A speech can never be better than the idea it promotes.
You can dress up a stupid, lame, or vile idea in spiffy visual aids. You can present it with verbal and nonverbal pyrotechnics. And as a result, you may wow your audience.
But wowing an audience doesn’t mean a speech is any good.
The most captivating speaker of the 20th century was undoubtedly Adolph Hitler. He mesmerized audiences, and yet look at what his ideas led to.
Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will showcases one of Hitler’s speeches and shows its effect on the audience. It’s a remarkable – and chilling – piece of propaganda.
The proof of a speech’s merit is in the idea it implants in the audience’s hearts and minds and in the idea’s power to bring about some good.
A speech has to be built around one – and only one – idea. But that idea has to be big in scope or in impact, and big in the moral imagination.
Some ideas are big in scope. They cover a lot of intellectual ground. They insinuate themselves into different fields, altering or integrating seemingly diverse concepts. They change the way people think. Consider Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Some ideas are big in impact. They affect people’s emotions – their hopes and fears, their desires, their aspirations — so profoundly that they change the way they act. Consider the movement for women’s equality.
A speech needs one or the other – an idea big in scope or one big in impact — because a speech is meant to change the way people think and feel and act.
That idea, mind you, doesn’t have to be as big in scope or impact as the theory of evolution or the equality of women. But it can’t be trifling.
A great speech changes the way people think and feel and act…for the good.
That’s where the moral imagination comes in.
Loosely speaking, the moral imagination is the ability to distinguish right from wrong for ourselves, for other people, and for the world as a whole.
An idea that’s big in scope and impact, but that’s lacking in moral imagination, may be effective, but it won’t be good.
When you combine all three – scope, impact, and moral imagination – you get a truly, remarkably, great speech. It’s something to be aspired to.
To counter the image of Hitler giving an effective speech, here’s President Lyndon Johnson giving a great speech.
Great speeches are born in conflict. They address matters of consequence, when the stakes are high. They are delivered with passion and they rouse passion in the audience.
The ingredients of a great speech are conflict, high stakes, passion.
Think about the great speeches throughout history.
All the great (American) speeches I can think of off the top of my head are born in or arise from some deeply rooted conflict.
Conflict = the clash of opposing ideas, visions, policies, ideologies, systems, or ways of life.
(Conflict does not require, mind you, violence or hatred or contempt.)
Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” opposed British rule.
Sojourner Truth’s “And Ain’t I a Woman” opposed male domination.
Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” opposed both slavery and the dissolution the country.
FDR’s “A Date which Will Live in Infamy” opposed the Japanese empire and its aggression.
Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” opposed racism.
Harvey Milk’s “My Name is Harvey Milk and I’m Here to Recruit you” opposed homophobia.
But conflict, by itself, isn’t enough.
You can vehemently attack argyle socks, for example, but I’d be hard pressed to think of anyone who’d be interested or give your speech a second’s notice.
The central conflict of a speech has to be about something that matters. The stakes have to be high.
Political independence (Patrick Henry), women’s equality (Sojourner Truth), the abolition of slavery (Lincoln), waging war against an aggressor (FDR), racial equality (King), and social justice for gays and lesbians (Milk) — these are issues that matter. The forces arrayed against them (at the time) — the opposing powers — were menacing. Much was at stake.
Where there are conflict and high stakes, there is passion. In the speaker and in the audience.
There are, of course, great speeches from other countries. Wilberforce’s speeches opposing the slave trade. Zola’s courtroom speech. Churchill’s wartime speeches. And most recently, the Dutch Foreign Minister’s speech about the downing of Flight MH17. They all come to mind. And each in its own way reinforces my belief that great speeches are made up of conflict, high stakes, and passion.
What do you think? What speeches would you add to my very partial list?