, administrative or managerial positions rose to more than 8 percent in 2011, from a little over 1 percent in 1960.

In the last fifty years leading up to today, there have been gains and there have been losses, all of which have been met with considerable debate if not troublesome disagreement. But throughout our 50 year legacy of the civil rights movement, there is one thing we all agree on: Dr. King’s “Dream” speech, which I heard again in its 17 minute entirety today, remains the greatest speech of the 21st century. As most scholars, historians and politicians agree, it holds this honor because of Dr. King’s immeasurable capacity to inspire hope.

So how did Obama, the new chronicler of hope, measure up to Dr. King? It seems unfair to compare the two men yet we can’t resist. King was a preacher who turned the steps of the Lincoln memorial into a pulpit and delivered a sermon to many. He used parables from the Bible, metaphors that everyone could understand. He began slowly, carefully, keeping the pace controlled, showing little physical or vocal emotion. It was like watching a jockey hold back a race horse until the turn into the home stretch. Because I’ve seen this speech many times I knew what was coming and when it did, when he released the phrase “Let Freedom Ring” with the thunder of his voice, the power of his cadence and the surety of his eloquence, I was just as moved as I was when listening as a young child 50 years ago.

Obama gave a great speech today, there is no question. He too began slowly, carefully, building his case step by step with an even tempo, controlled body language and earnest facial expression. He began to build energy with his phrase, “Because they marched,” which subtlety referenced—at least in technique—to the “I have a dream” phrase.

But then he receded and pulled back again. When I wanted him to drop into “storyteller tone,” he became cerebral. When I wanted metaphor, he delivered fact. He seemed to be speaking one level above his audience, more conceptually, using longer sentences and denser themes. I found myself working too hard to follow along.

I wanted him to make it easy for me so I could be swept up emotionally in the historical greatness of the day. After all, this wasn’t a speech to the government or congress. This was to us, the American people. I wanted him to bring it home. Yes, he crossed the finish line with force and power, ending on a high note, but still I wanted more. I wanted him to step into the skin of Dr. King and breathe in the vigor of his vision, expelling it back to us on fire.

Too much to ask? Impossible expectations? Yes, certainly. But I’m a speech coach. And when the greatest speech of your lifetime happens to you when you’re a child, your fantasies forever exceed reality.

Steve Jobs (1955-2011): It’s Time to Pay Tribute to a Great Visionary

Along with the rest of the world, I am mourning the loss of Steve Jobs today. This morning at breakfast I was thinking about the services that will be held to honor his life and wondered who would be giving the eulogy. Imagine being selected to give the eulogy at the funeral services of someone who has been compared to Leonardo DaVinci, Thomas Edison, and Walt Disney—imagine being asked to give the final tribute to an icon whose technological vision ushered in a new era of innovation.    While giving the eulogy will be a great honor, I’m sure the speaker, whoever it is, will quickly realize that he/she is not only eulogizing a great man, but will be doing so using the communication medium that Jobs perfected. Never before will Marshall McLuhan’s dictate “the medium is the message” be more in evidence.

Whoever gives the eulogy has big shoes to fill in both what they say to honor Jobs’ gifts and talents throughout the course of his life, and in how they say it. I hope they model the techniques that Jobs so effortlessly used, such as choosing those powerful signature words and phrases he loved, like “magical,” “boom,” and “one more thing.” I hope they organize the eulogy content around one key theme. Most of all, I hope they use elegant delivery skills that even Jobs would be proud of. These are the skills I highlighted in my August 25th blog about Jobs when he resigned. Of course, it would also be fitting if the speaker sparks a wide and generous smile, has a delightful twinkle in his/her eye, and uses comfortable and natural gestures—just like Jobs always did.

It’s no secret that Jobs was known as a challenging and difficult personality, and often not a respectful or skillful communicator. There are countless examples of his brash and impatient communication style, and stories are pouring out today in a loving and forgiving way from people who had first-hand experience with his berating and belittling barrages. What I find so interesting, though, is that he was such a masterful public speaker and never showed this side of himself on stage. Given his proclivity to explode the way he did, it is a tribute to his self-control that he had such discipline in front of large groups. Granted, he practiced a lot, but perhaps he knew more was at stake for Apple in these highly public performances.

So if the eulogy were up to me, I’d talk about the Steve Jobs whose brilliant mind led him to create wildly innovative products but who also let his heart guide Apple, like when he agreed to put a tribute to George Harrison on the company’s home page after Harrison’s death. I’d talk about the Steve Jobs who inspired and led young and old alike—the charismatic technology evangelist who spoke like a prophet and gave us products we didn’t even know we needed. But most of all, I’d talk about the Steve Jobs who gave us the greatest gift of all—the gift of knowing that anyone can change the world.

Steve Jobs, One of Today’s Great Presenters, Steps Down from the Main Stage

Anyone in the public speaking business has likely paused at the news that Steve Jobs has resigned from the iconic Apple Computer. We all knew it was coming, given the serious health issues he has battled since being diagnosed with treatable pancreatic cancer in 2004. But it is a surprise nonetheless. His career has been nothing short of inspiring. Jobs had been named the most important person in personal technology at the start of his career in 1978, and then again at the end in 2011. Over the years, he has brought a wealth of innovative products to the world that have touched and changed nearly everyone’s life. And though his primary goal wasn’t to inspire presenters, that’s exactly what he did, giving us all a solid roadmap to follow. As sad as having him step down from his role at Apple is, the thought that he will no longer be giving his exciting keynote presentations is even sadder.

I have analyzed Jobs’ speeches many times over the years, and while I have never had the privilege of working with him, I admire that he is such a thoughtful and skillful practitioner of the best public speaking principles. He embodies the core success principles top notch speakers are known for, and he seemingly follows the DeFinis Communications methodology to a T, such as:

Delivery Skills: Jobs has excellent physical presence skills (eye contact, facial expression, posture, gestures, and movement), highly developed vocal resonance (uses his voice carefully, clear pronunciation and enunciation, and effective use of pitch, inflection, rate of speech, and strategic pauses), and a masterful use of distinctive language (uses short sentences never more than eight to thirteen words, chooses exhilarating words that are both powerful and emotional, and keeps his language clean of fillers and unintentional slang). He has the talent for drama, clearly conveying his passion.

Content Development: Jobs clearly understands his audience, and as such, he respects the importance of structuring his presentation’s content for each group he addresses. He defines his purpose and states it clearly and succinctly. He develops a clear beginning, middle, and end. He begins with a strong hook, states his purpose, and then lays out the agenda of his three to five main points. He develops the body of his presentation with a series of touch points, including analogies, metaphors, stories, data, statistics, and humor. And he uses thoughtful, sequential transitions, and ends with a summary, thank you, and final thought—“one last thing.” It’s textbook perfect in every way.

Visual Aids: Jobs’ visual aids are the opposite of the dense eye charts we so often see in typical technical presentations. His slides are image based with large colorful images, one big statistic, or one powerful graphic. He uses these images to augment his key point, not to overshadow it or mute his performance. His slides are exciting and dynamic visual entertainment, with a powerful point.

The Bar Has Been Raised

Jobs has consistently been one of the most powerful and best role models for business speakers in high tech. And he makes public speaking look easy, seamless, and enjoyable. But this is not due to a natural talent. I’ve heard that he works hard to prepare and even harder to rehearse so that every moment is well coordinated. He spends days, not mere hours, in preparation for one of his large main stage product announcements. Indeed, he has set the bar high.

In the only commencement speech he ever gave at Stanford University six years ago, Jobs told the newly minted graduates, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” That statement is so true for public speakers. While it’s great to use Steve Jobs as a role model for excellent presentation technique, what made him really great was that his technique allowed him and his message to shine through. And he would be the first person to tell you to model his skill, but to develop you own personal spirit and style.

In his resignation letter, Jobs wrote, “Apple’s best days are ahead of it.” While that may seem hard for us to believe today, we know that by stating this, he is preserving his legacy—a legacy of poise, power, and passion.

In Honor of Presidents’ Day: Public Speaking Lessons from George Washington

Presidents’ Day, also known as George Washington Day, was the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen and was initially celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22. On January 1, 1971, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This date places the holiday between February 15th and 21st, which makes the name “Washington’s Birthday” a misnomer, since it never lands on Washington’s actual birthday! Regardless of the date or what you call it, no one can deny that our country’s first president was a great leader. I recently read the book Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush by Allan Metcalf. It’s an interesting book and one I highly recommend. In it, Metcalf tells us, “the early years of the Republic through the end of the nineteenth century were the golden age of oratory… Listening to oratory, even for hours at a time, was a favorite entertainment in the days before movies, television, video games, rock concerts, amusement parks, and the internet.”

Interestingly, as it turns out, George Washington was not a great orator. In fact, “he established the precedent that oratorical ability is not a requisite for the presidency.”

One of the major reasons for Washington’s poor speaking skills was his teeth. Contrary to popular belief, his teeth were not made of wood. They were made of hard materials—tusks, bones or teeth of animals or humans, or gold or silver. During the course of his lifetime he had six sets of false teeth, and they did affect his speech. The upper and lower sets of his teeth were connected to each other by steel springs. Washington had to clench his jaw tightly together just to keep his mouth shut. This caused noticeable discomfort and made it difficult to speak for long periods of time.

But speak he did…and we can learn a great deal from the speeches he gave. Some key points include:

Brevity: Because of the pain and discomfort of his teeth, Washington spoke in very short intervals and no more than 15 minutes at a time. Most of his speeches were around 10 minutes. He was a master of keeping his remarks short and to the point.

Varied tone: In his first inaugural address, Washington set the tone of high, formal, ornate style, using long and elaborate sentences of 87 words or more. Yet in his second speech, he spoke plainly and directly. By varying his tone to match the event or situation, he showed his connection to the moment and to the audience’s expectations.

Highly personal: Though Washington looked to the British monarchs’ annual address at the opening session of Parliament as a model for his inaugural address, he chose to use the phrase “My fellow citizens…” He was, after all, the First Citizen and not His Majesty.

Spoke with dignity, formality, and humility: Washington had a quiet, low, monotone voice, perhaps caused by the effort it took to manage his teeth. When he delivered his first inaugural address, his voice was said to be shaky and soft. But while his voice was soft, his bearing was imposing. He was 6’ 2” tall—quite tall for those days—yet his physical presence coupled with his dignified yet humble style kept him from intimidating others.

No matter what your personal speaking style, take a lesson or two from George. After all, if his words, presence and speaking style were able to inspire a young country, they can also inspire today’s speakers.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President.

In Celebration of Black History Month: The Legacy of Booker T. Washington

"The highest test of the civilization of any race is in its willingness to extend a helping hand to the less fortunate. A race, like an individual, lifts itself up by lifting others up." -- Booker T. Washington I became reacquainted with the legacy of Booker T. Washington a few years ago when I received a call from his great granddaughter, Sarah O’Neal Rush. Sarah is an educator and counselor who is also the founder and executive director of the Booker T. Washington Empowerment Network (BTWEN). Sarah works primarily with “at risk” youth in East Oakland California.

When she called me, she had been asked to give a speech at the 150th birthday tribute to her great grandfather. It was a high stakes presentation; she was anxious and she wanted to do a great job. I was more than willing to help her prepare.

Working with Sarah was like stepping back in time. The story she told took place deep in the annals of African American history. In the process of developing her speech, she told me about her great grandfather’s many accomplishments and contributions. I learned that Booker T. Washington was an extraordinary man.

The Real Booker T. Washington Though the term “at risk youth” did not exist during the time Booker T. Washington lived, you could say that given his extreme circumstances Washington was indeed “at risk.” Born April 5, 1856, Booker Taliaferro Washington was born into slavery in rural Virginia to a slave mother and white father. After emancipation, he worked in a variety of manual labor jobs before making his way to Hampton Roads to seek an education. In the midst of poverty and hardship, he still believed that he wanted to better himself and he knew that education was the key.

His strong desire, hard work, and determination fueled his decisions and created opportunities where none existed—and these traits led him to great success. As an educator, author, orator, and political leader, he was the single most important figure in the African American community in the United States from 1890 to 1915.

Now fast forward to his great granddaughter, Sarah O’Neill Rush. In her work with “at risk youth” Sarah is continuing the legacy of her great grandfather. Through speaking, writing, discussions, and book readings, Sarah empowers children, teens, and adults to rise above life’s challenges, embrace their life story, increase self-worth, and build healthy relationships. As an author, a mental health professional with a master’s degree in psychology, and one who has risen above many challenges, Sarah is, like her great grandfather, an inspiring and motivating African American leader.

While Sarah is not a famous person or a political leader, what she shares with her great grandfather is her determination to improve her life and the lives of those who are most “at risk.” She is willing to “extend a helping hand to the less fortunate.”

Here is an excerpt from the speech that Sarah gave at the 150th birthday of her great grandfather.

“I relate well to these children and they pull deeply at my heartstrings, because, while I did not suffer as deeply as some of the children I work with, I too was an ‘at-risk’ youth. I was a single teenage mother at the age of 16. At the age of 17, I lived on my own raising my one-year old son in a drug-infested housing project in East Oakland, way on the other side of town from my high school.

“I would get up very early in the morning, get us both dressed, catch two buses to school, drop my son off at day care, and rush to class. Yet with those overwhelming odds, I still managed to graduate from high school six months ahead of my class, having the grades and more than enough credits to do so.

“My strong desire and determination to have a better life began to drive my choices, and having my mother as a role model for hard work all of my life, inspired me to succeed. And it probably didn’t hurt that I had Booker T. Washington’s blood running through my veins.”

Last summer Sarah led eight youth and three mentors on a youth development program that she called Freedom Journey. This program is a rite of passage following the footsteps of her great grandfather from slavery to freedom. For the teens who went on this trip, connecting with their past was a powerful experience that will hopefully inform and inspire their future. This was definitely a journey worth taking.

Booker T. Washington was “at risk,” yet he persevered in helping others and paving the way for equality and justice. Sarah O’Neill Rush was “at risk,” yet she persevered in achieving an education and giving back to those in greater need. Today, the young people Sarah works with are “at risk,” and with Sarah’s help, they too will persevere.

A Shocking Secret from a Speech Coach

Psst…hey you…yeah, you…do you want to know a secret about someone many people consider one of our country’s greatest public speakers? Okay, here goes…even though he was very eloquent and his words changed history, he often felt pangs of nervousness and anxiety when he stood up to speak. In fact, when he first began speaking, his voice was “shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant.” But as he warmed up and calmed down his voice became, “harmonious, melodious-musical.” Wondering who this could be? Well, it’s none other than…Abe Lincoln.

As a speech coach, I’m not surprised by this. I’ve learned over the years that even great speakers can sometimes crumble under the pressure of public speaking. And when they do, they call on professionals like me to help them sooth their nerves and provide skills, tools, and tips to give them the strength they need to garner their personal resources and speak with power and passion.

What did Abe do? Well, watch this rare, never-before seen video to find out.

All I can say is...I’m glad that in a past life I was there to help.

Happy Birthday, Abe!