Eight of the most captivating speeches ever

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

That great joke by comedian Jerry Seinfeld sums up how many of us feel about having to give a speech in public –scared to death of it.

However, there are many people out there who seem like they were born to deliver public speeches. Their gift of elocution and the message contained within it was so strong that we’re still talking about their speeches today – more than 100 years later, in some cases.

Whether you’re going to deliver a key note speech at a business conference, or a best-man/bridesmaid speech at a wedding, there are things here that we can all learn from. Here are eight of the most captivating speeches ever.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’

Considered a defining moment of the civil rights movements, Martin Luther King, Jr. helped to shape modern America with the ‘I have a dream’ speech. It was delivered in front of 250,000 civil rights supporters at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.

The most quoted part of the speech – which would then be applied as the name of the speech in its entirety – wasn’t even planned. King, Jr. went off-script after an audience member urged him to “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”

Winston Churchill’s ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’

Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister came on May 13, 1940, during the first year of World War II. With a nervous nation and an unhappy conservative party listening in, Churchill aimed to settle an entire nation’s nerves, and with this speech he cemented himself as a great leader.

Historian Robert Rhodes James described the feeling in the room as “electrifying”, and it was a feeling Churchill would replicate in many future speeches to come.

John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address

He might sound like Mayor Quimby from The Simpsons to younger generations, but JFK’s inauguration speech on January 20, 1961 will always be remembered; both as a sign of optimism in American history, and as the first inaugural address televised in colour.

The speech itself was written by both Kennedy and his writer Ted Sorensen, and its clever use of chiasmus had a long-lasting impact on listeners: “…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Emmeline Pankhurst’s ‘Freedom or death’

Pankhurst was at the forefront of the British suffragette movement, helping women win the right to vote with powerful lines like: “We will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.”

It was an explanation as to why women in Britain had to turn to aggressive means to get results, and although the speech was actually delivered in Hartford, Connecticut, on a fundraising tour of the US, her words were heard loudly back home.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

President Lincoln’s self-penned speech took place at the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863. It addressed the human equality proposition from the Declaration of Independence. The civil war, and slavery, was still in full force; how then, Lincoln argued, could all men be created equal?

It took just two minutes to be delivered, and was instantly recognised for its importance. Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have been more wrong when he said: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”

Margaret Thatcher’s ‘The lady’s not for turning’

Say what you will about her politics – the Iron Lady certainly had a way when it came to orating. Her speech at the Conservative party conference in Brighton on October 10, 1980 – one year after being elected the UK’s first and only female Prime Minister – is a great example.

Thatcher’s delivery of playwright Sir Ronald Millar’s words became a crucial part of political development in the 1980s. The speech was so captivating that she received a five-minute standing ovation afterwards.
Susan B. Anthony’s ‘Women’s rights to the suffrage’

Susan B. Anthony was arrested and fined $100 for casting a vote in the 1872 presidential election (an illegal act for women at the time). This led to her delivering the rousing ‘Women’s rights to the suffrage’ speech, and refusing to pay the fine.

She became known as the ‘Napoleon of the women’s rights movement’, and also fought tirelessly for civil rights. Her speech concludes: “Every discrimination against women in the constitution and laws of the several states is today null and void, as is every one against Negroes.”

Winston Churchill’s ‘The few’

Conceived during preparation for an expected German invasion, Churchill’s second entry in this list aimed to inspire all Brits. At this point in the war, many thousands of RAF pilots and British civilians had already died or been wounded. ‘The few’ was given on August 20, 1940.

“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

So, when you’re writing your speech and preparing your presentation, just think back to these eight examples for inspiration. You’ll have the room captivated from the off.