Writing and delivering a great speech relies on understanding human psychology, crowd behavior, communications principles and leadership skills. Hundreds of speeches are delivered each year, but only a rare few are remembered in history. These stand out from the rest because of who the speaker is, his or her chosen topic, the current cultural and political climate, the sincerity of the speaker’s delivery and whether the speaker truly motivates listeners to act. The following five speakers both achieved greatness and earned their place in history because of a single opportunity to address a crowd with a timeless speech.
Martin Luther King Jr. is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest orators of all time. The key to his success was, in part, his consistency. He was consistently passionate, consistently committed and consistently clear with his every word. King also strived to be relatable, no matter what angle his speech took. For instance, his “I Have a Dream” speech moved listeners for different reasons. Some listeners found the subject of racial equality was the most important. Others found that listening to King challenged them to commit more fully to their own dreams. King transcended the political realm into what motivates people: dreaming of, and pursuing, a better life.
A single act of disenfranchisement started Susan B. Anthony’s crusade to win women the right to vote. She used that moment to craft her speech “Women’s Right to Vote.” She delivered the speech many times over the course of her career. Anthony’s speech references the most significant moment in American history — when “we the people” formed the Union. She used this moment to remind listeners of what they share in common, temporarily erasing the sense of gender divisiveness her campaign was causing. Through its unifying words, Susan B. Anthony’s speech swayed public opinion and eventually led to ratification of the 19th Amendment.
No speaker will ever go wrong by taking his or her main points from literary classics. In the case of “The Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus’s most famous speech, he directly draws from the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments. In this speech, Jesus not only reviewed and referenced the Commandments but he also expanded the teachings and provided examples from his listeners’ daily lives to help them connect with each Commandment. The information Jesus offers in the Sermon is directly applicable in his listeners’ lives, allowing the speech to transcend time.
History professor Randy Pausch delivered the last speech he would ever make at Carnegie Mellon University in 2007. Diagnosed the prior year with pancreatic cancer, Pausch knew he needed to make every word count. He spoke to a packed house, and the speech was recorded then uploaded online. It went viral shortly thereafter. The success of Pausch’s speech came equally from his topic — achieving your dreams —as well as his sincere delivery. His intention was simple: to impart a legacy for his students, his children and future generations. This intention helped him achieve what he set out to do, making Randy Pausch a modern example of an inspirational orator.
For Americans caught between two world wars, their shared love of baseball became something to cling to. No baseball star was more beloved than Lou Gehrig. Nicknamed “Iron Horse” for his stamina, drive and dedication, Gehrig famously played 2,130 games in a row. When he was 36, Gehrig was diagnosed with a debilitating disease that prematurely ended his career. He finalized his retirement with a short, poignant speech. His theme was modest, relatable and universal: gratitude. In a few succinct paragraphs, he summed up 17 years’ worth of gratitude in every area of his life, leaving listeners inspired to find joy in their own painful challenges.
These five speeches endure to this day, even outliving their speakers. The transparent sincerity, passion, purpose and drive of each propelled their words beyond their immediate audience and into history.
Image provided by Cornell University’s Kheel Center from Flickr’s Creative Commons
About the Author: Carl Morton is a professional conference coordinator. His favorite part of his job is finding the perfect keynote speaker for each conference he plans. He often selects his speakers from bureaus such as Leading Authorities.