Ever since John F. Kennedy became a prominent public figure, political pundits and rhetorical scholars have attempted to dissect why he captivated audiences so compellingly during his thousands of speeches, press conferences and interviews.
Some critics cite his keen wit as his major asset. One of his most celebrated remarks happened at a dinner for Nobel Prize winners. Kennedy quipped: “There has never been a greater concentration of intellectual power here at the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Other analysts credit his language mastery. Regardless of whether the words originated from Ted Sorensen or other presidential speech writers, the finished product came from Kennedy’s mouth. Five decades later, this stirring challenge grips listeners and readers: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Was Kennedy’s pronounced New England accent unfamiliar to Americans in other sections of the country? What kept audiences attentive? Possibly some audience members had to listen closely enough to translate the Boston brogue into their own regional dialect. Also, some listeners considered his accent unusual enough to be captivating.
Definitely, there’s justification for claiming that Kennedy’s physical bearing and striking presence boosted his persuasive power. Repeatedly, supporters and journalists said he “looked presidential.” Although each of these four factors — keen wit, language mastery, distinctive accent, and physical bearing — contributed to President Kennedy’s winsomeness, one other factor reigns supreme over these: Kennedy’s unparalleled level of energy while he spoke.
Consider the lethargic delivery of his contemporaries: Dwight Eisenhower mumbled, rambled, corrected his errors and then started again, still not sure where he was headed. Lyndon Johnson’s ponderous drawl generated more yawns than applause. Adlai Stevenson came across as a stereotypical professor lecturing in a sleep-inducing monotone. Hubert Humphrey could take an hour to say what he could have covered in five minutes.
By contrast, Kennedy embodied the “vigah” (his family’s way of saying “vigor”) he envisioned for the nation. His gestures were sweeping and powerful. His commanding voice reflected total commitment to his topic. His alert posture (which we now know belied his physical pain) portrayed high confidence. His spontaneous interaction with audiences, especially during press conferences, removed suspicion that his presentations were canned. Even his walk to the podium demonstrated eagerness to start his message.
Roger Ailes, once a speech coach for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, advised: “Instead of trying to remember several speech variables like pitch, rate, volume and gestures, just remember ‘energy’ and all the variables will take care of themselves.”
President John Kennedy remains one of history’s brilliant examples of how a speaker with extraordinarily high energy can inform, motivate, entertain and persuade audiences at a level that generations will remember and applaud.