I have just spent a few days in Dallas, Texas and was inspired to examine and celebrate John F. Kennedy’s final speech.  This is a fine example of leadership communication that sadly, was never delivered.

“America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem.”

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was en route to the Dallas Trade Mart to deliver what would have been a particularly memorable speech. The world knows the tragic turn of events that day—Kennedy never made it to the podium. However, the undelivered speech remains a powerful testament to his vision and ideals, reflecting the themes of unity, progress, and leadership.  It is also replete with practical lessons in leadership communication.

In my previous analysis of JFK’s famous “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech, I explored Kennedy’s masterful use of rhetoric to inspire a nation towards a common goal. This undelivered address in Dallas, much like his moon speech, encapsulates his ability to articulate a compelling vision for the future, blending pragmatic policy with profound idealism and is another brilliant display of the trademark JFK ‘high style’.  His words, now immortalised in their unrealised potential, offer a poignant reminder of the aspirations he held for the United States.

A Call for Unity and Strength

Kennedy’s speech begins with a clear articulation of America’s standing in the world: “We in this country, in this generation, are—by destiny rather than choice—the watchmen on the walls of world freedom.”  The opening sets the tone for his entire address, emphasising America’s pivotal role in safeguarding democracy globally. Kennedy sought to remind his audience of their shared responsibility, not just as Americans, but as stewards of freedom and democracy.

He was keenly aware of the political and social divisions within the United States and abroad. In his speech, he intended to bridge these divides by focusing on common values and goals. Kennedy’s rhetoric aimed to galvanize his listeners in a unified effort to face the challenges of the Cold War era.

Economic Growth and Social Responsibility

Kennedy’s vision was about maintaining global leadership and fostering domestic prosperity.  Good leaders know the importance of recognising success and the power of pointing out specific achievements.  This speech highlighted the remarkable economic growth of the United States, “Our gross national product this year will be over $600 billion; the highest in the history of the world.” This was a prelude to his broader argument about the responsibilities that come with such prosperity.

Kennedy planned to address the importance of economic policy that benefitted all citizens, not just the affluent. He underscored the need for fiscal responsibility and efficient government spending, alongside the necessity for social programs that uplift the disadvantaged.

Leadership in Science and Education

Kennedy was to use this opportunity to advocate for advancements in science and education. As a consistent supporter of innovation Kennedy saw education as the bedrock of future success.  Seizing the moment and the context of this address he was to deliver this aspirational appeal:

“This link between leadership and learning is not only essential at the community level. It is even more indispensable in world affairs. Ignorance and misinformation can handicap the progress of a city or a company, but they can, if allowed to prevail in foreign policy, handicap this country’s security. In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem.”

His address was to serve as a call to action for investing in the intellectual and creative capacities of the nation.

I wonder how this message lands today, amongst the political dialogue that often descends to simplistic soundbites and polarising messages.

A Legacy in Words

Now, nearly 60 years on there are two passages in particular that resonate strongly in light of today’s political and global landscape.

“There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternatives, finding fault but never favor, perceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility. Those voices are inevitable.

…We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will “talk sense to the American people.” But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.”

and a final plea for peaceful engagement internationally;

“That strength will never be used in pursuit of aggressive ambitions – it will always be used in pursuit of peace. It will never be used to promote provocations – it will always be used to promote the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

Behind the Curtain – Rhetorical Techniques in Kennedy’s Speech

Anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. Repeating the phrase “We in this country” to emphasise collective responsibility and unity. This repetition reinforces the idea of shared duty and solidarity.

Allusion, references to historical events and figures to contectualise arguments. By mentioning the “highest in the history of the world” regarding the GNP, he alludes to a historical benchmark, thereby amplifying the significance of contemporary economic achievements.

Antithesis, juxtaposing contrasting ideas to highlight their differences and create a memorable impact. For example, “the time of the cold war” with “the time of the new peace,”.

Parallelism, the use of successive verbal constructions that correspond in grammatical structure, sound, meter, meaning, etc.  Evident in phrases like “our leadership in science and in industry, our educational system, and our democratic institutions.” This creates rhythm and makes his arguments more persuasive and impactful.

Farewell, Dallas

As it happens I have been working here in Dallas with group of senior leaders on their own communication skills and the impact they have as leaders.  I am struck by how many techniques evident in JFK’s final address were discussed in our workshop.  The more things change the more they stay the same.  What remains true today, as it was in 1963 is that the words of our leaders matter.

Would you like to know more about the techniques Kennedy used to inspire then please checkout Monicalunin.com

Postscript: Recognising the Speechwriter’s Contribution

Behind many great presidential speeches is a great speechwriter, and in the case of President Kennedy’s undelivered Dallas address, that individual was Ted Sorensen. Sorensen, Kennedy’s close advisor and primary speechwriter, played an instrumental role in shaping the eloquence and clarity of JFK’s public communications. His deep understanding of Kennedy’s vision and his exceptional skill with words helped craft speeches that continue to resonate through history. As we reflect on the undelivered speech, we also honor Sorensen’s invaluable contribution to articulating the ideals and aspirations of one of America’s most iconic leaders.