What Makes a Great Speech?

Simon Sebag Montefiore Considers the Qualities of Great Oratory Throughout History

Friends! Brothers and sisters! Comrades! Fellow citizens! Your majesties and highnesses! My countrymen! My children! Fellow soldiers! Ladies and gentlemen!

You can tell much by the opening of a speech. Elizabeth I begins hers majestically, “My loving people.” Mandela says, “Comrades and friends.” Lincoln starts: “Fellow countrymen.” Toussaint Louverture combines “Brothers and friends!.” For Robespierre: “Citizen-representatives of the people.” Michelle Obama calls her audience of schoolgirls “future leaders of the world.” Stalin changes his entire relationship with the Soviet peoples when, after the Nazi invasion, he addresses them on July 3, 1941 not just as Communist “comrades” but as “brothers and sisters, I am addressing you, dear friends.” Eleazar, Jewish rebel leader, calls his people “generous friends” when he asks them to commit mass suicide with him. Calling an audience “friends” is often a good start, though Cromwell, talking to English Parliamentarians, takes a different approach: “Ye pack of mercenary wretches . . . Ye sordid prostitutes.”

Donald Trump does not address his audience directly but just says: “Wow! Whoa! That’s some group of people. Thousands!” The opening is all about defining the relationship—the terms of the contract, contact and compact—between speaker and audience. Invite them in, make them comfortable, but not necessarily too comfortable, because even the most egalitarian speaker must hold the helm and set the course.

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It is easy to make rules on the best oratory. It must be short without glibness; substantial without ennui; powerful without haughtiness; dramatic without contrivance; confident without bombast; intimate without condescension; emotional without melodrama; courageous without bravado; beautiful without artifice; passionate without posturing; poignant without plangency; honest without vanity; world-historical without grandiloquence. “In an orator, the acuteness of the logicians, the wisdom of the philosophers, the language almost of poetry, the memory of lawyers, the voice of tragedians, the gesture almost of the best actors, is required,” wrote Cicero, one of the Rome’s best speakers, in his essay On Oratory. “Nothing therefore is more rarely found among mankind than a consummate orator.” It was written in 55 BC but is just as true today.

The most revealing speeches are those that are the most personal: in Alexander the Great’s speeches, we can hear across two millennia his pride in his own divine greatness—and fury at the ingratitude and impertinence of his mutinous men. Nixon’s farewell to his staff must be the most awkward speech of his life. In Stalin’s secret last speech, we are witnessing the real tyrant as vicious old man.

Calling an audience “friends” is often a good start, though Cromwell, talking to English Parliamentarians, takes a different approach: “Ye pack of mercenary wretches . . . Ye sordid prostitutes.”

Authenticity and brevity. The essence of a great speech is always the ability to communicate a simple message crafted to suit the chosen audience, not only through words but through the fusion of the character of the speaker and the message itself. The authenticity of that matching of speaker and message decides its success or failure. It’s this that makes Elizabeth II’s COVID-19 speech so effective.

Oratory is theatrical. It requires some of the gifts of the thespian and the tricks of the showman but it is very different. At the theatre, the audience knows the actor is playing an imaginary part and wishes to enter into the fantasy. In oratory, it is the opposite. There is indeed a stage, a show, a drama, but while knowing this is a performance, the audience must trust that the “actor” is not acting at all, must believe in his or her sincerity and recognize their total self-belief. “The eloquent man is he who is no beautiful speaker but who is desperately drunk with a certain belief,” noted Ralph Waldo Emerson. That self-belief, abnormal in most mortals, essential in leaders, can be both virtue and sickness: the asset of confidence can so easily degenerate into psychopathic narcissism.

“All great speakers were bad speakers at first,” argued Emerson. This is not always true: Danton was a born speaker—you can hear his passionate energy. Compare Hitler and Churchill. Both worked exceedingly hard on their speeches. Photographs of Hitler by his court photographer show him posing like a camp actor as he worked on his stage show. His henchman Goebbels recalled that he rewrote each speech about five times, dictating changes to three secretaries simultaneously. Churchill, who started with a slight stammer and a lisp, proves Emerson’s point. He wrote his speeches by hand, over and over again, correcting and polishing. Hitler’s performances were theatrical spectaculars of physical athleticism, sometimes lasting hours, delivered to crowds first in sweaty beer halls then in illuminated stadiums.

Yet on paper, his phrases seem mediocre. Churchill’s were the opposite, delivered stolidly in House of Commons or BBC studio, but the phrases are golden and timeless. Both worked well on radio: Would either have worked on television? Certainly not Churchill. Yet the melodrama of the movie Triumph of the Will shows that Hitler might have shone if CNN had existed to broadcast his long rallies.

At the theatre, the audience knows the actor is playing an imaginary part and wishes to enter into the fantasy. In oratory, it is the opposite.

In some ways, the speaker is extraordinarily exposed but the payoff is the ability to communicate directly to the audience. The speeches of the French Revolution often ended with the arrest and beheading of the speaker—a spontaneity that Robespierre and Danton both encouraged, both fell victim to. It was the same in the assembly of democratic Athens. Alexander the Great could have been cut down by his mutinous soldiers when he addressed them so rudely. The speaker is taking a risk, and that very gamble can win the love of the audience: Napoleon’s speech to his Old Guard appeals to the intimacy of general and soldier. When he returned to seize power for the Hundred Days, he only had to speak to them and they defected to him.

In 1989, the Romanian dictator Nikolai Ceauşescu lost control of his country in a speech that culminated in booing then revolution. He fled by helicopter and was then arrested and executed. In 21st-century Venezuela, the brutal, bungling dictator Nicolás Maduro regularly revealed his coarseness with comical mispronunciations: during a speech on education, he meant to quote Jesus multiplying the “loaves and the fishes,” but instead said, “to multiply ourselves like Christ multiplied the penises—sorry the fish and the bread,” to national guffaws. The Spanish words for fish and penis are similar—but not identical.

The length of a speech is often proportional to its vainglory. “Brevity is the great charm of eloquence,” decreed Cicero, who believed “the best orator is to the point and impassioned.” While Lincoln’s masterpiece at Gettysburg is just 278 words long, Fidel Castro, Communist dictator of Cuba, once spoke for seven hours: the image he was seeking was machismo personified; virile, almost priapic, endurance coupled with dictatorial omnipotence. The wartime speeches of Hitler and Italian dictator Mussolini were also preposterously long. “Speeches measured by the hour,” said Jefferson, “die with the hour.” Pitt the Younger’s speech lasted a few seconds but is sublime. The power to bore an audience is a classic manifestation of tyranny. The freer an audience the less it will tolerate.

Yet fairground hucksterism not only works—it is often mesmerizing. As Hitler, Eva Perón and others show, audiences revel in the brazenness of charisma, bombast and melodrama: bold theatricality and the excitement of crowd behavior can combine to enchant and intoxicate, audiences embracing a sort of frenzied madness.

There is a difference between demagoguery and oratory: “Eloquence cannot exist under a despotic form of government,” wrote Tacitus in his essay The Corruption of Eloquence. “It can only exist in lands where free institutions flourish. There is nothing in the world like a persuasive speech to fuddle the mental apparatus and upset the convictions and debauch the emotions of an audience not practiced in the tricks and delusions of oratory.” But the difference between vulgarity and eloquence is in the eye of the beholder.

Worthy virtue can bore its listeners to death: “In doing good, we are generally cold, and languid, and sluggish; and of all things afraid of being too much in the right,” comments Edmund Burke. “But the works of malice and injustice are quite in another style. They are finished with a bold, masterly hand; touched as they are with the spirit of those vehement passions that call forth all our energies, whenever we oppress and persecute.” The Devil often has the best lines. Robespierre’s call for Terror is powerful, elegant and bloodthirsty. But not always. Himmler is no orator.

Speeches are tools of power as essential as artillery or gold: “instruments that a president uses to govern,” in the words of JFK’s speechwriter Ted Sorenson. Even without the poetry of a Martin Luther King Jr., there are methods to make them work. “If you have an important point to make,” said Churchill, “don’t try to be subtle and clever, use a piledriver. Make that point one time, hit it again. A third time. A tremendous whack!”

Each speech tells a story in which hindsight can be heartbreaking. Egyptian president Sadat and Israeli prime minister Rabin both had made their careers as warlords—and when they made peace, their speeches were powerful, not just because they were superbly written (Rabin’s especially touching since he was in person shy, rough and reticent). They are even more poignant now that we know that both of them paid for their courage with their lives. It is impossible to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve seen the Promised Land” without feeling that he understood that he was doomed.

Then we have the ritual of the last goodbye. The dying Evita’s adieu from the Casa Rosada is every bit as emotional as the song from the musical she inspired. Napoleon’s tearful departure verges on cheap melodrama—very different from the sad elegiac haughtiness of Charles I before his execution. It is hard to grieve for the merciless secret police killer Yezhov who appeals to his master Stalin before he is shot.

The best speakers have the ability to make ideas and aspirations come alive—“thoughts on fire,” as William Jenning Bryan, the American populist, put it—so that their audiences feel they are part of something greater than themselves, part of a dream that may come true. JFK’s inaugural speech and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” both achieve this.

Wartime speeches have special functions: they depend on the management of expectations. Elizabeth I made a virtue of the perceived weakness of femininity. Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle” (in the words of CBS reporter Edward Murrow and reused by JFK) by offering only blood and tears. The Jewish commander Eleazar at Masada persuaded nine hundred men, women and children that they should commit suicide en masse rather than face execution, slavery and rape at the hands of the Roman victors.

Speeches that begin wars offer easy prizes in return for little blood spilled—and that blood hopefully foreign. Pope Urban II invented Christian holy war as the equivalent of Islamic jihad and inspired the first crusaders to take Jerusalem, offering a mix of faith, penance and plunder. Hitler’s speech opening the Second World War with his invasion of Poland is full of militaristic bravado. His audience believed victory was assured since he had outwitted all the great world powers and annexed two countries without a shot fired. Similarly, when he declared war on America in December 1941, he believed he was losing nothing and intimidating America to keep out of Europe. The consequences were the opposite of those intended.

Elizabeth, Hitler, Churchill, Lincoln wrote their own speeches, but JFK worked on his with Sorenson; Reagan’s were brilliantly written by Peggy Noonan. The best speech writers are literary ventriloquists. They are molded to the speaker, but they can also invent a new persona. Noonan’s cowboy’s lament for Reagan’s retirement evokes the myth of an old cowboy of the American West:

There’s still a lot of brush to clear out at the ranch, fences that need repair and horses to ride. But I want you to know that if the fires ever dim, I’ll leave my phone and address behind just in case you need a foot soldier. Just let me know and I’ll be there, as long as words don’t leave me and as long as this sweet country strives to be special during its shining moment on Earth.

But it must be plausible to maintain authenticity. Slickness can be suspicious; loquacity so quickly becomes verbosity. Trotsky was the wizard of oratory during the Russian Revolution, but ultimately the rough Bolsheviks distrusted his showmanship, preferring a speaker who made a virtue out of his own lack of magic which he presented as plain-speaking: Stalin. Gladstone’s performances to huge audiences were astonishing for their sanctimonious energy but they were also displays of grandiloquent vanity pricked by his witty rival Disraeli, who called Gladstone “a sophisticated rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity.”

The Devil often has the best lines. Robespierre’s call for Terror is powerful, elegant and bloodthirsty. But not always. Himmler is no orator.

The nature of speeches has changed over history thanks to technology. Some of the speeches from the ancient world were recorded by historians who wholly or partly invented speeches they had not heard—but it is likely that Josephus, Tacitus and others quoted here did talk to those who were present. Some of these speeches were the regular table talk of a monarch given to tiny groups of courtiers, such as Genghis Khan’s reflections on conquest and Muawiyah’s on the art of ruling. Cleopatra’s line about her fate was probably repeated by Octavian and recorded by the well-connected historian Livy—I count it as a speech because she was aware they were perhaps her last words on history’s stage.

Nero’s entire life as emperor was a self-conscious theatrical performance—as if he was living on a Roman reality TV show. If he had been alive today, he would certainly have starred in one. Of all the tyrants of the ancient world, he is strangely the most modern. He would have fitted well into the brutal buffoonery of 21st-century politics.

For most of human history, speeches could only be heard by a small number of people, thousands, not more. Those given in the Roman Senate, the Athenian Ecclesia or the English Parliament were initially heard only by those present. It was the same with the battlefield speeches of Alexander the Great before Issus or Henry V before Agincourt. The problem was solved on battlefields by the officers repeating the speeches to their regiments. In the age of printing, the public could read an official version—Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech was published. Before TV or radio, political speeches were a form of entertainment, almost as much as theatre or musical recital. Thousands turned up to hear Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaign.

The invention of the microphone in 1877 meant that by the early years of the 20th century, speakers could address much larger crowds, leading to stadium spectaculars: “I know that men are won over less by the written than by the spoken word, that every great movement on this Earth owes its growth to great orators and not to great writers,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. But live harangues to large crowds lacked the intimacy that the new technologies of TV delivered in the 1950s.

Television favored some, undermined others. Kennedy looked glamorous, Nixon furtive. Speakers could reach an even larger audience yet attention spans grew shorter. Some speeches were reduced to just the phrases—“the soundbite.” Tape recordings and video also meant that speeches could be given in private then copied and broadcast. The Iranian Revolution was won not on the streets or the minbars but in cassettes smuggled into the country bearing the speeches of Khomeini; Osama bin Laden spread his jihadism through smuggled videotapes.

The Internet and the podcast restored interest in listening to words, yet one might have expected twenty-four-hour news, multi-channel radio and TV, and the epidemic of smartphone distraction to shorten the patience of audiences. The laconic Lincoln would have found no problem with this, even if his lanky simian looks and clumsy, jerky movements would not have worked on screen. Yet the merging of news and entertainment has worked for some. The elegant Obama gave speeches—beautiful, almost Classical phrases, exquisite delivery (touches of Dr. King), inspirational themes (echoes of Lincoln)—that carried him to the presidency. Yet his polar opposite, the bombastic Trump, is an unconventional but very successful communicator and orator, improvising long meandering speeches that delighted rallies of his supporters. They were often broadcast in full, and proved compelling even to his critics. One does not recall the phrases but the impression is authentic and unforgettable.

Trump’s speechmaking highlights something bigger: today, oratory is flourishing in a way that is more visceral and popular than it ever was, even in Cicero’s Rome or Pericles’s Athens. Young speakers like Greta Thunberg and Malala can become instantly world-famous in one televised speech fighting for climate change reform or education. A brilliant novelist like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie can talk about feminism as a podcast and reach millions. Speeches—or often visionbites or extracts of speeches—are viewed many millions of times on the Internet. The speech has never been more powerful because television and Internet have never been more dominant, while the “old”-style media—newspapers, mainly, and trustworthy news TV—has withered dangerously. So far it is autocrats and populists who have exploited this best by appealing over the heads of traditional media directly to “the people.” But if they can do so, others can, too.

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Adapted from Voices of History: Speeches That Changed the World by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Copyright © 2021 by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Simon Sebag Montefiore
Simon Sebag Montefiore
Simon Seabag Montefiore is a historian of Russia and the Middle East. He is the author of the novels 'Sashenka' and 'One Night in Winter', which won the Paddy Power Political Fiction Book of the Year Award in 2014. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Montefiore graduated from Cambridge University, where he received his PhD.





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