The greatest speeches and speakers

JFK inaugural speech

The list of speeches is endless, the candidates limitless and the answer completely and utterly subjective.  But we thought we’d give it a go anyway.

This isn’t just a cut-and-paste of every other ‘Best Speeches Ever’ compilation.  It breaks public speaking down into its five key constituent parts, and  picks an example to demonstrate each.  Which means we’re not saying that Neil Kinnock is the world’s greatest public speaker, or that Barack Obama gets by solely on the back of a winning smile.  We’re simply suggesting that if you could combine the strengths of this lot, you’d have the public speaking equivalent of Pele, Don Bradman and Nijinski rolled into one.

The Pause: Mastered by JFK, in Berlin June 26, 1963

JFK masters the pause - Great Speech WritingIn many ways he gets it all wrong.  Gripping the lectern as if he’s worried he might fall-off, swaying from side-to-side, great phrases garbled too quickly.  From that perspective, it’s a study in sea-sickness.   However, he’s rescued by the words themselves and, as demonstrated here, by the power of the pause.  Extraordinarily, he has the confidence to stay silent even when the crowd don’t respond.  It doesn’t take long before they do.  Pausetastic!

Click here: JFK Masters the Pause

Body language: Mastered by David Cameron, Global Investment Conference, 9th May 2013

body language - Great Speech WritingWatch this one with the sound muted and ignore the content (along with your political views).  This is body language at its very best – energetic, great arm movement and eye contact, but in no way over-the-top.  From the moment Cameron leaps onto the stage, he is in control, exuding positive energy and creating impact.  The key to getting people to listen is to get the body language sorted first (they say that 90% of a speaker’s personal impact is created visually).  In this speech, it’s hard to look away.

Click here: David Cameron masters great body language

Facial expressions: Mastered by Barack Obama, White House Correspondent’s Dinner, 2011

expressions - Great Speech WritingWhen he’s on form he’s the contemporary master of public speaking.  This is Obama at his best.  The pauses and comic timing are worthy of a professional entertainer, but focus particularly on his face.  The smile lightens the mood; the frown is quizzical but unthreatening.  The speaker’s job is, in many ways, to use delivery to signpost to the audience how they should react to the words.  To say he nails it would be one of the great understatements. And the jokes aren’t bad either.

Click here: Barack Obama masters the use of facial expressions

The voice: Mastered by Neil Kinnock, Labour Party Conference 2005

emphasis - Great Speech WritingLampooned by Spitting Image, mugged by the English Channel, and forever associated with the infamous “We’re orriitte” in Sheffield, Kinnock may be an odd choice.  But the man remains a fine orator.  This isn’t a long clip, but it demonstrates how the emphasis given to certain parts of a sentence can bring a speech to life.  Listen out for the words “outdated”, “misplaced”, “irrelevant” and “chaos”.  Passionate, heartfelt but not OTT.  Delivery at its finest.

Click here: Neil Kinnock masters emphasis

The content: Mastered by Martin Luther King, August 26th 1963

content - Great Speech WritingNot a controversial choice, but hard to look beyond this.  It passes every test: memorable, significant, powerful, poetic and full of pathos.

Every schoolboy can quote ‘I have a dream’ but when you listen to the speech in its entirety it’s incredible how many other sound bites and phrases you will be aware of.  You’ll also appreciate just how many other speeches have taken elements of this one as a template.  On top of everything, MLK pretty much sings it. The word “Alabama” lingers for ever.  The rhythm is extraordinary.  When he talks about ‘rising’ his voice rises with it.  Simply the best.

Click here: Martin Luther King masters his content (amongst other things)

On the other hand: Not mastered by Robert Mugabe, United Nations 2011

agh - Great Speech WritingFed-up of inspirational, talented, impactful speakers?  Watch this for a bucketful of wet water to dampen your love of public speaking.  Eyes down, voice monotone, hands still.  You’d feel more engaged  listening to him on the radio.  As for the content – it’s irrelevant.  I challenge you to sit this clip through without falling asleep.

Click here: Mugabe fails horribly across the board


There is, of course, an element of self-interest in pulling these together.  We help politicians, business people and private clients around the world write and deliver speeches that are remembered for all the right reasons.  If you enjoyed this, please spread the word.