When someone is about to make a speech, you’re either about to listen to the most boring fifteen minutes yet this week – or you’re about to bear witness to the one of the greatest things that ever graced your ears. Writing speeches is strenuous mental exercise. Already, images of a thousand people looking at you come to mind, along with this mounting pressure to inspire all of these people. It hits you even when you’re just starting to write the speech!
This is because speeches are meant to be captivating and memorable, not just to yourself but also to crowds of people listening keenly to every word you say. You definitely have to be careful when it comes to coming up with a speech. In this case, it’s best to learn from the greatest speeches in history. They serve as models of what a speech has to be, precisely because they are remembered until today. They define what a speech should be, these components of the greatest speeches in history. Let’s take a look at how they set the bar of what a speech should be.
Speaking the right ideas
The substance of the speech is the ideas contained within them. They are the messages that the speaker of the speech wishes to deliver to the audience. The speaker has to exercise caution on which ideas he wants to show to the audience, because the wrong ideas can either ruin his own credibility or lead the audience to do something bad.
It’s important to note here that writing a speech has a specific responsibility. One of the purposes of writing a speech is to inspire people to action. Writing a speech to send across wrong ideas, and the outcome will be horrible. The speech should always strive to convey moral ideas. Of course, this always has to go together with facts to make sure that the speaker is credible in his speech.
As an example, let’s take a look at one of the famous speeches of former US president John F. Kennedy about getting man to the moon. At the time, it seemed very ambitious. Time, resources, and manpower were very much of concern. Most importantly, there was still the competition with the Soviet Union (1917-1991), particularly what was called the “space race.” Kennedy faced an audience that was confused. The best course of action in his speech would be to clear that confusion with the right ideas.
First, Kennedy had to convince his audience, the American public, that sending man to the moon would be worth it. He addressed their concerns over the difficulty of such an endeavour; they’re doing it “not because it’s easy but because it’s hard” and because America strives to be the victor in every endeavor—drawing on America’s ideals and vigor in achieving what are thought to be impossible. He also addressed the concern with Soviet Union by inviting them to work together on this project, assuming a tone of confidence and camaraderie that put the minds of the Americans at rest, and mitigated what had already been palpable at the time – Cold War.
Had he otherwise said that Soviet Union was their competitor and they had to beat them, it might’ve resulted in further conflict with them – a horrible outcome.
You can say that his speech is basically a glorified sales pitch, but it’s one that got the American public to approve a project that became one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Such is the power of one of the greatest speeches in American history.
Another thing to point out is that a speech doesn’t need to have a lot of ideas in it. As the saying goes, “quality over quantity.” It’s more than enough to have just have a few ideas that are delivered and explained well. One of the most famous short speeches, the Gettysburg Address by former US president Abrahalm Lincoln, exemplifies this. In it, Lincoln did not simply acknowledge the fallen soldiers during the Civil War, but also expressed hope that the deaths would not be in vain and would usher in the nation’s rejuvenation.
Speaking the right words
Whereas ideas are the substance of the speech, words are its form. You can have the greatest ideas in the world, but it wouldn’t matter if you don’t have the right words to express them. Knowing how to write a speech entails mastery and understanding of both ideas and words.
Remember that with every idea in a speech, there should always be a fact or a set of facts that supports it, whenever it applies. Knowing how to write a speech involves not only persuasion, but a firm grasp of facts. Post too many facts, however, and the speech will become stale like a report. The audience themselves will be overwhelmed and won’t appreciate the speech as much. The writer of the speech may opt to lessen the facts mentioned, but he may also opt for a much more preferable approach.
The speech can still have ideas backed by a lot of facts, but they should be expressed in a way that is attention-grabbing. This is where wordplay comes into play. Instead of laying them out like bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation, the speaker can instead use techniques in rhetoric that will serve to maintain or even strengthen his speech.
Let’s look once again at John F. Kennedy’s speech. Majority of Kennedy’s speech was dedicated to providing a brief survey of achievements made by the United States and humanity as a whole. In other words, he said a lot of facts which, on paper, should’ve made the speech stale.
What Kennedy did, however, was that he made it a point to emphasize progression as the main theme of his speech, which he made manifest in part by how he stated the facts: he assumed the role of storyteller, chronicling past achievements that all culminate into the one great achievement that he wishes everyone to celebrate.
Instead of hearing data, the audience heard a story, and a fulfilling one at that. Instead of getting bored, the audience wanted to hear more. Kennedy captivated his audience this way. That’s why his “We Choose to Go to the Moon” piece is one of the greatest inspirational speeches in history.
So far, we’ve tackled the parts of speech. These are the “what” of the speech. Another aspect of a speech is the “who” of the speech: the audience and the speaker himself.
Speaking to an audience
The audience has already been mentioned in great length, but it’s important as a factor that it deserves its own discussion. They are who the speech is made for. In fact, they play a major part of how the speaker constructs his speech.
When a person is writing a speech he always considers who he’s delivering it to. The speech should never be meant to leave the odd one out. This can be difficult, considering that the audience is almost always a melting pot: a collection of people from all walks of life, each having his own skills, beliefs, values, history, socioeconomic status, and so on.
The speech can’t just speak to one group of people but to as many people as it can – in fact, it tries to speak to the whole audience. It achieves this by touching upon experiences that people share in common. That way, they’re unified despite their differences.
When Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest civil rights leaders in modern history, delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, he was not only aiming for freedom and equality for African Americans; in fact, his intended audience was not only them, but to white people as well. For a while he criticizes the system for its blatant discrimination, he still envisions a future where black children and white children come together as brothers and sisters. He used his speech not to promote division; he used it to achieve unity.
A lot of speeches for freedom and equality are similar to the “I Have a Dream” speech. Yet, what ultimately makes King’s speech so great and memorable above many of them?
Speaking from the soul
Try making someone do the “I Have a Dream” speech. Will it ever be as good as how Martin Luther King Jr. did it? Plain and simple—no one can hit that speech like King did.
The speaker is what makes a speech that speech. The best speeches in history are remembered in large part because of their speakers. Sure, they were politicians, famous activists, or people who have a wide influence over others. But they are, most of all, people with heart and conviction. Their pieces are an outpouring of their souls, their hopes and dreams, their sentiments and frustrations, all manifesting into one coherent and inspiring exposition.
In other words, the speech is the speaker. The power of the speaker resounds in his speech; if the speaker is a dignified, unrelenting, and educated person who is fed up with injustice, his speech will likewise be the same.
Another civil rights legend, Nelson Mandela, made a speech that defied the odds. In a trial in 1962, surrounded by Apartheid advocates, he stood strong and did a speech proclaiming he is “prepared to die” for the ideals of liberty that fellow people of color were deprived of. It was so powerful that not even the judge escaped the power of his speech. The dignity and defiance that swells in Mandela resounds in his speech. No one can take that away from him or from his speech. It truly belongs to the category of memorable, inspiring speeches.
That’s why the average Joe, trying as hard as he might, can never live up to Martin Luther King Jr. in doing the “I Have a Dream” speech. No one can also match John F. Kennedy in his “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech or Nelson Mandela in his “I am Prepared to Die” speech. No one else can do any of the best speeches in history in the same glory as their original speakers did.
It doesn’t mean that someone has to be like the great leaders in history to make a memorable speech. It definitely doesn’t mean that a great speech can’t come from any ordinary person, either. There’s no such thing as a gift in speechwriting. Everyone is capable of writing a speech that can be considered as one of the greatest in history. They just need to have the passion to speak out their soul.
Speaking to all
Throughout all the points made here, the final characteristic that they all culminate into is that the greatest speeches in history speak to all—humanity as a whole, irrespective of differences. There is a two-way communication that takes place within a speech: the speaker to the hearer through the act of the speech itself, and the hearer to the speaker through response. This phenomenon is what many would call inspiration and motivation. A speech isn’t meant to be just a hodgepodge of good-to-hear words. A speech is meant to call people to action. Such a piece would make it among the best motivational speeches.
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