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Speechwriting lessons from FDR

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941

On this day in 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in the first direct attack on the United States by an Axis power. The following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his “date which will live in infamy” speech.

Roosevelt had been delivering fireside chats via radio since 1933. His voice was well known to American citizens. And yet his December 8, 1941, speech is his most memorable.

Why? For starters, the stakes were high. After years of steering clear of the conflict overseas, the United States could no longer stand by. Roosevelt was urging Congress to declare war on Japan and seeking people’s support for U.S. participation in World War II.

Additionally, he used vivid language and rhetorical devices to help people understand what was at stake. Without people’s understanding, he risked losing their trust and cooperation.

These are a few of the devices that helped make his words so memorable.


Anaphora is parallel construction for dramatic effect.

“Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night, Japanese forces attached Guam. Last night . . . .”


Dysphemism describes the use of a negative term instead of a positive or neutral one.

“ … will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.”

“ … the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan … “


In rhetoric, pathos refers to an appeal to people’s emotions.

“Always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.”

In his fireside chats, Roosevelt used plain language and recognizable analogies. The December 8 speech isn’t dramatically different. Rather, it represents a heightened version of his typical speeches, with language that reflects the urgency of that moment in history. It’s worth noting, however, that memorable speechcraft often departs from best practices for written content in service of capturing people’s attention and imaginations.

Consummate Prose offers expertise in speechwriting, whether you’re preparing a toast, a pitch, or a keynote. Contact us today to learn how we can help prepare your leadership for virtual and in-person speaking engagements.

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