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Ted Sorensen on the Kennedy Style of Speech-Writing

Sorensen's Advice for Speakers

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Ted Sorensen on the Kennedy Style of Speech-Writing

President John F. Kennedy and Special Counsel to the President Theodore C. Sorensen in 1961

In his final book, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (2008), Ted Sorensen offered a prediction: "I have little doubt that, when my time comes, my obituary in the New York Times (misspelling my last name once again) will be captioned: 'Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy Speechwriter.'"

On November 1, 2010, the Times got the spelling right: "Theodore C. Sorensen, 82, Kennedy Counselor, Dies." And though Sorensen did serve as counselor and alter ego to John F. Kennedy from January 1953 to November 22, 1963, "Kennedy Speechwriter" was indeed his defining role.

A graduate of the University of Nebraska's law school, Sorensen arrived in Washington, D.C. "unbelievably green," as he later admitted. "I had no legislative experience, no political experience. I'd never written a speech. I'd hardly been out of Nebraska."

Nevertheless, Sorensen was soon called on to help write Senator Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage (1955). He went on to co-author some of the most memorable presidential speeches of the last century, including Kennedy's inaugural address, the "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, and the American University commencement address on peace.

Though most historians agree that Sorensen was the primary author of these eloquent and influential speeches, Sorensen himself maintained that Kennedy was the "true author." As he said to Robert Schlesinger, "If a man in a high office speaks words which convey his principles and policies and ideas and he's willing to stand behind them and take whatever blame or therefore credit go with them, [the speech is] his" (White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, 2008).

In Kennedy, a book published two years after the president's assassination, Sorensen spelled out some of the distinctive qualities of the "Kennedy style of speech-writing." You'd be hard-pressed to find a more sensible list of tips for speakers.

While our own orations may not be quite as momentous as a president's, many of Kennedy's rhetorical strategies are worth emulating, regardless of the occasion or the size of the audience. So the next time you address your colleagues or classmates from the front of the room, keep these principles in mind.

The Kennedy style of speech-writing--our style, I am not reluctant to say, for he never pretended that he had time to prepare first drafts for all his speeches--evolved gradually over the years. . . .

We were not conscious of following the elaborate techniques later ascribed to these speeches by literary analysts. Neither of us had any special training in composition, linguistics or semantics. Our chief criterion was always audience comprehension and comfort, and this meant: (1) short speeches, short clauses and short words, wherever possible; (2) a series of points or propositions in numbered or logical sequence wherever appropriate; and (3) the construction of sentences, phrases and paragraphs in such a manner as to simplify, clarify and emphasize.

The test of a text was not how it appeared to the eye, but how it sounded to the ear. His best paragraphs, when read aloud, often had a cadence not unlike blank verse--indeed at times key words would rhyme. He was fond of alliterative sentences, not solely for reasons of rhetoric but to reinforce the audience's recollection of his reasoning. Sentences began, however incorrect some may have regarded it, with "And" or "But" whenever that simplified and shortened the text. His frequent use of dashes was of doubtful grammatical standing--but it simplified the delivery and even the publication of a speech in a manner no comma, parenthesis or semicolon could match.

Words were regarded as tools of precision, to be chosen and applied with a craftsman's care to whatever the situation required. He liked to be exact. But if the situation required a certain vagueness, he would deliberately choose a word of varying interpretations rather than bury his imprecision in ponderous prose.

For he disliked verbosity and pomposity in his own remarks as much as he disliked them in others. He wanted both his message and his language to be plain and unpretentious, but never patronizing. He wanted his major policy statements to be positive, specific and definite, avoiding the use of "suggest," "perhaps" and "possible alternatives for consideration." At the same time, his emphasis on a course of reason--rejecting the extremes of either side--helped produce the parallel construction and use of contrasts with which he later became identified. He had a weakness for one unnecessary phrase: "The harsh facts of the matter are . . ."--but with few other exceptions his sentences were lean and crisp. . . .

He used little or no slang, dialect, legalistic terms, contractions, clichés, elaborate metaphors or ornate figures of speech. He refused to be folksy or to include any phrase or image he considered corny, tasteless or trite. He rarely used words he considered hackneyed: "humble," "dynamic," "glorious." He used none of the customary word fillers (e.g., "And I say to you that is a legitimate question and here is my answer"). And he did not hesitate to depart from strict rules of English usage when he thought adherence to them (e.g., "Our agenda are long") would grate on the listener's ear.

No speech was more than 20 to 30 minutes in duration. They were all too short and too crowded with facts to permit any excess of generalities and sentimentalities. His texts wasted no words and his delivery wasted no time.
(Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy. Harper & Row, 1965. Reprinted in 2009 as Kennedy: The Classic Biography)

To those who question the value of rhetoric, dismissing all political speeches as "mere words" or "style over substance," Sorensen had an answer. "Kennedy's rhetoric when he was president turned out to be a key to his success," he told an interviewer in 2008. "His 'mere words' about Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba helped resolve the worst crisis the world has ever known without the U.S. having to fire a shot."

Similarly, in a New York Times op-ed published two months before his death, Sorensen countered several "myths" about the Kennedy-Nixon debates, including the view that it was "style over substance, with Kennedy winning on delivery and looks." In the first debate, Sorensen argued, "there was far more substance and nuance . . . than in what now passes for political debate in our increasingly commercialized, sound-bite Twitter-fied culture, in which extremist rhetoric requires presidents to respond to outrageous claims."

To learn more about the rhetoric and oratory of John Kennedy and Ted Sorensen, have a look at Thurston Clarke's Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America, published by Henry Holt in 2004 and now available in a Penguin paperback.

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