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We Choose to Go to the Moon

The 4 step process that President Kennedy used to change a nation through speeches.

President Kennedy once remarked:"The only reason to make a speech is to change the world". Rather than presenting a daunting ambition, this remark should be an inpiration to us all when making a speech. Because of course, the subtext to his remark was a firm belief that speeches do change your world. They can be a source of enormous personal influence.

And the proof of this lies with President Kennedy himself. He changed the world through speeches. An example: the way he used speeches to change the hearts of minds of America to support his moon landing program. At that time it was far from a popular challenge in the mind of the people or the scientific community. But Kennedy changes all that.

His famous speech at Rice University in which he made that remark "We choose to go to the Moon" is the most well known, but in fact Kennedy made numerous speeches on the subject, all deliberately aimed at changing opinion. In fact he made numerous comments on the subject over a period of a year or more. They serve as a master class for any leader or CEO in how to use speeches to change hearts and minds. In fact a recent article in Forbes magazine, reviews research by Wharton Professor, Andrew Carton, of thousands of pages of documents which breaks down the secret to Kennedy's persuasion into four golden rules:

1. Focus on one clear specific goal.

In 1961, NASA's mission was broad and without a target. Kennedy changed this by creating a clear and ambitious goal. "Our aim is to develop a new frontier in science." he said. That frontier was a moon landing and all that came with it.

2. Give actual objectives.

In a speech to Congress in 1961, Kennedy committed the moon landing to a specific time frame: "before this decade is out". A date helps create action, milestones: the first steps.

3. Celebrate those milestones.

Create the milestones and then make sure that your speeches celebrate those milestones loud and clear so that everyone can share in the progress. It becomes real, a source of pride. An achievement to be shared by those far beyond its actual achieving. Kennedy made speeches about the Mercury and Gemini programs that led to Apollo. Success was a journey started and mapped; it seemed inevitable.

4. Use language to make the dream come to life.

At this point, the speech craft comes in. Kennedy was a master of rhetoric. Think of his inauguration and those wonderful lines starting "Ask not..." Kennedy used language to convince. In the speech at Rice University he said in a lyrical passage:

"But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? [Kennedy wrote this line in the speech at the last minute. He knew it would fire up the crowd of 40,000 people]. 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."

Notice his allusion to Everest and trans-Atlantic flight. He places a landing on the moon as part of man's progress. He gives inevitability of success by placing a moon landing alongside historic shifts already made. It appears as natural progress; part of mans destiny almost. He ends the speech making a reference to: “set sail” on the most “hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure.” Again reinforcing through the reference to sailing a sense of history, creating idea that this was part of our common heritage; what man was made for.

So your speeches can change your world. There are examples, there is a path, but the language also matters!

Check out President Kennedy's speech at Rice University here.

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