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01 Feb 2017

3 Public Speaking Lessons From the Most Famous Inaugural Addresses

While all presidential speeches bear a good deal of significance (and some are even funny), none are more symbolic, iconic, and heavily scrutinized than the inaugural address.

In addition to setting the the tone and expectations for the next four years in U.S. history, the speech must rouse and inspire the American people–and (hopefully) assuage the concerns of whichever half of the country ended up on the losing side of the previous year’s election.

With expectations sky-high, many of our past presidents have delivered their most memorable addresses at their inaugurations. Just about every American can quote the most famous line from John F. Kennedy’s 1961 address: “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”

Of course, we can’t all expect to give a speech like JFK without a little help. So let’s look to the rhetorical strategies that past presidents incorporated into their inaugural addresses to up deliver a great speech or presentation.

1. The Rule of Three

For proof that the “rule of three” is a real thing, check out Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural address, in which the nation’s first black president leaned heavily on this oratorical trick to produce some highly memorable lines.

In reference to the task before him, Obama stated, “We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” Reflecting on the current state of the country, he remarked, “Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered.”

What’s the point of choosing not one, not two, not seven, but three points? It allows a speaker to express concepts concretely, emphasize the most crucial takeaways, and increase memorability.

If you were paying attention, you probably noticed I just employed the rule of three myself. This device pops up everywhere, from movie titles (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) to iconic phrases from old masters (“Veni, vidi, vici”) to comedy routines (A rabbi, a priest, and Ken Sterling walk into a bar…).

Don’t ask me why, it just works.

2. Forms of Repetition

Believe it or not, epanalepsis, epimone, and epiphora aren’t the names of classic muses or exotic diseases.

They’re actually examples of the 11 classifiable types of repetition. Appearing in speeches and literature, repetition can be used to stress primary points in a more engaging, stylistically appealing way than any other device.

Given its versatility and ability to make even simple sentences resonate, repetition is a common tactic past presidents have relied on to add a dash of symbolism and meaning to their inaugural addresses.

For example, there’s “conduplicatio,” a complicated name for a simple idea: the repetition of a keyword from one phrase in another.

To return to JFK’s inaugural address, the young president recited lines such as, “To convert our good words into good deeds in a new alliance for progress, to assist free men and free governments.”

There’s also “anaphora,” the repetition of words and clauses at the start of a sentence. In his 2009 address, Obama turned to anaphora to emphasize how much progress he expected to achieve over the course of his term: “All this we can do. And all this we will do.”

Your use of repetition also doesn’t have to be so blunt — nor must it be classified with a fancy name. To drive home his overarching message of equality and unity, Obama used the inclusive pronouns “we,” “our,” and “us” popped up in Obama’s 2013 inaugural address about every six seconds, for a total of 175 times.

3. Catchphrases

JFK isn’t the only president whose legacy will be forever pegged to an eminently quotable line from an inaugural address.

In fact, there are some presidential quotes that have become a part of America’s DNA.

Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s iconic phrase, uttered on the cusp of WWII in 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Or, when Ronald Reagan defined his presidency in 1981 with the statement, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Hot on the heels of two Republican presidents, Bill Clinton summed up his theme of renewal when he told the country in 1993, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

These iconic phrases were uttered at moments of great peril and change for the country, and helped define an era moving forward.

Judging by the impact of these short, simple sentences, it’s impossible to deny the awesome power of language and rhetoric to shape an unforgettable speech.

These iconic phrases were uttered at moments of great peril and change for the country, and helped define an era moving forward. Judging by the impact of these short, simple sentences, it’s impossible to deny the awesome power of language and rhetoric to shape an unforgettable speech.

So when you sit down to watch the inaugural address on Friday, keep these examples of well-crafted, deliberate, and strategic inaugural addresses in your mind–you might just learn something about public speaking and politics at the same time.


This article originally appeared on the BigSpeak blog. To book a keynote speaker for your next conference or event contact Kyle Munger at KyleM@BigSpeak.com or call 805.965.1400