Top 10 Most Influential Speeches

Have you ever watched a political debate between U.S. congressmen or senators broadcast on C-Span, and heard one party in the debate accuse the other party of using ‘rhetoric?’

The accusation usually goes, “That’s just more rhetoric from Senator so-and-so,” and it’s stated as if to besmirch the good name of rhetoric. At least that seems to be how general audiences are meant to take it anyway, as if rhetoric is some kind of dirty political game. So, let’s get clear about what that word means, just for a second.

Simply stated, rhetoric is the logical structure that composes a selection of words into a persuasive, moving, entertaining, and/or instructive message. That means every coherent statement ever uttered followed a rhetorical structure. Yes, that also includes deception, and praise, and flattery.

The senator who accuses the other senator of using rhetoric, is himself employing rhetoric. What does that mean? While there may be some real dunces in politics, but most senator types are educated and polished professional communicators. They know what rhetoric is and what it isn’t. And their common condemnation of ‘rhetoric’ as such, is typically a rhetorical ploy to counter a hollow, ideological argument without appearing to categorically renounce the ideology itself, presumably because it’s popular. That’s some pretty clever rhetoric. Wouldn’t you agree?

In sales, public speaking, negotiation, argumentation and even personal communication understanding the basics of rhetoric gives us a framework for improvement. So let’s take a look at the rhetoric of some famous speeches.

  1. The Gettysburg Address – Abraham Lincoln

The world famous ‘Gettysburg Address’ speech was given by President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, PA on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the National Cemetery.

The primary address at the ceremony was delivered by a famous orator at the time, Edward Everett, and was one of two hours. After such a compelling speech, it appeared that Lincoln’s brief but sincere speech hardly even mattered at the time. However, in spite of a bit of criticism from his opponents, the speech was commonly quoted and hugely praised and was soon recognized as a classic masterpiece of outstanding poetry.

  1. I Have a Dream – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous 17-minute long public speech delivered on August 28, 1963, was a direct call to end discrimination and support racial equality. The speech was a defining moment in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King’s speech ranked as one of the top U.S. American speeches of the 20th century conducted by a group of educational scholars regarding public address in 1999.

  1. Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

One early afternoon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt along with Harry Hopkins (Roosevelt’s chief foreign policy aide) were both interrupted by a call from Henry Stimson (Secretary of War) and were informed that Japan just attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. At around 5pm that evening after numerous meetings with his key military advisers, President Roosevelt decisively and calmly dictated a speech off the top of his head to Grace Tully (Roosevelt’s secretary) to make a request to Congress for a formal declaration of war.

  1. Ich bin ein Berliner – John Fitzgerald Kennedy

In 1963, President Kennedy gave one of his most moving speeches ever to the world in West Berlin. Besides “ask not”, it was the most well-known speech he ever delivered. Those heartfelt words captured the attention of the world regarding what Kennedy considered the warmest spot in the Cold War. Scribbled into his hand at the very last moment, they were his very own words; unlike the majority of his other addresses created by uniquely gifted speechwriters. This was even more amazing since Kennedy had a reputation for being tongue-tied when trying to pronounce or speak foreign languages. Ironically, the most famous four words of the entire speech were in German – Ich bin ein Berliner (“I am one with the people of Berlin”).

  1. The Great Silent Majority – Richard Milhous Nixon

President Richard Nixon gave his address to the nation regarding the War in Vietnam on November 3, 1969 about his plans to end it. His address is commonly called the ‘Silent Majority’ speech because towards the end he asked for “the great silent majority of my fellow Americans” for support, meaning the ones who were onboard with his policies but never actually spoke up. The President was contrasting these average American citizens without reserve using vocal adversaries of his said policies who demonstrated and protested against the war, like they did in Washington, D.C. in October of that same year.

  1. The Military Industrial Complex – Dwight David Eisenhower

In President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address, he cautioned American citizens to keep a wary eye on a growing socioeconomic force he referred to as the ‘military industrial complex.’ Eisenhower proved downright prophetic given that the military industrial complex did indeed develop into a powerful entity in the years following World War II. President Eisenhower’s frank language shocked a few of his followers. However, for most listeners, it appeared obvious that Eisenhower was just stating the obvious. Both World War II and the subsequent Cold War lead to the development of a substantial and strong defense organization. Eisenhower warned that this military industrial complex may eventually weaken or devastate the very principles and institutions it was created to protect in the end.

  1. Kenyon College Commencement “This is Water” – David Foster Wallace

It was only one time that David Foster Wallace ever spoke publicly regarding his point of view on life. The parable “This is Water,” was delivered during a commencement speech addressed at Kenyon College in 2005. The speech itself encapsulates Wallace’s gifted mind as well as his trademark humility due to the way it gave meaning to the lonely, beautiful thoughts that roamed about in his head and the way he made people ‘think’ better in general. “This is Water,” is a meaningful parable about the process of constructing meaning from one’s own life, no matter the path it follows.

  1. A Left-Handed Commencement Address – Ursula Le Guin

Le Guin’s “A Left-Handed Commencement Address” perfectly summarizes the area of feminism that highlights the fundamental peaceful qualities of women compared to most men. Le Guin spoke the established binary hierarchies that, as she saw it, govern society. She pointed out how historically, men have always fought wars and were generally thought of as ‘opposites’: fail/succeed, lose/win, weak/strong, false/true, as Le Guin so eloquently put it — women have lived, and have therefore been loathed for living. She goes on to say that women are the entire side of life that involves and takes responsibility for everything that’s unclean, animal, uninhibited, passive, and obscure — the valley of the deep, depths of life.

  1. On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous 1948 speech is considered by a number of experts as one of the most amazing and profound speeches ever addressed throughout modern history. Ms. Eleanor, the widow of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the address in Paris, France on December 9, 1948. She spoke to the United Nations at a precarious time when the Soviet Union was throwing its weight around following the Second World War in Eastern Europe.

  1. Women’s Rights are Human Rights – Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton

Sometimes the facts carry enough rhetorical weight to speak for themselves. When facts of that sort are delivered by a significantly authoritative presenter, you have the makings of a very potent speech.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton took the stage at the UN Conference on Women in 1995, it was her detailed list of atrocities against women and young girls that captured the audience’s interest. It wasn’t that they were unaware of the crimes, since the majority of the audience were advocates for the rights of women in many countries across the world in their own right. But, the key difference was that such an important political female voice brought the issues to light and therefore took on a whole new meaning.

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