This Wednesday 28th August, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the delivery of Dr Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech which has been voted one of the most memorable speeches in history.
As we commemorate what is almost certainly the greatest speech of the 20th Century – it is a question worth asking: What makes a great speech and where have all the great speeches gone?
It is timely question, especially as we are in the midst of an election campaign with politicians from all sides calling upon us to ‘lend them our ears’ – to consider what makes an inspiring speech and what are regarded as the most memorable speeches given in Australia.
Author Don Watson was a former speechwriter for Paul Keating. He believes there are several essential elements to constructing a great speech –belief, intelligence, and a minimum of abstraction.
“The language should be concrete, otherwise people don’t listen and they turn off,” he said. “And there should be lots of verbs; all the great speeches are rich in verbs.
A great speech should challenge the audience, not just tell them what they’re used to hearing. Every great speech should encourage the audience to think anew.”
Do speeches today achieve that? I don’t think so.
I believe there is a marked lack of inspiring, memorable speeches given these days in large part because of the changing nature of media.
Politicians today are not given to delivering visionary messages of hope and inspiration. Much of what passes for political discourse is carefully crafted, created and delivered to provide a simple grab for the evening news. When the speaker knows that all that will be reported is a short sound-grab from a speech, this does not lend itself to the delivery of any inspiring oration.
Not only that, but much of what has passed for political discourse in Australia in recent times is negative, personal attacks and criticism – a two dogs barking style of politics.
So why are great speeches important?
I believe great speeches are important in order to inspire people to believe in a better world, to believe in a brighter future, to hope for better times, to believe they can be, do, have and contribute more in their lives.
If you’re interested in learning more about Dr Martin Luther King Jr. there is a biography of him here: http://www.biography.com/people/martin-luther-king-jr-9365086
A recent survey revealed the top 25 most memorable speeches of all time, according to more than 1,000 Australians.
1. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. ‘I Have a Dream’, 28 August 1963, Washington DC.
2. Jesus. Sermon on the Mount. c27.
3. Paul Keating. The Redfern Address, 10 December 1992, Redfern Park.
4. Winston Churchill. ‘We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches’, 4 June 1940, House of Commons.
5. Abraham Lincoln. Gettysburg Address, 19 November 1863.
6. John F. Kennedy. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Inaugural speech 20 January 1961, Washington DC.
7. Earl Spencer. Funeral Oration for Diana Princess of Wales, 6 September 1997, Westminster Abbey.
8. Henry V Act IV Scene III. Author William Shakespeare c 1599. St Crispin’s Day speech made before the Battle of Agincourt (which occurred on 25 October 1415).
9. Gough Whitlam. The Dismissal, 11 November 1975, Parliament House steps.
10. Queen Elizabeth I. I have the heart and stomach of a king, 9 August 1588. (Address to the troops at Tilbury as the Spanish Armada approached Britain.)
11. Nelson Mandela. ‘An Ideal for Which I am Prepared to Die.’ Statement at trial, 20 April 1964, Johannesburg.
12. Mahatma Gandhi. ‘Non-violence is the first article of my faith’, 23 March 1922, Ahmadabad.
13. Socrates. Statement at trial condemning him to death, 399BC, Athens.
14. Robert Kennedy. Address to National Union of South African Students, 7 June 1966, Cape Town University.
15. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. ‘We Now Demand Our Right To Vote’, Keynote Address to Women’s Rights Convention, 19 July 1848 New York.
16. William Wilberforce. Abolition of Slavery, 12 May 1789, House of Commons.
17. Alfred Deakin. These are the times that try men’s souls, 15 March 1898, Bendigo.
18. Pericles. Funeral Oration for the fallen of the Peloponnesian War, 431 BC.
19. Mark Antony. Friends, Romans, Countrymen Lend Me Your Ears, Julius Caesar Act III Scene II. Author William Shakespeare c1599.
20. Ben Chifley. The Light on the Hill, 12 June 1949, ALP Conference.
21. Barack Obama. Yes We Can, Chicago, 5 November, 2008
22. Theodore Roosevelt, “Duties of American Citizenship” Buffalo, New York, January 26, 1883
23. Ronald Reagan – “Tear Down this Wall”, Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, Germany, June 12, 1987
24. Steve Jobs. Stanford Commencement Speech, How to Live Before You Die, 12 June, 2005
25. JK Rowling. Commencement Speech, ‘The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination’, June 5, 2008
26. Ronald Reagan, “Address to the Nation on the Challenger”, Washington, D.C., January 28, 1986;
To qualify for inclusion in the survey, the speech must have been given in a public arena. The speech could have been on any subject. The speeches may have been heard or read and can come from any time, from the distant past to the present.
The speech may have been made in Parliament or a palace, a town hall, theatre, cemetery, courtroom, battlefield or place of worship, on radio or television, to a small crowd or an audience of millions.
Top 10 Most Memorable Australian Speeches
1. Gough Whitlam. The Dismissal, Parliament House steps, 11 November 1975
2. Julia Gillard. Misogyny Speech, 10 October, 2012
3. Kevin Rudd. Apology to the Stolen Generation, Parliament House, February 13, 2008
4. Paul Keating. ‘The Redfern Address’, Redfern Park, 10 December 1992
5. Pauline Hanson. Maiden Speech to Parliament, 10 September, 1996
6. Lieutenant-General David Morrison, ‘Get out’ 13 June, 2013
7. Alfred Deakin. These are the times that try men’s souls, Bendigo, 15 March 1898
8. Ben Chifley. The Light on the Hill, 12 June 1949, ALP Conference.
9. Gough Whitlam. It’s Time, Blacktown, 13 November 1972
10. John Howard. Election Policy Speech, “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” 28 October, 2001