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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Would you like a personal collection of these speeches in an e-book?
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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As Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Gen Eisenhower announced the D-Day landings at Normandy to the people of France and Western Europe. Warning them of further loss and tragedy ahead, he advised the Resistance to be patient and wait for orders. Eleven months later, the Germans surrendered. “Great battles lie ahead. I call upon all who love freedom to stand with us. Keep your faith staunch - our arms are resolute - together we shall achieve victory.”
Full speech: D-Day broadcast to the people of Western Europe
23 Nikita Khrushchev, February 25, 1956
Delivered in secret before a rapt audience of Communist apparatchiks, this remarkable speech by a Soviet leader helped destroy Stalin’s reputation. Khrushchev launched a full blooded attack on the pillar of the Soviet system, who had been venerated for much of his life. Speaking three years after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev dwelt on his paranoia and brutality. “Stalin became even more capricious, irritable and brutal; in particular, his suspicion grew. His persecution mania reached unbelievable dimensions.”
Full speech: Kruschev's Secret Speech
22 Konrad Adenauer, July 12, 1952
No sooner had Europe ended the Second World War, than leaders on the continent seemed resigned to what French Europeanist Jean Monnet described as “a war that is thought to be inevitable”. But Adenauer, West Germany's first chancellor, espoused the renunciation of nationalistic fury for a common European dream. “I believe that for the first time in history, certainly in the history of the last centuries, countries want to renounce part of their sovereignty, voluntarily and without compulsion, in order to transfer that sovereignty to a supranational structure,” he said.
21 George W. Bush, September 20, 2001
Nine days after the worst terrorist attack on American soil in the history of the United States, George W. Bush addressed both houses of Congress and a stunned nation. Inexperienced in foreign policy and narrowly elected, his country initially rallied behind his leadership, which was to take America to war against Afghanistan and Iraq. "We are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom."
Full speech: We are a country awakened to danger
20 Kwame Nkrumah, July 10, 1953
Nkrumah inspired the anti-colonial movement at a time when almost every African country was under European rule. Moving a motion in parliament for the independence of his native Ghana, then the British colony of Gold Coast, Nkrumah declared that every nation was entitled to self-government. “The right of a people to decide their own destiny, to make their way in freedom, is not to be measured by the yardstick of colour or degree of social development. It is an inalienable right.”
19 Bill Clinton, April 23, 1995
Until September 11, 2001, the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City was the worst terrorist attack on US soil. Clinton gave an address at a memorial service for the 168 victims that movingly embraced their suffering and their place in the nation’s heart. “You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes.”
Full speech: Oklahoma bombing memorial address
18 Golda Meir, January 17, 1957
In the aftermath of Israel’s abortive invasion of Egypt in 1956, Meir, then foreign minister, rose to address the UN General Assembly. Her country had been criticised across the world for attacking Egypt, along with British and French forces. Meir skilfully argued that Israel’s actions had been defensive and in the interests of long term peace. “My delegation will bend every resource of heart and mind in the days that lie ahead.”
Full speech: For the attainment for peace
17 Charles de Gaulle, June 18, 1940
In his brief but intense appeal, the Free French leader rallied the country in support of the Resistance by declaring that the war for France was not yet over. The battle of France may have been lost, he said, but France was not alone. She and Britain would be able to “draw unreservedly on the immense industrial resources of the United States.”
"The destiny of the world is at stake", he declared.
16 Gerald Ford, September 8, 1974
A month after Richard Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal, his vice-president and successor announced a full pardon. His decision meant Nixon would not stand trial, and made Ford’s own re-election highly unlikely. In 1976 he lost to Jimmy Carter. “My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed.”
Full speech: Pardoning Richard Nixon
15 Adolf Hitler, December 11, 1941
Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, Hitler declared war on America, engaging the Third Reich in battle with both post-war superpowers and making victory all but impossible. “As for the German nation, it needs charity neither from Mr Churchill nor from Mr Roosevelt, let alone from Mr Eden. It wants only its rights! It will secure for itself this right to life even if thousands of Churchills and Roosevelts conspire against it.”
Full speech: Hitler declares war on the US
14 Enoch Powell, April 20, 1968
Powell, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, caused outrage when he warned of the dangers of enforced multiculturalism in Britain.
“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding…I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
Full speech: Rivers of Blood
13 Mikhail Gorbachev: December 7, 1988
After explaining the concepts of Perestroika and Glasnost to an international audience, he shocked delegates by announcing the withdrawal of tank divisions from East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary and a unilateral cut of 500,000 soldiers from the Soviet military. Relations with the West would never be the same. “Today we have entered an era when progress will be based on the interests of all mankind. Force and the threat of force can no longer and should not be instruments of foreign policy.”
Full speech: Gorbachev's UN speech