History is witness to the beauty of effective oral advocacy. While many of the greatest persuasive speeches have been political, the need for persuasion in public speaking matters in nearly every setting.
Anyone can master oral advocacy, but it also requires the heeding of the lessons taught by master orators. Understand how great leaders from the past have persuaded audiences. This will help immensely in applying those lessons learned by the modern world.
Here is a list of five famous persuasive speeches that made a huge impact on the audiences, and their analysis.
Churchill’s “This was their finest hour”
June 18, 1940, London, UK
“We will fight on the beaches,” “blood, toil, tears and sweat…”
They are all phrases uttered by none other than the master of the sound bite, Winston Churchill. While these words have taken a life of their own outside his speeches, his power of oratory is far stronger than a string of memorable phrases. It was persuasive and had a great impact on people.
One of his most famous persuasive speeches was the speech in the House of Commons on 18 June 1940, on the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo when Britain was expecting to be invaded at any time. The speech that lasted 36 minutes, christened the Battle of Britain and ended with the phrase, “their finest hour.”
“What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’
The basic message of this speech was, “We are going to be attacked and for our and others good, we have to resist. So, let’s do it.”
This message is scarier than it is inspiring, but the way Churchill conveys it, the content is transformed. Churchill turned the battle into a memory even before it had begun. He used persuasion and although he formally presented people with a choice to fight, he precluded his argument with all but one option: to fight.
BBC’s Audience research showed that he captured the nation’s heart. The percentage of listeners reached almost 60%. The speech was considered courageous and hopeful. A Gallup Poll conducted in July gave Churchill an unbelievable 89% approval rate.
Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or death”
March 23, 1775, Virginia, United States
The “liberty or death” speech by Patrick Henry on March 23, 1775, is one of the most famous speeches in the history of the United States. This speech is made to persuade the delegation to vote for joining the fight for freedom.
“MR. PRESIDENT: No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate.”
“Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
After his highly persuasive speech, which ended with the famous words, “give me liberty or give me death,” the convention was persuaded that the only option left for them is to enter into the fight for American independence.
Demosthenes, “The Third Philippic”
342 B.C.; Athens, Greece
A master statesman and orator, Demosthenes was passionate about Athens and he loved the abundant freedom it offered. He believed in strongly opposing anyone who tried to infringe on Athens. Even when Philip the II of Macedon starting gaining deeper access to the Greek peninsula, Athenians did nothing. Demosthenes tried his best to make them understand the imminent danger with his oratory skills. It was when Philip advanced on Thrace that the Athenians woke up from their slumber and debated whether or not to heed the advice of the great orator, Demosthenes.
In this rousing speech, he boldly called up to fellow Athenians to take action.
“It is this fate, I solemnly assure you, that I dread for you, when the time comes that you make your reckoning, and realize that there is no longer anything that can be done. May you never find yourselves, men of Athens, in such a position! Yet in any case, it were better to die ten thousand deaths, than to do anything out of servility towards Philip. A noble recompense did the people in Oreus receive, for entrusting themselves to Philip’s friends, and thrusting Euphraeus aside! And a noble recompense the democracy of Eretria, for driving away your envoys, and surrendering to Cleitarchus! They are slaves, scourged and butchered! A noble clemency did he show to the Olynthians, who elected Lasthenes to command the cavalry, and banished Apollonides! It is folly, and it is cowardice, to cherish hopes like these, to give way to evil counsels, to refuse to do anything that you should do, to listen to the advocates of the enemy’s cause, and to fancy that you dwell in so great a city that, whatever happens, you will not suffer any harm.”
His speech persuaded each member of the assembly. At the end of this speech, the entire assembly cried out the now-famous words, “To arms! To arms!”
Martin Luther King “I have a dream”
August 28, 1963, Washington, United States
What was it that made Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech” one of the most persuasive speeches of all time? It was this speech that put the civil rights movement in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans.
Since we are discussing most persuasive speeches, it is not just the script that matters. In fact, it is said that King ditched the original script as he wanted to connect with his audience more. And it worked.
Martin Luther King had a magic about him. He was calm, confident, bold, solid and repetitive when he delivered his speech. Bold statements and rhythmic repetition were the hallmarks of his persuasive speech. This repetition reinforced his passion.
“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
As the speech came to a close, the repetition increased, building a crescendo.
“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations,” he begins. King goes on to talk to his audience and their personal situations directly, “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
The speech was persuasive but it was also delivered powerfully and went right into the souls of people of all colors. He was fully with the people, connecting o them with his eyes. Martin Luther King’s script writer, Clarence B Jones said later, “It was like he had an out-of-body experience.”
Roosevelt, “Fireside chat”
March 12, 1993, United States
A great example of how a persuasive speech can result in a rich pay-off, was Roosevelt’s first “Fireside Chat,” delivered on March 12, 1933. America was at that time in the grip of the Great Depression. There were no jobs and people were struggling for shelter and food. Runs on local banks was common as people feared they would lose all their money.
In that situation, Roosevelt announced a national bank holiday and addressed the nation on radio.
The result was profound. He managed to calm people and restore stability to the banking system. This one speech gave America hope when it badly needed it.
“My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking — to talk with the comparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking, but more particularly with the overwhelming majority of you who use banks for the making of deposits and the drawing of checks. I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, and why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.”
After explaining how the banking system works in details, he closes with,
“After all, there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people themselves. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system, and it is up to you to support and make it work.”
“It is your problem, my friends, your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”
Everything about the speech is perfect. It is called a Fireside chat and he addresses people as friends. It conjures images of him sitting by the fireside and chatting with his close friends. The speech itself is remarkable for its pitch-perfect calm. He uses normal words people understand, to explain complex situations. He is crystal clear in his speech.