Speeches are composed of four building blocks: 1) claims, 2) evidence, 3) illustrations, and 4) audience participation.
The first and most important element of a great speech is the claim it makes.
A claim is a definitive statement, a sentence (or two) that so clearly encapsulates the speech’s message that it leaves no room for misunderstanding or uncertainty.
Examples of Claims from Famous Speeches
On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln began his bid for the U.S. Senate with a speech now known as the House Divided Speech. The claim he made was, “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.”
Susan B. Anthony was fined $100 for voting illegally in the 1872 presidential election. In response, she began a speaking tour. She built her speech Is it a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote? around one claim: “It was 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.”
In his first speech as Britain’s Prime Minister, Churchill braced the nation for its fight against the Nazis with a claim: “You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.”
When civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama were met with violence in 1965, Lyndon Johnson called for an end to racial discrimination and helped usher in the Voting Rights Act. In his speech, The American Promise he claimed: “There is no moral issue. It is wrong — deadly wrong — to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.”
Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, concluded his speech, Hope, with his claim: “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.”
Hillary Clinton, then First Lady of the United State, addressed the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing. In her speech she claimed: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”
Of course, you can’t simply make a claim and expect it to carry the day. You have to support it with logic, evidence, and persuasive argumentation — with, in effect, rhetoric — but you have to begin with a claim.