Speech is an essential element of language, one that we all employ in our daily lives. What about a speech?

 

A speech is a formal address, delivered to an audience, that seeks to convince, persuade, inspire or inform. From historic moments to the present day, the English language has given us some extraordinary examples of the spoken word. A powerful tool in the right – or wrong – hands, spoken English can, and has, changed the world.

We’ve chosen ten of the most famous speeches in English. They range from celebrated, world-changing pieces of rhetoric to our personal favourites, but most importantly they still rouse our emotions when we hear them today. We’ve examined each for the tricks of the oratory trade. After each speech you’ll find some bullet points outlining its most distinctive rhetorical features, and why a speech writer would include them.

Remember these celebrated rhetoricians the next time you have to give a speech in public – be this at a wedding, award ceremony or business conference.

Scroll down to the end of this post for our essential tips on crafting speeches.

Don’t be afraid of giving speeches in English!

 

 

1. Martin Luther King I Have a Dream 1963


We couldn’t have an article about speeches without mentioning this one. Incredibly famous and iconic, Martin Luther King changed the character of speech making.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification – one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

 

What makes this a great speech?

- Abstract nouns like “dream” are incredibly emotional. Our dreams are an intimate part of our subconscious and express our strongest desires. Dreams belong to the realm of fantasy; of unworldly, soaring experiences. King’s repetition of the simple sentence “I have a dream” evokes a picture in our minds of a world where complete equality and freedom exist.

- It fuses simplicity of language with sincerity: something that all persuasive speeches seek to do!

- Use of tenses: King uses the future tense (“will be able”, “shall be”, “will be made””), which gives his a dream certainty and makes it seem immediate and real.

- Thanks to its highly biblical rhetoric, King’s speech reads like a sermon. The last paragraph we’ve quoted here is packed with biblical language and imagery.

 

2. King George VI Radio Address 1939

This speech was brought back to life recently thanks to the film, The King’s Speech (2010). While George VI will never go down in history as one of the world’s gifted orators, his speech will certainly be remembered.

In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.

For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war.

Over and over again, we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies, but it has been in vain.

 

What makes this a great speech?

- At only 404 words long, the speech is impressively economical with language. Its short length means that every word is significant, and commands its audiences’ attention.

- This is a great example of how speechwriters use superlatives. George VI says that this moment is “the most fateful in history”. Nothing gets peoples’ attention like saying this is the “most important” or “best”.

- “We”, “us” and “I”: This is an extremely personal speech. George VI is using the first person, “I”, to reach out to each person listening to the speech. He also talks in the third person: “we are at war”, to unite British people against the common enemy: “them”, or Germany.

 

3. Winston Churchill We shall fight on the beaches 1940


Churchill is an icon of great speech making. All his life Churchill struggled with a stutter that caused him difficulty pronouncing the letter “s”. Nevertheless, with pronunciation and rehearsal he became one of the most famous orators in history.

…we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

 

What makes it a powerful speech?

- Structural repetition of the simple phrase “we shall…”

- Active verbs like “defend” and “fight” are extremely motivational, rousing Churchill’s audience’s spirits.

- Very long sentences build the tension of the speech up to its climax “the rescue and the liberation of the old”, sweeping listeners along. A similar thing happens in musical pieces: the composition weaves a crescendo, which often induces emotion in its audience.

 

4. Elizabeth I Speech to the Troops 1588

The “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth I, made this speech at a pivotal moment in English history. It is a remarkable speech in extraordinary circumstances: made by a woman, it deals with issues of gender, sovereignty and nationality.

elizabeth-at-tilbury

I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

 

What makes this a great speech?

- Elizabeth puts aside differences in social status and says she will “live and die amongst (her troops)”. This gives her speech a very inclusive message.

- She uses antithesis, or contrasting ideas. To offset the problem of her femininity – of being a “weak and feeble woman” – she swiftly emphasises her masculine qualities: that she has the “heart and stomach of a king”.

- Elizabeth takes on the role of a protector: there is much repetition of the pronoun “I”, and “I myself” to show how active she will be during the battle.

 

5. Chief Joseph Surrender Speech 1877

We’ve included this speech because there is something extremely raw and humbling about Chief Joseph’s surrender. Combining vulnerability with pride, this is an unusual speech and deserves attention.

 

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

 

What makes this a good speech?

- This speech is a perfect example of a how a non-native speaker can make the English language their own. Chief Joesph’s rhetoric retains the feels and culture of a Native American Indian speaker, and is all the more moving for this.

- Simple, short sentences.

- Declarative sentences such as “I know his heart” and “It is cold” present a listener with hard facts that are difficult to argue against.

 

6. Emmeline Pankhurst Freedom or Death 1913

Traditionally silent, women tend to have been left out of rhetoric. All that changed, however, with the advent of feminism. In her struggle for the vote, Pankhurst and her fellow protesters were compelled to find a voice.

You have left it to women in your land, the men of all civilised countries have left it to women, to work out their own salvation. That is the way in which we women of England are doing. Human life for us is sacred, but we say if any life is to be sacrificed it shall be ours; we won’t do it ourselves, but we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.

 

What makes this a great speech?

- Direct acknowledgement of her audience through use of the pronoun you.

- Pankhurst uses stark, irreconcilable contrasts to emphasise the suffragettes’ seriousness. Binary concepts like men/women, salvation/damnation, freedom/imprisonment and life/death play an important role in her speech.

 

7. John F. Kennedy The Decision to go the Moon 1961


Great moments require great speeches. The simplicity of Kennedy’s rhetoric preserves a sense of wonder at going beyond human capabilities, at this great event for science and technology.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

 

What makes this a great speech?

- Simple sentence structures: “We choose to go to the moon” = Subject + Verb + Complement. The grammatical simplicity of the sentence allows an audience to reflect on important concepts, i.e. choice. Repetition emphasises this.

- Kennedy uses demonstrative (or pointing) pronouns e.g. “this decade”, “that goal” to create a sense of urgency; to convey how close to success the US is.

 

8. Shakespeare The Tempest Act 3 Scene 2 c.1610

Of course, any list of great speeches would be incomplete without a mention of the master of rhetoric, the Bard himself.  If you caught the London Olympic Opening Ceremony you would have noticed that Kenneth Branagh delivered Caliban’s speech, from The Tempest.

 Miranda_-_The_Tempest_JWW

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again.

 

 

What makes this a great speech?

- It expresses a wonder and uncertainty of the world, and an inability to comprehend its mystery.

- It is highly alliterative, a rhetorical trick that makes speech memorable and powerful.

- Shakespeare uses onomatopoeia (e.g. “twangling”, “hum”: words whose sound is like they are describing) to make Caliban’s speech evocative.

 

9.  Shakespeare Henry V Act 3 Scene 1, 1598

One of rhetoric’s most primal functions is to transform terrified men into bloodthirsty soldiers. “Once more unto the breach” is a speech that does just that. It is a perfect example of how poetry is an inextricable element of rhetoric.

yeames

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;

Or close the wall up with our English dead.

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility:

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage

 

What makes this such a great rousing battle speech?

-Shakespeare uses some fantastic imagery in King Henry’s speech. His “dear friends”, or soldiers, are tigers, commanded to block their enemies’ way with their dead comrades. This appeals to ideals of masculinity that men should be fierce and strong.

-Orders and imperative verbs give the speaker authority.

- Repetition of key phrases and units of sound: the vowel sounds in the repeated phrase “once more” are echoed by the words “or” and “our”. This makes it an extraordinarily powerful piece of rhetoric to hear spoken.

 

10. William Lyon Phelps The Pleasure of Books 1933

This speech was read a year before Nazis began their systematic destruction of books that didn’t match Nazi ideals. As major advocates of books at English Trackers, we’re naturally inclined to love speeches about their importance.

A borrowed book is like a guest in the house; it must be treated with punctiliousness, with a certain considerate formality. You must see that it sustains no damage; it must not suffer while under your roof. You cannot leave it carelessly, you cannot mark it, you cannot turn down the pages, you cannot use it familiarly. And then, some day, although this is seldom done, you really ought to return it.

 

What makes this a great speech?

- Phelps personifies books in this speech; that is, he gives books human characteristics – like the capacity to “suffer”. Comparing a book to a guest creates novelty, which engages and holds the interest of a listener.

- This speech uses both modal verbs (“must”, “ought”) and prohibitions (“you cannot”) to demonstrate both proper and improper behaviour.

 

Some tips to bear in mind when writing a speech

- KISS: the golden rule of Keep It Short and Simple really does apply. Keep your sentences short, your grammar simple. Not only is this more powerful than long rambling prose, but you’re more likely hold your audience’s attention – and be able to actually remember what you’re trying to say!

- Rule of 3: another golden rule. The human brain responds magically to things that come in threes. Whether it’s a list of adjectives, a joke, or your main points, it’s most effective if you keep it to this structure.

- Imagery: Metaphors, similes and description will help an audience to understand you, and keep them entertained.

- Pronouns: Use “we” to create a sense of unity, “them” for a common enemy, “you” if you’re reaching out to your audience, and “I” / “me” if you want to take control.

- Poetry: Repetition, rhyme and alliteration are sound effects, used by poets and orators alike. They make a speech much more memorable. Remember to also structure pauses and parentheses into a speech. This will vary the flow of sound, helping you to hold your audience’s attention.

- Jokes: Humour is powerful. Use it to perk up a sleepy audience, as well as a rhetorical tool. Laughter is based on people having common, shared assumptions – and can therefore be used to persuade.

- Key words: “Every”, “improved”, “natural”, “pure”, “tested’ and “recommended” will, according to some surveys, press the right buttons and get a positive response from your listeners.

If you want to know more about the art of rhetoric, we strongly recommend You Talkin’ to Me? by Sam Leith.

There’s nothing like hearing a speech as it was meant to be. There are numerous audio CVs you can buy or download, but my personal favourite is Great Speeches In History, because each speech comes with a short, contextual introduction.

About the Author: This post comes to you from guest blogger, Natalie. Currently blogging, editing and based in London, Natalie previously worked with the English Trackers team.

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