This guest post originally appeared in the August 9, 2019 Great Leadership Blog by Dan McCarthy.
A simple definition of leadership is “Leadership is influencing others to do what they would not do if left to their own accord.”
Consider the most memorable speeches meant to persuade people: Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I have a dream…” speech, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice University.
What made these speeches so persuasive was not necessarily their oration, but their vision and appeal to the heart as well as the mind, and their construction. Let’s focus on Kennedy’s “We go to the moon” speech. This address followed a common structure for enrollment speeches—speeches to persuade.
Kennedy used two organizing principles for his talk. The first was chronology, starting with the past and ending with the future. The other was Aristotle’s three forms of persuasion: logos, pathos, and ethos—logic, emotion, and credibility.
Kennedy started by talking about the past and what led the US to its current situation. He described in detail the breakneck pace at which technology was evolving, likening 50,000 years of human history to fifty years. Continuing with this analogy, he said: “Then about ten years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels.” And at this pace, man will have “literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.”
Kennedy wanted to propose that reaching the moon was almost within our grasp, should we choose to travel there; that our past has now presented us with this opportunity.
His speech then shifted to the present, hinting at the fact that no matter what we do, Russia would continue with its space program: “the exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not.” He contrasted the Soviet Union with the US. Both were competitors, but one would win. He said that the US must “become the world’s leading space-faring nation” in order to increase our own safety and security. Traveling to the moon was necessary to preserve our way of life, Kennedy inferred.
In order to achieve this objective of landing on the moon inside of ten years, Kennedy then described what the country had already done to prepare for this future endeavor. He talked about the investments that had already been made in facilities, technology, Saturn rockets, and satellites, and the benefit to the American people of investing their hard-earned tax dollars in the mission—namely, a growing availability of high-paying jobs for skilled scientists. By committing to this future mission, we would be continuing the work already started.
Parallel to this presentation of history, current challenges, and future achievements, Kennedy used the framework of logos, pathos, and ethos.
Logos, or logic, is one element that Kennedy used throughout his Rice speech. He described all the investments made up to that point in space exploration and crafted a logical argument for why the US needed to invest at a more aggressive rate in order to gain the upper hand against the Soviet Union.
Americans were already on edge after Russia demonstrated superiority in space. So, Kennedy leveraged that insecurity, tapping into that emotion, fear and expressing sympathy for those real feelings. That Russia might soon control the skies created a security weakness for the US. But Kennedy also appealed to our pride. “But this city of Houston, this State of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward—and so will space.”
Kennedy also demonstrated source credibility or authority—ethos—as he spoke, so that those in the audience did not question his statements.
On top of making a logical case for investing heavily in space exploration, Kennedy made Americans feel. They were afraid, then hopeful, then resolved, and then proud of the ambitious plan their president had outlined.
In addition to chronology and Aristotle’s forms of persuasion, Kennedy also used tried and true communication patterns.
If you listen to Kennedy’s speech, you will notice the following speech patterns and speaking style points:
- Simple words. Kennedy doesn’t try to impress by using multisyllabic words no one recognizes. He makes the information he’s sharing accessible, understandable.
- Short sentences. Kennedy also uses short, crisp sentences containing a single idea at a time.
- Systematic. When Kennedy makes a statement, he then backs it up with an explanation or proof. He makes his point in a methodical way.
- No extra fluff. He chooses his words carefully, packing a punch in as few words as possible. He chooses words that generate an emotional response whenever possible, such as “pride” or “un-tried.”
- Repetition. Many of the great speeches, including Kennedy’s, use repetition for effect. Abraham Lincoln repeated the words “cannot” in the Gettysburg address: “Cannot dedicate…cannot consecrate…cannot hallow…” Similarly, Kennedy used the phrase “We choose” three times in his speech, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. used the phrase “Now is the time.”
Bio: Dick Richardson is the founder and CEO of Experience to Lead, a firm that offers unique, immersive experiences to improve the leadership skills of senior business executives. He is also the author of Apollo Leadership Lessons (Authority Publishing), a book that demonstrates what how the tactics employed by the moon program’s key decision-makers can be applied in business today, from the C-suite on down to the frontline.