There’s no accounting for taste, goes the old saying, and when it comes to picking the top three in any category, a humble person should admit that it often boils down to a matter of personal preference.
For this reason, I personally avoid designating a top pick in just about any category. If asked to name a favorite, I’ll tell the inquirer, “I have some favorites, but generally not A favorite.” Favorite wines are a good example.
Like many Americans, my go-to white wines are Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling in warmer months and Chardonnay “when the days are shorter and nights are longer.” As for reds, a California Cabernet Sauvignon easily gets the job done anytime I grill, which at my place happens year round. However, personal favorites also include Grgich Hills Merlot, Meadowcroft Zinfindel, Truett & Hurst Pinot Noir, Robledo Family Tempronillo, a good friend’s Sangiovese from his own vineyard, as well as just about any good port in a storm —pun intended. But here again, my palette is, well mine, not yours; so these wines may not appeal to you at all. Besides, as a hopeless romantic, there is some sentimental attachment to the fruit of the vine I enjoy on occasion.
But make no mistake, I only have one favorite girl friend (my wife), she and I prefer it that way; one favorite religion, He and I prefer it that way; one country to which I gladly pledge my allegiance because I and my forefathers prefer it that way; and no favorite political party, having taken my cue from President Washington —who famously preferred it that way. Pretty much everything else is grouped into favorites with no clear choice for top this —or most favored that.
And so I approached the self-imposed task of designating the top three speeches of all time with some trepidation. I know that my list will become an easy target for critics, but I have a fairly thick skin. Nevertheless, what was especially unappealing to me was the dreadful thought of having to eliminate some classic stem winders. I decided to make the selection process a little bit easier by disqualifying sermons, so gems such as the Sermon on the Mount were categorically disqualified.
There are many distinguished speeches from the secular world that didn’t make the cut. They include the following:
- President Washington’s lengthy farewell speech in which he warns against party dominance as a “frightful despotism”
- President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech the year after he left office
- President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “A date which will live in infamy” address to Congress and the world. after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
- Sir Winston Churchill’s speeches during WWII, anyone of which is a worthy candidate
- President Kennedy’s Inaugural address in which he challenges us to “Ask not what your country can do for you…”
- Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s remarks upon learning of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- President Reagan’s 1984 speech at the 40th commemoration of D-Day at Normandy, one of my father’s favorites
- Mother Theresa’s “Love begins at home” acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, one of my mother’s favorites
- George W. Bush’s address to the nation following the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01
- Then State Senator Barack Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention which propelled him into the national spotlight
- President Barack Obama’s 2014 speech at the 70th commemoration of D-Day at Normandy
- Saint Joan of Arc’s impromptu recanting of her confession after tearing it up in light of her betrayal, as recounted by Bernard Shaw
- Henry David Thoreau’s plea to his fellow townspeople (and us) to understand how “Our life is frittered away by detail. . . .” so he urged us to “Simplify, simplify…”
- My announcement at the dinner table that I was entering the minor seminary, a decision that was reversed (by me!) halfway through my Freshman year
And this is to say nothing about what I expect to hear from the English and Liberal Arts majors among us. I’m sure they’ll be quick to assert that one or more of the classic monologues from Shakespeare’s works should have made the cut! If at the top of my game, I’d respond in Latin, “Errare humanum est.” (“To err is human; to forgive, divine”, Alexander Pope, “Essay on Criticism”)
Note that on the list above most of the speeches were delivered on a somber occasion. This makes sense because some of the more poignant, eloquent, and tender expressions of emotions are known to take flight in the minds of those who have suffered a profound loss or tragedy. In this regard, songwriters and speechwriters are kindred spirits. Country singer-songwriter Alan Jackson found himself in just such a situation, and his song, “Where Were You” earned a spot in the Congressional Record as the nation began to heal from the worldwide shock now known as 9/11.
But speaking of speechwriters, many public figures rely on them to create an outline or first draft of a speech. They also rely on the counsel of others in the process. However, as you’ll see below, the advice of a professional or trusted adviser, no matter how well-intended, is merely the work of a very human being.
So during this week in which we commemorate the delivery of the Gettysburg Address (one of my top three picks and the most compelling and effective secular speech in all of recorded history), here are my choices, along with some brief remarks.
Rhetorical masterpieces, while quite rare, are easily studied as excellent examples from which leaders can draw inspiration. None of the ones I’ve chosen are particularly long, so for those of us that tend to be a bit “windy” on occasion, they can also serve as benchmarks for brevity.
1. President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”
On November 19, 1863, our war-weary Commander-in-Chief, President Abraham Lincoln, was to give a speech following one given by “the greatest orator of the time,” Edward Everett. I know, Everett who? The occasion was the dedication ceremony for the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. No one, including the President himself, probably expected the speech to be long remembered.
The quaint and otherwise scenic town near the Maryland border, today a mere two hours drive from Washington, D.C., was the site of a decisive but costly Civil War battle that took place earlier that year. Witness trees and buildings still standing saw the loss of more than 3,000 Union soldiers, and 4,000 Confederates in one of history’s bloodiest battles. More than 25,000 were injured, many with life-altering injuries. The battle is said to be the turning point in the war, perhaps because the carnage turned so many stomachs.
President Lincoln’s pithy commemoration is considered by me and many to be the most eloquent and compelling speech of all time. Yet it numbered little more than 270 words, and took but a few minutes to deliver. Today it’s recited by students and luminaries throughout the generations. Each of the five “manuscript” copies is slightly different. All five can be read here at the Gettysburg Foundation, along with additional background information.
To his credit, Mr. Everett wrote President Lincoln afterward to express his admiration, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes,” the humble admirer said.
If you have yet to read the Gettysburg Address out loud, I highly recommend it —in private, if necessary. Every leader, at least one time, should let these cherished phrases come out of the mouth. This exercise can be a mental infusion of the exceptional rhetorical lessons found in them. Indeed, every leader can use it as one of the finest examples of clarity, conciseness, and eloquence in speech.
2. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” Speech
Like many dignitaries down through the ages who spoke often in public, civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) is known to have frequently rehearsed his speeches before delivery. He was a preacher, after all, and most good preachers learn the value in practicing their sermons.
But just like President Lincoln a century earlier, MLK found himself in less than an ideal situation as a keynote speaker at a high-profile civil rights event in Washington, D.C. He was one of more than a dozen speakers and entertainers that were part of the March on Washington, on August 28, 1963. The weather was expected to be hot, so by the time he was to deliver his speech, he knew that some of the word-weary crowd were mentally or physically headed away from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on the Capital Mall.
In preparing the speech, according to Gary Younge, a columnist for The Guardian online, who wrote a terrific piece about MLK’s most famous speech, MLK took flak from his advisors about using what one considered a “trite” phrase. It seems that MLK had recently used the phrase, “I have a dream,” so he was advised not to use it. It is also reported that he borrowed the phrase from another speaker without attribution, although the context was quite different.
Providentially, a Gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, who was a close friend of MLK’s, was standing on stage during the speech. She implored him several times to “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.”
At one point there was a pregnant pause before one of the most skillful orators of all time threw caution (and advice) to the wind and said, “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” He went on to repeat the phrase several more times, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As Younge recounted, “For all King’s careful preparation, the part of the speech that went on to enter the history books was added extemporaneously…” While “it is open to debate just how spontaneous the insertion of ‘I have a dream'” was, there is no denying that it is one of the most memorable lines ever.
President John Kennedy is said to have watched the speech live on a national TV broadcast. This was the first time he’d heard MLK speak, and he reportedly was very favorably impressed. Sadly, MLK’s enemies also took note.
This speech is also instructive because of MLK’s use of anaphora, which is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of several successive sentences, or within a list. The gold standard for the use of anaphora is in what is commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount mentioned earlier. The Book of Matthew, chapter 5, verses 1-12 quotes Jesus Christ beginning nine sentences with the phrase, “Blessed are” and starting with “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
MLK’s most famous speech is remembered by the anaphoric phrase, “I have a dream.” Later in this speech, he uses the rhetorical device again, this time with the prase, “We can never be satisfied.”
Other famous speakers with a flair for the use of anaphora include President Lincoln and President Kennedy. The former’s Gettysburg Address utilizes the technique (…we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow, this ground…), while the latter used it most notably in his Inaugural Address of January 20, 1961. The lines in the first half of the speech beginning with the phrase “To those…” and later, the “Let both sides…” illustrate the power and beauty of the technique. Along with the most famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you…,” they helped make this JFK’s most famous speech; one that ran an economical 1,382 words.
For his part, President Obama skillfully used anaphora in his commemorative remarks at the 50th anniversary of the MLK speech. As he recounted, “… because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, a Civil Rights law was passed. Because they marched, a Voting Rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. (Applause.) Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually, the White House changed. Because they marched, America became more free and more fair…”
MLK’s “I have a dream” speech numbered 1,579 words, the exact number of which differs from draft to transcript. Ironically, when President Obama spoke in commemoration of it on August 28, 2013, it took 2,998 words to get the job done.
To read the full text of the “I have a dream” speech, click here.
3. President Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” Speech
A very charismatic Commander-in-Chief, President Ronald Reagan earned the title of the Great Communicator because of his straight-forward delivery, homespun humor, and easy-going style. His previous executive experience as Governor of California, union leader, and Hollywood actor served him well, in this regard.
However, The Gipper, as he was known in reference to one of his acting roles, was not always brief himself, perhaps attributable to his Irish roots to which I can relate. Both of his inaugural addresses ran around 2,500 words. That word count seemed to be his sweet-spot for formal speeches.
The Gipper’s most famous speech, his “Tear down this wall” address at the Brandenburg Gates in Berlin on June 12, 1987 ran 2,672 words. In his defense, he was trying to teach the concepts of freedom and liberty to leaders and citizens of what was then the Soviet Union, the Evil Empire as it became known. He succeeded, at least for a time. Not long afterward, the Berlin Wall was torn down.
But the most famous line in the speech, just like the one from MLK’s most famous speech, was the subject of much controversy beforehand. Here’s an excerpt from a behind the scenes article by Peter Robinson, the speechwriter who penned it including its most most memorable line.
“With three weeks to go before it was delivered, the speech was circulated to the State Department and the National Security Council. Both attempted to squelch it. The assistant secretary of state for Eastern European affairs challenged the speech by telephone. A senior member of the National Security Council staff protested the speech in memoranda. The ranking American diplomat in Berlin objected to the speech by cable. The draft was naïve. It would raise false hopes. It was clumsy. It was needlessly provocative. State and the NSC submitted their own alternate drafts—my journal records that there were no fewer than seven—including one written by the diplomat in Berlin. In each, the call to tear down the wall was missing.”
The challenges didn’t end there. Later, the Secretary of State, George Shultz, and then Deputy National Security Adviser Colin Powell, both objected to the line, according to the writer.
The line stayed in and was delivered because of the speech writer and President Reagan’s firm belief that it was the right thing to say at the right time in history. The president’s advisers have been proven to be a bit overly cautious, to say the least, because the speech was well received within and outside of Germany and the USSR.
To read the full text of the speech, or watch a video of it, click here.
Cleary, it takes extraordinary skill to write and speak well, and to do so with brevity. This was cleverly, and ironically underscored by Shakespeare through a character in one of his longest plays, Hamlet, in which the conniving Lord Polonius proclaims, “[Since] brevity is the soul of wit… I will be brief. Your noble son is mad…”
I know a preacher whose Sunday sermon generally contains a good point or two, but it also includes one or two additional sermons. Thankfully, the air conditioner in his church works well enough to keep most in the congregation awake. He’s not alone, although he is in the extreme. Most contemporary writers and speakers, me included, struggle with word-count-creep.
My training and education in public speaking has taught me that being brief when the subject matter lends itself just makes good sense, and spares some pain in the back side of your audience. It can also be a reflection of how much you possess the virtue of humility. Yes, the same virtue some people consider a four-letter word remains a desirable and admirable quality —even in the social media era.
According to some misguided measurements, your self-worth is not determined by the content of your character, as MLK urged in his Dream speech, but the number of people who follow what you do or say. At least with Twitter your remarks are limited, although much of what is Tweeted and posted post-haste brings the haunting title and refrain of the classic Rock song by Kansas to mind: “Dust in the Wind.”
I’m not sure what social media portends for the future of our race, but there can be little doubt that, despite its redeeming qualities, the social media era is fertile breeding grounds for tech-savvy, privacy eschewing egomaniacs. I wonder what the likes of Lincoln, MLK, and Reagan would see fit to Tweet, if anything at all.
Aside from those who use social media, people who speak and write with an economy of words are generally those who are keenly aware that their audience is just like them; they have many demands on their time and attention —to which I discharge you with an apology that this column ran nearly 3,000 words.
— GCF —
The observations, comments, and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the employees, board members, advertisers, sponsors, or affiliates of the publisher or broadcaster, whichever is the case. This content is Copyright © the individual author(s) who reserves all rights unless otherwise stated. This content is published or broadcast with permission and is distributed by GetCurrentFast.com, a division of American Newzine, Inc.