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Why Some Speeches Just Float Away on the Air and Others Stick in Our Minds

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: from an interview on C-SPAN television, political pollster and strategist Frank Luntz talks about his book "Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear."

RS: At one point, Washington Times columnist John McCaslin asked him about some historic sayings, including what President John F. Kennedy said:

JOHN F. KENNEDY: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."

FRANK LUNTZ: "If a student in eleventh grade wrote that sentence, they would probably get a D from their English teacher. 'Don't ask what your country can do for you' would have been the more proper way. The greatest speeches have those twists on English and they break the laws of English, and that's why they stick in our minds. 'Don't ask what our country can do for you' doesn't sound nearly as powerful as 'ask not,' and the way that the president delivered it, his emphasis on the word 'ask not,' with a pause, that's why we remember it."

JOHN McCASLIN: "Number two, 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.'"

FRANK LUNTZ: "Again, it breaks the rules of English. You don't use the same word that close in the sentence. We shouldn't fear fear, but the longer that he spread it out, and at the time that F.D.R. [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] communicated that -- "

JOHN McCASLIN: "The country was fearful."

FRANK LUNTZ: " -- and the way that F.D.R. spoke was perfect for radio. Less than ten percent of Americans knew he had polio, because this is before television, and even when you saw [him] in the newsreels, you never saw him on crutches. His voice was booming and deep with a slight New York accent. And he had a great sense of humor, and he was the first president on radio to use the pregnant pause. He'd say something ... And that silence is as powerful as the words itself."

JOHN McCASLIN: "Do you think there was somebody behind the scenes teaching him that, did they have a Frank Luntz in those days?"

FRANK LUNTZ: "They may have. His adviser James Farley was very astute politically and he had a very smart team around him, but F.D.R. was a natural. It's like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. [Here are three presidents] who had great gut instincts when it came to communication."

JOHN McCASLIN: "No doubt. 'Some men see things as they are and ask why' ... "

FRANK LUNTZ: "'I dream of things that never were and ask why not.' The ending of every Robert F. Kennedy speech. In fact, whenever he would hit that ending, the reporters knew, speech is over, get on the bus so you're not left behind. That was not created by Bobby Kennedy. Those words come from George Bernard Shaw and they are my favorite words in politics. It says something so beautiful: don't give me excuses, just get it done.

"Now Bobby Kennedy said it so much better, but it's how Americans feel right now. We really want politicians to get it done. Those three words -- get it done, or gets things done -- are the most powerful words in the English language right now for an elected representative. If that individual can prove that he or she gets things done, they get re-elected. And, in fact, for political people watching, I'm amazed at how many of them don't ask the question in their surveys for incumbents: Can you name one thing that the incumbent senator, congressman, city councilman, whatever, can you name one accomplishment that the elected official has done since they were elected to office? Here's a rule of thumb, if less than forty percent of your electorate can name something, you get defeated."

JOHN McCASLIN: "Last but not least, 'I have a dream.'"

FRANK LUNTZ: "The powerful thing about that was not just the setting. It was also the fact that the cadence changed. It began with 'I have a dream that my kids,' 'I have a dream that.' As he went through the cadence, the 'I have a dream' wasn't at the beginning, it became at the end, 'that someday my children will grow up where they are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream' -- pause.

"That's what made that so memorable, that the cadence began and then it switched and the first words became the last words. Martin Luther King Junior was brilliant, he was a courageous individual, but he was a brilliant communicator, because he could see the reaction of the people not just in the front row but in the very back row.

"And I'm always trying to teach politicians, don't look at the people in the first two or three rows. The people in the very back, who got there late, who really don't care much about you, and are so disengaged, can they hear you, can they see you, can they feel you? One of the things I try to tell the people I work for is get away from the podiums. The best communicators are ones that don't stand there."

RS: Courtesy of C-SPAN, that was political adviser Frank Luntz, author of "Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear." For a link to the full program, go to our Web site,

AA: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Our e-mail address is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.