01.20.20

Powerful speaking lessons from 15 of the world's greatest orators

We’ve compiled 15 lessons for speakers from some of the greatest orators in history. Be bold, seize the moment, and inspire with these tips from MLK, FDR, Maya Angelou, and others.

WSB Team

This post was compiled by WSB's team of writers.

Lessons for speakers often focus on the same tips. Make eye contact. Speak slowly. Start with an attention-grabbing anecdote. Don't use slides. Rehearse in front of a mirror.

But, the world's most captivating speakers share a few things in common that can't be easily outlined in a checklist of best practices. They were willing to speak out at time others weren't. They also communicated a feeling so powerful that their words have been impossible to forget.

Let’s take a look at 15 examples of speeches so engaging and compelling that we still talk about them today. 

1. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. 

On March 3, 1933, FDR addressed a nation in the throes of economic depression and hardship. The enduring admonition — “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — still echoes nearly a century later.

Lessons for speakers: Inspire your audience. Roosevelt’s belief that the “nation will endure as it has endured” spoke directly to the hearts of a country ready to have hope again. His words set the tone for an ambitious presidency that would span over 13 years.

 

2. Maya Angelou at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. 

The selection of Maya Angelou to speak at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration as President of the United States on Jan. 20, 1993, created ripples of excitement before the poet ever took the stage. She would be both the first African American and woman to recite a poem at an American presidential inauguration.

“Here on the pulse of this new day, you may have the grace to look up and out and into your sister's eyes, and into your brother's face, your country and say simply, very simply with hope, good morning,” she said.

Lessons for speakers: Seize the moment. Angelou’s “On the Pulse of the Morning” was confident and bold, reflecting on a difficult past before shining light on the hope for a bright future ahead.

 

3. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech.  

Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed more than 250,000 civil rights supporters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, and enthralled the world with his dream “... that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

Lessons for speakers: Give your audience a vision to embrace. Less than a year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was law. Dr. King’s imagery of a utopian, egalitarian future gave many Americans — who on the fence about what civil rights meant — a version of their country they could comfortably accept.

 

4. Prime Minister Winston Churchill addresses the House of Commons.

On June 4, 1940, as the British Army completed its return to England on a makeshift fleet after emergency evacuation from Dunkirk, Prime Minister Winston Churchill turned a crushing defeat into an inspirational pledge to fight Nazism.

“We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be," he said. "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.”

Lessons for speakers: Use what you’re given. Churchill used the dire circumstances of the day to galvanize the British people rather than frighten them, and simultaneously prepared them for the challenges ahead.

 

5. Neil Armstrong at the first lunar landing.

Five days after he and fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins launched from Cape Kennedy, Neil Armstrong exited Apollo 11 on July 21, 1969, and the world’s first lunar landing was complete. Armstrong immediately communicated the incredible implications of their successful mission, famously stating: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Armstrong also landed the lunar module on the moon’s surface. His statement, “The Eagle has landed,” became part of the American vernacular, as well.

Lessons for speakers: Sometimes simple is good. Armstrong didn’t need flowery prose to encapsulate the gravity of this key moment in space history.

 

6. Lou Gehrig’s farewell to baseball. 

Nicknamed The Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig — a man whose reticence was almost as famous as his skill on the diamond — gave on July 4, 1939, his farewell address. This, after an amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ended his prestigious career.

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth,” a gracious, emotional Gehrig told the Yankee Stadium crowd.

Lessons for speakers: Speak from the heart. Gehrig allowed the Yankee fans to see who he really was after years of avoiding the spotlight. They loved him all the more for it.

 

7. Ronald Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate.

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan addressed Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev from West Berlin. Standing in front of the infamous Brandenburg Gate, Reagan argued that the path to world peace began with human liberty. He culminated a memorable speech in the shadow of the Berlin Wall with his passionate demand: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Lessons for speakers: Show the scenery. Reagan stood on the very doorstep of European Communism, in a lonely outpost of freedom deep inside the Iron Curtain — and he was the defiant, two-fisted Gipper that made him one of America’s most popular leaders.

 

8. Harvey Milk at California Gay Freedom Day Parade.

Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office in California when he won a seat on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, in 1977. Milk’s memorable “Give Them Hope” speech — delivered from the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall as part of California Gay Freedom Day on June 25, 1978 — came just months before he was assassinated. Milk implored the crowd to give hope to those that are faced with few options.

“I know that you can't live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you, and you have got to give them hope," he said. 

Lessons for speakers: Being earnest helps. Milk, a gay man at a time in American history when the stakes were legitimately dangerous, knew firsthand about that struggle for hope. His words landed because he faced the precipice, and overcame.

 

9. Muhammad Ali “I am the greatest” proclamation.

Muhammad Ali was as talented a speaker as he was a boxer — and some think he was the greatest boxer of all time. On many occasions, Ali claimed “I am the greatest” — words that shocked the conservative early-1960s sports scene, especially coming from a brash young African American who refused to play the stolid role expected of black athletes at the time. Ali battled the establishment on all fronts, and served as the advance messenger for the broad cultural changes to come.

Lessons for speakers: As another famous athlete later said, “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.” Don’t be afraid to be loud, boisterous, and proud — as long as you can back it up.

 

10. Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia trial.

On April 20, 1964, South African activist Nelson Mandela spoke from the dock before the opening of his trial on charges of sabotage. Mandela’s words illustrated the stakes of his battle against apartheid — and foreshadowed the courage he showed in his ensuing decades behind bars.

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve," he said. "But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Lessons for speakers: Idealism and human dignity can change hearts, minds and, in the case of Mandela, the course of a nation’s history.

 

11. Susan B. Anthony demands women’s suffrage.

In 1872, Susan B. Anthony cast an illegal ballot in the presidential election. Following a trail and subsequent guilty verdict delivered on June 19, 1873, Anthony was asked if she wished to make a statement. She promptly offered a speech that would become the most famous words in the American suffragette movement.

Anthony proclaimed that the concept of a free United States was based on “... We, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people — women as well as men.”

Lessons for speakers: Speak truth to power. Use your moment to tell the truth as you see it, and don’t back down.

 

12. Frederick Douglass on the Fourth of July. 

On July 4, 1852, Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became the preeminent African-American political figure of the Civil War era, was invited to speak at an Independence Day celebration in Rochester, N.Y. He came not to praise the holiday.

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

Lessons for speakers: Injustice needs to be named. Douglass could have easily shared platitudes about freedom after his experience of servitude; instead, he called out the hypocrisy that he witnessed every day.

 

13. Sojourner Truth at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.

Sojourner Truth, renowned African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist, gave her most notable address extemporaneously on May 29, 1851, at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio.

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!" she said. "And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”

Lessons for speakers: Straightforward talk can drive home a point with powerful impact. Truth was not a trained orator, but her words — and the truth of those words — resonated.

 

14. Malala Yousafzai addresses the United Nations. 

Malala Yousafzai spoke at the United Nations headquarters in New York as part of Youth Takeover Day on July 12, 2013 — her sixteenth birthday. The teen had been shot by the Taliban on her school bus following a campaign for girls' rights in Pakistan. She miraculously survived, and has been a powerful voice for women worldwide ever since.

They thought that the bullets would silence us,” Yousafzai told her audience. “But they failed. And then, out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”

Lessons for speakers: Defiance in the face of injustice is a powerful tactic. Yousafzai did not allow circumstances to stop her — rather, she used those wrongs to build a powerful platform.

 

15. Dolores Huerta speaks to farm workers following a 300-mile march.  

Dolores Huerta is a legendary activist and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She’s been a powerful voice for the rights of women, workers, and immigrants — and remains active today.

Huerta signified the end of a 300-mile march to Sacramento, Calif., in 1966 with powerful words calling for change on behalf of workers and immigrants across the country, declaring “... the day has ended when the farm worker will let himself be used as a pawn by employers, government, and others who would exploit them for their own ends.”

Lessons for speakers: Be the voice for others. When you have the privilege of speaking to an audience, use those moments to honestly convey the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of those who you speak for.

 

 

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