The keys to a great inaugural address  

By Greg Dardis / Guest Column

It’s no coincidence that the first charge of a new president, right after being sworn in, is to give a speech. That remains the best way to commence an administration – to set the tone, articulate its goals and to rally a nation.

John F. Kennedy’s inauguration address launched his presidency into a stratosphere of public approval from which it never fell. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he famously said. “Ask what you can do for your country.”

Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, given during the final days of the Civil War, closed with a signature line: “With malice toward none, with charity for all…let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”

And Franklin Roosevelt rose to the occasion in his first inaugural address, delivered amid the grips of the Great Depression, when he proclaimed, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

These speeches are often compared by length, with the shortest being George Washington’s second address, a mere 135 words; Abraham Lincoln’s second address at 700 words; and Theodore Roosevelt’s at 984 words. Good company to be in, no doubt. JFK recognized the correlation between brevity and impact, asking his speechwriter to make his address short like “T.R.”

The longest inaugural address logged in at 8,460 words – nearly two hours – and had fatal consequences. William Harrison was 68 when he was sworn in as our ninth president in 1841. Determined to prove his youthful vigor, he refused to wear a coat or hat when giving his speech, despite the wet, freezing weather. He contracted pneumonia and died 31 days later.

James Garfield set out to read every inaugural address when he was elected in 1880 but confided in his diary that most were “dreary reading.” He added, “I have half a mind to make none.”

Three days before his inauguration, Mr. Garfield scrapped his first draft and started anew. He didn’t finish his speech until 2:30 a.m., just hours before he became president.

Now all eyes turn to Donald Trump, who will deliver his inauguration address this week, temporarily silencing the cacophony of speculation that has buzzed ever since his November victory.

To succeed, the president-elect must accomplish the fundamental goal of every public speech – to effectively share a vision. Whether that vision is for a nation, a company or a department, a first quarter or a new project, it must be clear and compelling.

Outline how you plan to get there. The roadmap we provide our clients teaches them to build their case by presenting evidence – analogies, examples, facts and personal experiences.

Alternately affirm and challenge: You believe in your audience and you’re calling them to do their very best. You think they can do better than they’ve done before.

Craft this message with brevity and simplicity of language. Heed the advice in Strunk and White’s 1959 bestseller “Elements Of Style”: “Omit needless words.” George Orwell passed on the same instruction in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” advising, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”

Of course, a public speaker who has captured these essentials in content will only excel when the delivery is right on. This depends on the right pacing and inflection, which our clients practice on video. It’s also where non-visuals come into play: your stance, eye contact, hands and facial expressions. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it – how you appear to feel and how you make your audience feel.

Tune in Jan. 20 to watch for these core concepts, and employ them personally the next time you’re behind a podium.

Greg Dardis is the CEO of Dardis Communications, based in Coralville. For more information, visit