What can an executive learn from an inauguration speech?
To answer that question, I took a close look at my favorite, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural written by the great Theodore Sorensen. I hadn’t read the speech in a while, and what I found surprised me. For all its famous lines (most notably, “ask not what your country can do for you…”), the speech gets its power from the brilliant and repeated use of contrast. In every paragraph, in fact in almost every sentence, the speech introduces something, and then refers to its opposite.
Just a few examples (some famous, some not):
we observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike
United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do
If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
we offer not a pledge but a request:
civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof
invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors
not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are
The lesson for corporate executives is, in a speech or talk, opposites really do attract. To add drama and eloquence to your remarks, try to set up as many contrasts as you can.