In an article at Ragan.com, Mike Landrum writes on former John F. Kennedy speechwriter Theodore C. Sorensen’s advice to colleagues at the recent New York Speechwriter’s Roundtable.
Landrum is a New York-based speaker, speechwriter and speaker’s coach. According to his article, Sorensen - a lawyer from Lincoln, Nebraska - joined then-Senator Kennedy’s staff in 1953 and worked with him as a policy advisor, legal counsel and speechwriter for the rest of his life. Sorensen held the “position of trust and responsibility” for almost 11 years, including Kennedy’s years as President.
Landrum credits Sorensen for “the simple, measured language” of Kennedy’s speeches and believes that “much of Kennedy’s legacy flowed through Sorensen’s pen and into the hearts of all Americans.” Indeed, Sorensen wrote the now famous line from Kennedy’s inaugural speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask rather, what you can do for your country.”
Speaking at the Roundtable at 77, Sorensen is described by Landrum as tall, trim, dark-haired, modest and soft-spoken. He points out, however, that the quiet voice is still vigorous and “with a barbed political point.” In a quip about his own failing eyesight, Sorensen reportedly said: “Don’t worry about the fact that I can’t see … I have more vision than the President of the United States.”
Landrum narrates that Theodore C. Sorensen then proceeded to give the audience of fellow speechwriters what he believes to be the secrets of speechwriting, made up of four words and five lines.
The words, according to Sorensen, are: brevity, levity, charity and clarity.
Sorensen’s five lines are:
1. “Outline - absolutely indispensable, always the best place to start.”
2. “Headline - what do you want the headline to be?”
3. “Frontline - what’s the most important point, what do you move up to the front?”
4. “Sideline - put in a quotation from a poem, an allusion to history, a bit of eloquence or precedence from the past.”
5. “Bottom Line - what is your conclusion?”
Landrum said Sorensen also sees humor as useful in warming up an audience but warns that it could be risky. Sorensen told of a joke he once gave then-Senator Kennedy that the Associated Press later reported as actual fact.
The last tip given by Sorensen, according to Landrum, was to ensure that the speaker has the speech. He also told of an instance when he had Kennedy’s speech in his pocket and they got separated, with Kennedy arriving at the venue ahead and being immediately called to speak. Fortunately, he said, Kennedy knew much about what he was supposed to speak on.
When asked what makes a great speech, Landrum says Sorensen declared: “A speech is made great, not from the words used, but from the ideas conveyed. If the ideas, principles and values and substance of the speech are great, then it’s going to be a great speech, even if the words are pedestrian. The words can be soaring, beautiful and eloquent but if the ideas are flat, empty or mean, it’s not a great speech.”
Well said, indeed. But then, could we have expected any less from this great man?