Presenting Your Ideas the "Kennedy Way"


“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” - JFK (watch clip of speech

Whether you’re the President of the United States, the leader of an association, CEO of your organization or just a commander-in-chief over your own actions, ideas and the ability to present ideas becomes crucial in gaining buy in from your audience and moving the idea to action.  Our ability to translate, simplify, demonstrate and convince people that we have an idea and that the idea is worth exploring is an ability that deserves great exercise and practice and one that is not easily conjured up on a whim.

On a macro level of presenting ideas, let’s examine our current president’s predicament.  There are numerous articles recently that beg the question: where did the beautiful rhetoric and poetry go, Mr. President? What happened to those lofty lines that united us and put a hop in our step to elect you president? Within his first two years in office much of his inability to get things passed, unite sides, or have a convincing argument around topics has been attributed to his lack of ability to sell an idea.  This is the man we said would be the next JFK, even to the degree of being affectionately tapped by the late president’s younger brother as the next in line! Most recently in a Newsweek post by Jonathan Alter, Atler laments, “Fortunately, we have a president with the rhetorical skills to rouse us. Unfortunately, he hasn’t so far.  Obama’s biggest mistake in his first two years was that he took Mario Cuomo’s famous dictum – “you campaign in poetry and govern in prose” – too much to heart.”

Kennedy and SorensenSo how does a president get back on track; how do you, a president, a manager, a team-leader, or the commander-in-chief of “you,” help convey the very best and brightest of your ideas to a constituency marred in recession fatigue, “bubble-bursting” ulcers, social media over-saturation, downsizing, hire-freezing headaches, and a very, very long winter?  In the book, Counselor, by Kennedy’s longtime advisor and speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s ability to convey his ideas and vision effectively is broken down into what Sorensen calls, “the six basic rules in speechwriting.” Not assuming that every time you need to present ideas or convey thoughts you will be ‘making a speech,’ however, I would suggest that we should approach the concept of presenting our ideas to our bosses, customers, peers and mentors with the same scrutiny and meticulousness.

Sorensen lays out the six rules as follows:

1) Less is almost always better than more: Make it as simple and direct as the Ten Commandments. Sorensen references the classic book, Elements of Style, when he states “Omit unnessary words” as one of his favorite rules.  Most politicians have a knack for stretching as few thoughts as possible into as many words as possible – JFK and Sorensen believed the opposite was necessary in order to truly convey a message.

2) Choose each word as a precision tool: Kennedy found that as he was on the brink of wars and trying to hold a country together during the civil rights movement, every word had consequence.  JFK stayed out of the terminology trap – the common tendency to label groups with names that put them beyond the ability or opportunity for negotiation.  How often do we generalize and label without reproach to the alienating effect it might have on our audience? Millennials, Veterans, Youth, Them, They, C-Level Officers (for senior leadership i.e. CEO, CFO), The Man, etc. – does this action unite or divide us into our already existing silos?

Kennedy IdeasKennedy also used metaphors to help illustrate a point, but interestingly, rarely used a war metaphor – there was no “war on cancer (crime, drugs or terrorism)” under his administration – all of which are now met with the “roll of the eyes” by most Americans when other Presidents make such statements.  Instead, JFK used metaphors of inspiration, morality, and conviction, “To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge: to convert our good words into good deeds in a new alliance for progress, to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty.  But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.”

3) Organize the idea to simplify, clarify, emphasize: An idea should flow in a logical order. Numbered points, a tightly organized and coherent theme, as well as consistency all are the makings of a good speech. Winston Churchill criticized an opponent’s speech once stating, “That pudding has no theme.” It goes without saying, that if you present an idea, you should have enough backing to support why you have this idea.  Many times we can confuse a great idea with a personal preference.  Just because you like it, doesn’t mean your customers will, or that it is the absolute way of the future.  Putting an idea together logically also means presenting foundational reasons (metrics, best business practices, articles, thought leaders, emerging trends) for why the idea is a good one to pursue.SLIDE4_crop

4) Use variety and literary devices to reinforce memorability, not confuse or distract: Alliteration, rhyming, quoting, and repetition can help make an idea memorable.  Another device used regularly by Kennedy was referred to as the “reversible raincoat” (or if you’re a literary buff, a chiasmus) – “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate,” or “Bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.” A great platform to exercise this technique is in the forming of the mission and vision statements of your organization, division or department.  These provide an opportunity to set a lofty, yet attainable vision for the future.  I would urge “wordsmithers” participating in the forming of such crucial statements not to lose the love of poetic, uplifting language, for the hollow and absent words of “organizational-speak.”

5) Employ elevated but not grandiose language: JFK and Sorensen tried to elevate and yet simplify his speeches, not to patronize his audience, but to keep his sentences short, his words understandable, and his organizational structure and ideas clear.  Using straightforward declarations, JFK avoided the trap of “maybe” and “perhaps.”  We have a tendency to get ahead of ourselves, using jargon and wording that hurts the idea instead of helping – frankly, feeling quite proud of ourselves and our ideas and wanting to overexplain or seem academic. In this I would say, “Get out of the way of your idea.”

6) Substantive ideas are the most important part of any speech: A great speech or idea is great because it is essentially good (well meaning).  It is great because of the strong ideas, principles, values and decisions. If the ideas are great, the speech will be great, even if the words are simple. But, if the words are soaring, beautiful, eloquent, it is still not a great speech if the ideas are flat, empty, or mean-spirited.

SLIDE5_cropAlter, in the Newsweek article, goes on to say, “He [Obama] needs to use the music of his voice to sell math and science and engineering and entrepreneurship and all the other skill sets…President Obama’s task in 2011 is to frame our choice – innovate or stagnate – then offer instructional tips on inventing the future.” That is precisely what Kennedy did in his “moon” speech; using many of the tools mentioned above to articulate and galvanize a nation to action.  But, before we can criticize the current president too much, we all have to ask ourselves when was the last time we used a “moon” speech for our ideas and thoughts? When was the last time we galvanized and united our company or department behind a grand vision? America and the world need your ideas; they need your “moon” speech.

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  1. Jared Eckler
    Posted March 3, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Good piece Matt! I especially agree with the grandiose and generalizations. People don’t want to be intimidated or categorized into believing. If you want to speak a little dramatically, than speak to the potential of the outcome rather than the negative impact of doing nothing or looking back on previous mistakes and problems.

  2. admin
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Thanks Jared. That’s a great point. I think it’s always a balancing act between being pragmatic and realistic, while being visionary. The best leaders can do both.

    There’s a saying we use, “communicate, communicate and then communicate 100 times more” to the most effective leader. Before ever getting to eloquence and galvanizing people to action, many leaders would do themselves a favor by “upping” their communication frequency.

    Thanks again for the comment!

    - Matt

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