The speech was delivered in Houston with the purpose of gaining public support for the space program Apollo. Having a clear objective is the first main point of every speech or presentation. Without it you cannot say if it was effective or it was not.
It is a very important speech from a political standpoint, it spoke to the nation’s best impulses, not the worst. It is also very effective from a rhetorical standpoint, and that is why is featured it here.
If you like you can read the full transcript of the speech.
Including the audience is a great thing to do and Kennedy starts already in the opening.
We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.
Notice the inclusion of the attending people with references to the college (Rice), the city (Houston) and the State (Texas). The use of we and our embraces everyone. We as Americans, but also as mankind.
This increases audience identification and makes the speaker more believable. Remember it when you speak before your audience.
Alliteration and anaphora
The subsequent passage builds on the last sentence we have seen before.
Despite the striking fact that most of the scientists that the world has ever known are alive and working today, despite the fact that this Nation’s own scientific manpower is doubling every 12 years in a rate of growth more than three times that of our population as a whole, despite that, the vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension.
You can see examples of alliteration, the repetition of sounds to add a lyric touch to the speech. We have three words beginning with un (unknown, unanswered and unfinished) followed by two beginning with co (collective and comprehension).
Alliteration makes a sentence more vivid, and is often used in poems. For you speech use it carefully, too much of it can sound inappropriate or distracting.
You may have notice also the repetition (anaphora) of despite three times before to add emphasis.
We move forward in the speech and we encounter a metaphor that condenses humankind development in 50 years.
No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 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. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.
Metaphors accomplish two things: they add an emotional layer and they also can make a concept more understandable and memorable. The one used by John Kennedy visualise the speed of human progress, how this is concentrated in the last years. This supports the speed needed to address the Apollo program.
Which ideas in your presentations could benefit from the use of metaphor?
Asyndeton and objections
Asyndeton is a rhetorical device that increases a sentence emphasis by omitting conjunctions. Here we find it in the next passage which expands the metaphor.
Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.
This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers.
The last sentence indeed has a list without conjunctions to add drama.
There are the problems that come along the speed of progress, one of the objection the audience may have. Appropriately Kennedy doesn’t avoid it, on the contrary he brings it out to then argue that the pros of his proposition overcome the cons.
Passion and emphasis
The central block is the most famous, where there is We choose to go to the Moon the sentence that embodies the whole speech. When you find a quote from it likely it is this one.
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, and the others, too.
Passion is key to achieve what the ancient Greeks called Pathos, how to persuade an audience and move them towards our idea. Notice the use of the first person plural, as seen in the beginning, it includes and heightens the emotional engagement. Aristotle said that awakening emotion in the audience induces them to make the judgment desired.
Note also another point. Space program, albeit fascinating, they do not have a direct impact on life of the common people. Allocating resources to them could be perceived as distracting them from other issues. This is addressed at least twice, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills which alludes to benefits on civil programs and we intend to win, and the others, too to reinforce that no focus will be taken away from the other objectives.
The whole speech exudes positivity, high ideals and heroic challenges to be overcome. As mentioned at the beginning, it relies on positive instincts, showing that in politics one can succeed not only by leveraging fears and weaknesses.
The closing is the emblem, it contains enthusiasm and passion not to hide the risks, but to give the right motivation to face them and overcome them.
Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.
A great speech and a great lesson for politicians and speakers. You can watch it in full to better appreciate it.
Embrace John Kennedy energy and positivity to make your presentation and speeches effective and memorable!