What JFK has to teach about persuasion

In 1962, a man stood on a football field in Texas. The autumn heat slicked his face with sweat. 35,000 people sat in stands around him. Watching. Listening.

Decades before PowerPoint, TED talks, focus groups, quick-response surveys, and real-time message testing, he gave a long, 18-minute speech in a thick New England accent.

He spoke about science.

He evoked man’s technological progress, drawing an arc of history spanning 50,000 years.

And then he pointed to where Americans must go next: the Moon.

The Lesson

61 years later, it gives me chills.

What can we learn from it?

Why does listening to President John F. Kennedy — regardless of your country or politics—sound so different from leaders of today?

twitter profile avatar
Benjamin Carlson
Twitter Logo
Twitter Logo
February 3rd 2023

I have written speeches for major events.

This is a beautifully crafted one.

Here's what it teaches

First, why this is important:

All of us who live mostly online are engaged in daily persuasion.

You use words to convince friends.


Even critics.

And you are constantly being bombarded with efforts to persuade.

Many assume their natural (casual) communication style works in any medium.

Generally, it doesn’t.

What looks "normal" on any given medium — TV news, Twitter, a podcast — looks odd up close.

To translate to a large audience, complex information must be compressed and amplified.

This is why people on screen wear makeup.

twitter profile avatar
Benjamin Carlson
Twitter Logo
Twitter Logo
February 4th 2023

On TV, you amp up your energy.

On podcasts, you modulate your voice.

In writing, you cut.

So: why does JFK’s speech work? (Watch the whole speech or read the full transcript here and let me know what you think.)

  1. Unifying language. He doesn’t choose to go to the Moon. WE choose.
  2. Connects the micro and the macro. While painting a planetary vision, JFK brings it regularly back to this audience, this moment in Texas.
  3. Gentle humor. You might miss it: this speech is funny. Note that he compares Rice (a small school) playing against the University of Texas (a giant football powerhouse) to going to the Moon.
  4. Authenticity. His energy, gestures, and tone match the urgency of his message. You feel he wants this. Stubbornly. Powerfully. He is not telling us to do it, or begging us. He is showing us why the Moon is the greatest aim we all could share.
  5. Stirs noble, powerful emotions. Listening to this speech, you feel uplifted. Proud. You belong to a species that does not merely dream of the impossible, but does it.

Of course, JFK's magnetism is palpable.

But remember: He was a sickly man.

What we're seeing here is not merely a gift.

It's a virtuoso playing upon the instrument of himself.

What I'm Enjoying

Finally read The Whig Interpretation of History by Herbert Butterfield.

A classic on how we err by reading our present biases into the past.

It's excellent.

Bonus: This thread has good advice on how to spot bad news on a balance sheet as an investor.

twitter profile avatar
Joey de Wit
Twitter Logo
January 26th 2023

What I'm Working On

Last week, the executives I am coaching went through Module 4 of the Executive Media Mastery program.

We talked about how to get the attention of media in your niche — ethically and authentically.

There’s more demand than ever for voices with expertise and authority.

It’s just a matter of knowing how to package and position yourself to be found.

Once this round is finished, I’m excited to get started with the next cohort.

I'm grateful to see lots of interest so far. If haven't indicated interest yet and want to be the waitlist, please let me know now.

Question of the Week

What's the most impressive speech you've ever heard?

Reply with any thoughts, questions, corrections, or just to say hello.

Thanks. Until the next time,


PS - Have a friend who might be interested in this newsletter? Please forward it along. I'm grateful for everyone who subscribes.

Other ways to work with me

On a selective basis, I have helped executives, entrepreneurs, and professionals to find the most powerful way to tell their stories. Whether it's a podcast appearance, TED talk, or published article leading to a book, I have experience helping others. If you have a need, reply to this email and we can discuss the application process.

Benjamin Carlson

I'm a communications exec and a former editor at The Atlantic and foreign correspondent. Subscribe for lessons from my 15 years in media and PR

Read more from Benjamin Carlson

The Carlson Letter Castor and Pollution, Max Ernst, 1923 Do you like your online self? Do you know your online self? Whether you like it or not, one of the first things a new acquaintance will do is Google you. What do they see? If you’re like many of us, they may see a series of results offering to sell your address, phone number, and possible family affiliations. Then they may see a Facebook page (yours, or maybe a namesake’s), your old work headshot, your LinkedIn profile. If you have a...

The Carlson Letter: On Trust In 1996, toward the end of his struggle with a terminal case of blood cancer, astronomer and public educator Carl Sagan sat down with interviewer Charlie Rose to discuss his book, The Demon Haunted World. In one arresting moment, Sagan — a famous and outspoken skeptic of superstition—made a surprising and moving admission. More than a decade after his beloved parents had died, Sagan said, he still occasionally heard their voices calling in his ear. “Carl!” As he...

painting of man

4: On Anger Hello again, This week's idea is on anger. The Problem Most people don’t know how to get attention for their ideas. They’re subtle. They’re quiet and subdued. Then there are those who do know how to get attention. In fact, they know too well. You’ve probably already guessed how they do it. It’s a strategy that works… ARKANGEL @itsarkangel kanye west in a white lives matter shirt pic.twitter.com/GxfwsDYVDD October 3rd 2022 121 Retweets 1,173 Likes They make people mad. It’s a fact...