January 19, 2021

Great speeches and great news stories should open strong and include wide context, narrow detail, personalization, and an explosion of action and emotion deep into the story.

They open with a sentence or two that glue the speaker and listener together. A strong lead sets the conflict of the piece quickly. Speechwriters, like journalists, sweat the open.

Abraham Lincoln opened his second inaugural speech with:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first.

There was no reason to celebrate. The nation was at war and, as Lincoln said, there was no telling how it would turn out. It was just the kind of cliffhanger opening you would expect in a news story.

John F. Kennedy opened with:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom — symbolizing an end as well as a beginning — signifying renewal as well as change.

Donald Trump followed a similar pattern at the open of his inaugural speech:

We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and to restore its promise for all of our people.

Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for years to come.

We will face challenges. We will confront hardships. But we will get the job done.

Trump also uttered a line that might be a throwaway in normal times. But it is noteworthy today:

Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent.

Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American people.

Barack Obama took much longer to get warmed up. His lead was what I sometimes describe in my journalism writing workshops as a “Fred Flintstone lead.” He ran in place for a while before he really took off. Obama’s opening was:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace.

Kennedy’s second sentence set the hook for not only his speech, but for his presidency. Communism was spreading and the atomic age was at hand. Kennedy’s hook line included a reference to God, poverty and the nuclear threat. He said:

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

The third paragraph of great inaugural addresses is what the nut graf is to journalistic writing. It summarizes the story, lays out the challenges and conflicts and offers a promise that the rest of the speech will explore issues worth hearing. Poynter’s Chip Scanlan once wrote:

The nut graf has several purposes:

  • It justifies the story by telling readers why they should care.
  • It provides a transition from the lead and explains the lead and its connection to the rest of the story.
  • It often tells readers why the story is timely.
  • It often includes supporting material that helps readers see why the story is important.

Read Lincoln’s stirring nut graf laying out the nation’s conflict in clear terms:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered.

Kennedy’s nut graf was:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge — and more.

Obama’s third and fourth paragraphs:

Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Trump’s inaugural speech, in retrospect, was a prediction of a theme he would repeat for four years:

This is your day. This is your celebration.

And this, the United States of America, is your country.

And for such a partisan, he didn’t sound like party politics mattered much on this day:

What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.

Jan. 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.

The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

Everyone is listening to you now.

Great speeches, like great journalistic writing, find a rhythm. Often, writers find that the “rule of three” is an easy style to read or hear. Look at this sentence from Obama’s nut graf:

Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered.

The line uses three examples: homes, jobs and businesses. Then he hits the rhythm again, establishing a cadence:

Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

There it is again, three examples: health care, schools, energy.

Kennedy, perhaps in an attempt to stress the urgency of the moment, often used more than three examples to make his point. In fact, he uses five examples, and then backs that cadence up with five more. I will number the points:

… Born in this century (1), tempered by war (2), disciplined by a hard and bitter peace (3), proud of our ancient heritage (4) and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed (5) …

Followed by this parallel paragraph:

… that we shall pay any price (1), bear any burden (2), meet any hardship (3), support any friend (3), oppose any foe (4) to assure the survival and the success of liberty (5).

Obama’s speech did what great storytellers often do. His speech included wide, nameless abstractions and close-up micro-details. Some of his “wide shots” included:

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.

Here are the most memorable close-ups that Obama gave the audience:

… Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life.

Raw hands are the close-up image.

… This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

The close-up is one father and one son.

In storytelling and in speeches, there comes a time to make the big point. Preachers call it the altar call, Disney sets the animators loose, Rocky Balboa is on the ropes and has seconds to make the comeback. The big explosion of action is usually best when it comes no higher than two-thirds of the way into the speech or story. Any higher and the story will run out of gas when the explosion is over.

Kennedy’s inauguration speech placed the explosion three paragraphs from the end. But the explosion is so big, so memorable, that I challenge you to tell the closing line of the speech. Take a look:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.

Notice how Kennedy uses parallels in the first two of these three closing sentences. As presumptuous as it is for me to edit a speech for the ages, I would have moved the last paragraph up and closed with the line “… do for the freedom of man.” It is shorter, punchier and hangs in your ear. But an argument could be made that the “go forth” line calls for this sentence to be last. It is, in effect, a benediction.

Lincoln knew how to close:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Obama went for a similar theme in the face of a deep recession and a mortgage crisis:

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Trump warned other countries that he would “put America first.” He said that he would protect the U.S. in trade deals and immigration and he emphasized the word “loyalty,” a theme we would hear in Trump’s interactions with appointees and cabinet members. He closed his speech by linking to his campaign theme.

Together, we will make America strong again.

We will make America wealthy again.

We will make America proud again.

We will make America safe again.

And, yes, together, we will make America great again.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

To learn more, and practice your writing skills, check out this site that collects great speeches. Take a look at those speeches and then consider some questions I came up with for you:

  • Imagine that you have been assigned to cover Joe Biden’s inaugural — or one of the speeches linked from the “Great Speeches” site. What is your lead and what is your headline? What interactives could you use online?
  • What part of your story will you write using quotes and what goes in narrative copy? For TV and radio, what are the soundbites and what is voice-over copy? Generally, emotions and opinions make the best quotes and bites.
  • Can you find examples of parallel sentence structures?
  • Does the writer use rules of three?
  • How does the writer set the conflict high in the speech? Can you move it higher through editing?
  • Where does the explosion of action occur? Is it properly placed?
  • Does the speech keep its energy right to the end?
  • Does the ending resolve the conflict raised at the top?
  • Is there a nut graf and does it accurately reflect and foreshadow the rest of the speech?
  • How does the writer use context to show you the big picture and close-up detail to get personal?

I find the more I examine great writing line by line, the more I appreciate what makes great works so great. Having written this piece for you, I now have an even keener appreciation for Lincoln’s ability to write tight, Kennedy’s ability to energize the people and Obama’s knack for unifying a disparate audience.

(A version of this article was originally published by Poynter in 2009.)

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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