Friday, March 2, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Jackie Kennedy's 1962 televised tour of the White House

(Editor's note: It's Women's History Month, so this month, all of our Famous Speech Fridays will look back to historic famous speeches by women.) Fifty years ago on Valentine's Day 1962, major U.S. television networks aired an unprecedented public speaking tour de force by a woman, when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy led a televised tour of the White House and its just-completed $2 million renovations. Her audience: 56 million Americans viewing at home, making it the most-watched television program ever, at the time. Her script: Nonexistent. Advance rehearsal time with the cameras and reporter's question: Only on the day of taping, when "we would go to a room and sort of talk it over, and she would tell us what she wanted to do, and then we'd just — we'd shoot it, and then the next room," according to the CBS producer in charge of the production, interviewed recently by On The Media. She was 32 years old.

Kennedy, who shot the entire tour in one day from 11am to 7pm with the CBS crew a month ahead of its airing, belied some signs of nervousness, according to the producers, who noted her speaking voice was different than usual:
There's nothing more than cues for her to speak, "And now, Mrs. Kennedy, can we go to the next room" and that sort of thing....she was not a professional. Her voice was a little constricted....It was not her normal speaking voice. But that's where the tension was shown, but not that much....It was astonishing, how much she knew.
She might well have been nervous, since she'd originally thought she'd write a coffee-table book about the renovations and leave it at that. But President Kennedy, convinced of the power of television, encouraged her to do it as a TV show--one that outstripped his own ratings, as it turned out. She later won an Emmy for the program. Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Preparation lets you take the ball and run with it: This tour--an hour on television in its finished form, but an eight-hour tour in reality--couldn't have happened without all the time Kennedy spent with the curators and renovation committee, learning about the provenance of individual pieces of furniture, or which Presidents had made which changes to the house. No teleprompter, no cue cards, no handwritten notes were used here, because she already knew her subject well. If that's not a case for knowing your topic before you speak, I don't know what is.
  • Pauses and silences can keep you on track: The clip below is full of pauses and silences on Kennedy's part. She does the right thing when she answers questions by pausing, answering and stopping--that lets the interviewer get a word in edgewise, but also ensures that she doesn't go rambling on too long. And for a nervous speaker, pauses help you to collect your thoughts and your emotions before you continue, a smart speaking strategy.
  • Tours are a speaker's test: Leading a tour may be one of the most challenging extemporaneous speaking opportunities you'll ever have. You need to know your subject, be ready for questions to pop up out of sequence with what you're showing, keep the tour moving, and remember your details to make the tour more than a dry recitation of facts. Here, Kennedy's enthusiasm for the project shines through as she describes the sad state of some artifacts or the stories behind others, a reminder that your listeners can't be interested in a tour if the guide herself is bored by it.
Today, this type of program is more dynamic, in color, faster-paced....and more routine. But this tour, unprecedented as it was, set the tone for what was to come. I've posted a short excerpt below that includes some of the good examples noted here. What do you think of this famous speech?

Looking for famous speeches by women? Check out The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's Speeches, with a wide variety of women speakers, types of speeches and topics to inspire your next speech. Each one comes with lessons for speakers, plus video or audio and a transcript, where available.

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