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?