Learn from History’s Great Speakers

What makes a great speaker great?

There are several ways to analyze this - What is their ability to connect with their audience? Do they use their words and body language to show their authenticity? Are they able to influence or change people's perspective on an issue? All of these components are the mark of a good orator. Yet the true test of greatness comes down to a single quality that all great speakers and leaders share -- they are able to shape their world and make it a better place for future generations.

Here are links to five of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century and some commentary from "Words That Shook The World" on what makes them, and their speakers, so extraordinarily compelling.

Martin Luther King

"I have a dream…"

Speech delivered at the March on Washington Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963 (click to view speech).

This speech is perfect in every way. The use of language, the emotional build-up, the penetrating message and the flawless delivery are plain and simple, perfection. It’s all the more amazing when you discover that King disregarded his prepared remarks and spoke largely extemporaneously, which only demonstrates that great speeches come from the heart, not just the pen.

The Speech – What to Look for: This is a veritable symphony in words. While staying true to his hard-hitting message to the world, the seventy concrete visual images that brought every paragraph to life; the rhythm of his phrasing and the flawless establishment of memorable themes lift the audience to a climax that is probably unmatched.

The Delivery – What to Listen for: Here is a 100-percent commitment to the words, the emotion and the spirit underneath the words. You feel Dr. King in every syllable, in every richly voiced sound, in every perfectly timed pause and ever perfectly enunciated variation. He owns every millisecond of the speech and it comes not from his head, but from his heart and soul.

The Person – Qualities of Greatness: His unequivocal commitment to nonviolent change in the face of great pressure, his intellect, integrity, passion and his extraordinary gift for words allowed all people, black and white, to be moved by the wisdom of his message.

John F. Kennedy

"Ich bin ein Berliner"

Remarks delivered in the Rudolph-Wilde-Platz, Berlin Wall, June 26, 1963 (click to view speech).

Of all of his speeches, however, John F. Kennedy’s provocative address to over one million people at the Rudolf Wilde Platz in West Berlin on June 26, 1963 was perhaps his most emotional. Spoken to the largest live audience of his career, Kennedy, in an almost spine-tingling way, worked the huge crowd with his timeless themes of freedom.

The Speech – What to Look for: Playing the two themes – “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Let them come to Berlin ” – throughout the speech like a hypnotic mantra induced a euphoria in the huge and adoring crowd. Short in length but strong on emotion and pointed in its attack, this speech did what it was supposed to do: Boost the morale of the German people when they needed it most.

The Delivery – What to Listen for: JFK was at his most emotionally ebullient. He allowed the emotion of the crowd to fill him and drive him. You can hear it in his cadence and in how much “fun” he was having as he becomes a cheerleader for a million adoring fans.

The Person – Qualities of Greatness: The compelling combination of grace, vision, integrity and of course, youth and style, make JFK – as well as his speeches – something rare and special.

Winston Churchill

"… blood, toil, tears and sweat."

Address to the House of Commons, May 13, 1940 (click to hear speech)

Just three days after the invasion of Holland forced Neville Chamberlain to resign, Winston Churchill is given command of the country and the war effort. Some say that this was the moment Churchill had been preparing for all his life. His take-charge attitude in this speech seems to confirm that assessment. Even today, you can feel the sense of purpose and confidence he conveys throughout this amazing address.

The Speech – What to Look for: The precision and poetry of the words lead the listener to an inescapable and rousing conclusion. His total commitment of his “blood, toil, tears and sweat” is evident in every sentence and the question-answer technique rivets the audience to his ideas.

The Delivery – What to Listen for: Long, purposeful pauses, great vocal variation and deep resonant tones communicate gravitas and certitude and force us to listen and give weight to every word.

The Person – Qualities of Greatness: Passion, intelligence, conviction and certainty of purpose demonstrated consistently over a lifetime of accomplishment.

click here to listen to Winston Churchill's "blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech.

Ronald Reagan

"… they… 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

Address to the Nation, on the Challenger Disaster, January 28, 1986 (click to view speech).

This speech is brilliant, despite its painful message, because in it, Ronald Reagan is Ronald Reagan. He is warm, personal, eloquent, uplifting and optimistic even in tragedy and talks in big, inspiring themes. Simply put, in this short speech Reagan sets the standard for how a leader, a real leader shows strength and compassion in the face of disaster.

The Speech – What to Look for: See the way in which the President used his personality and simple words to make the country feel better – even proud – in a moment of national disaster, and, of course, how the speech and the event were transformed by one brilliant, closing phrase.

The Delivery – What to Listen for: As always with “The Great Communicator,” notice the warmth and silky richness of his voice, the perfect pacing and the personal, conversational way in which he speaks that makes every listener feel that they are right there in the Oval Office with him.

The Person – Qualities of Greatness: An “Everyman” to whom we could all relate, but one with masterful communication skills, passion, vision and an infectious, palpable love for his principles and his country.

Barbara Jordan

"My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total." (click to hear speech)

Opening Statement to the House Judiciary Committee Proceedings on the Impeachment of Richard Nixon, (these words will be linked to audio snippet of speech) July 25, 1974

While the words in this speech are powerful, this is one of those speeches that you have to listen to in order to feel its full impact. Barbara Jordan knew how to use the cadence and inflection of her voice to impress and even hypnotize her audience.

The Speech – What to Look for: To make what in essence is one long legal argument flow like poetry and sing like a song is almost impossible. The understatement, the precision, the sarcasm and the eloquence of her words are stunning.

The Delivery – What to Listen for: No voice, male or female, has ever generated more authority and gravitas. Jordan knows how to use this gift – the perfect pauses command respect, the building force and energy command attention and the vocal variation plays the room like a Stradivarius.

The Person – Qualities of Greatness: A courageous pioneer. A black woman from the South, she succeeded by being better than white men she confronted at every step of her career. In doing so, she achieved more firsts for blacks and women than just about anyone else in history.