Storytelling Tips from JFK: Make the Abstract Meaningful

President Kennedy’s iconic “we choose to go to the moon” speech, which I watched the other day near the anniversary of his death, offers important storytelling tips for anyone trying to explain complex ideas to a general audience.

Watch the video (or read the speech here), and see how Kennedy uses analogy to put abstract concepts—big numbers, in this case—into a context that everyday people can understand. (Or you can just read the examples I excerpted below the embed.)

Compressing Time to Show Scale

Recognizing that “no man can fully grasp how far and fast we’ve come,” Kennedy condenses 50,000 years of recorded human history into half a century:

Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only 5 years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than 2 years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than 2 months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.

Giving Meaning to the Concept of Power

Horsepower is another abstract term to most people. But Kennedy put the power of a booster rocket in terms non-gearheads can understand:

We have felt the ground shake and the air shattered by the testing of a Saturn C-1 booster rocket, many times as powerful as the Atlas which launched John Glenn, generating power equivalent to 10,000 automobiles with their accelerators on the floor.

Sizing up the Long and Short of Things

Here he helps us appreciate the true dimensions of the space program by applying measures of height, length and width in a way most of us can relate to:

… assembled in a new building to be built at Cape Canaveral as tall as a 48-story structure, as wide as a city block, and as long as two lengths of this [football] field.

Turning Dollars into Sense

Finally, he brings the notion of millions of dollars down to earth, comparing the space budget to other expenditures and breaking it down to a per capita basis:

 [The space] budget now stands at $5.4 billion a year—a staggering sum, though somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. Space expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in the United States.

How Can You Put These Principles to Work?

Think about the ways you can apply this in your own communication and storytelling.

For instance, you could tell me that Brazil loses 32 million acres of rainforest every year, but who knows how much one acre is, let alone 32 million?

But tell me that’s an area the size of Louisiana and I start to get the picture.

And you could tell me that Lake Superior is really, really big and holds lots of water—3 quadrillion gallons, in fact. But tell me that that’s enough water to cover all of North and South America a foot deep and you’ve got my attention.

Better yet, show me pictures along with your words—then it really sinks in.

Storytelling Tips

It’s all about putting your ideas into a form that’s human-scaled and easy to relate to. It’s not, as they say, rocket science.


Photo via Wikimedia Commons