Not many things that humans do have as much impact and resonance as the power of speech. For centuries philosophers, politicians, religious leaders, and artists have given captivating speeches in which they attempted to capture the essence of the times that they lived in and tried to convey an idea to the wider masses.
Over time, this practice turned into the art of persuasive speaking to skilfully build and present arguments. We also call this craft the art of rhetoric. There are many different rules to public speaking and even those who correctly follow all of them cannot be sure that their speech will hit a high note and resonate with the public. This is why the art of delivering speeches is something that only the rare can master.
But when a speech is done right, it can cause revolutions, stir the soul, and create change. In this article, let’s take a look at some of the greatest speeches and what made them resonate so well and impact the lives of millions.
1. “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King JR.
I Have a Dream is a speech unlike any other. Delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963, in Washington during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The purpose of the march was to advocate for the rights of African Americans. Dr. King was the last speaker at the march and over 250,000 people listened in awe as he delivered his historic speech.
Only a handful of other speeches even come close to holding such a high place in the collective memory of Americans. I Have a Dream is still regarded as a brave roar for civil rights.
Dr. King delivers an iconic line “I have a dream” presenting a vision of a different society that is built on equality and freedom. In this ideal society, freedom and equality triumph and shine bright in the land where slavery and injustice flourished for centuries. His use of repetition, imagery, and references makes it a striking cry for equality. Dr. King partly improvised the end of the speech, the section that is now the most famous, as he repeated the now legendary phrase I have a dream.
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity….
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today….
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring….
Martin Luther King JR.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”
2. “Give Me Your Children” by Chaim Rumkowski
Give Me Your Children by Chaim Rumkowski is perhaps one of the most gut-wrenching insights into the lives and deaths of Jews during the Holocaust.
This impactful speech was delivered in Lodz, by the head of the Jewish Council of Elders, appointed by authorities of Nazi Germany, during the occupation of Poland. In this speech, Rumkowski stands in front of a crowd of worried faces, faced with a decision that no human would want to make. Rumkowski asks the parents of the ghetto to hand over 20,000 children to be sent to an extermination camp. In this tragic speech, Rumkowski tries to elaborate on why this must be done, or otherwise, even more, people will be deported.
Today this speech remains an important testament to the inhumanity of war and the evils everyone is capable of. Rumkowski remains a polarizing figure to this day. Some regard him as a cold-blooded tyrant, and others regard him as naïve. Rumkowski never got to see the end of the Second World War and is said to have been possibly murdered by other Jewish inmates in one of the trains traveling to a concentration camp.
“A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess – the children and the elderly…
I must perform this difficult and bloody operation – I must cut off limbs in order to save the body itself! – I must take children because, if not, others may be taken as well, God forbid…
One needs the heart of a bandit to ask from you what I am asking. But put yourself in my place, think logically, and you’ll reach the conclusion that I cannot proceed any other way. The part that can be saved is much larger than the part that must be given away.”
3. “I Am Prepared to Die” by Nelson Mandela
I Am Prepared to Die is a three-hour-long speech delivered by Nelson Mandela in 1964 that marks a turning point in South Africa’s history. The speech was delivered during the trial in Rivonia in Johannesburg. Mandela is faced with accusations of furthering communism, trying to sabotage the state, and recruiting people for guerrilla warfare.
Mandela’s fight is presented by the court as a terrible act of terrorism against white South Africans, but he chooses to present his action as the only thing to do to ensure the freedom of his people and the demise of South African apartheid policies.
This speech did not absolve him, and he ended up serving 27-year years in prison before being released and becoming the president of South Africa, which had changed vastly by the time he left prison.
“My Lord, I am the First Accused…
During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs to be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
4. The Final Speech of Socrates
Socrates is known today for his contributions to ancient Greek philosophy, which would go on to become the foundation of Western philosophy. While he never authored any texts during his lifetime, his words were written down posthumously by classical writers.
Of all his teachings, one of his greatest and most memorable is the speech he delivers at the hour of his death. Socrates had been condemned to death for his questioning of norms, honest evaluations of important people, and for corrupting the youth of Athens by teaching them to be rebellious.
Socrates delivers one of the most stoic and impactful speeches on mortality and accepting death. In his last words, he calmly accepts his death, as if it was merely a passing thought. Socrates warns about the dangers of sentencing philosophers to death and what may come as a result.
His speech is almost prophetic because it set in motion events that will cause the collapse of the Athenian system. Socrates vocally denounces a state that turned against its people and calls for a voice of reason.
“There are many reasons why I am not grieved, O men of Athens, at the vote of condemnation. I expected it and am only surprised that the votes are so nearly equal; for I had thought that the majority against me would have been far larger; but now, had thirty votes gone over to the other side, I should have been acquitted…
The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways, I to die, and you to live. Which of these two is better only God knows.”
5. The Spanish Armada Speech to The Troops at Tilbury by Queen Elizabeth I
Queen of England from 1558 to 1603, Elizabeth I is remembered as a fierce leader and a powerful force that brought about a Golden Age for her people. But this doesn’t mean that the period of her rule was without danger and conflict. The defining moment of her reign was the invasion of the Spanish Armada – it not only showcased Elizabeth as a powerful global leader but also secured Protestant rule in England.
Faced with the incoming invasion by the Spanish Armada, with over 130 ships aimed at Britain, Elizabeth I stood proudly in front of her people in Tilbury, England with the greatest resolve for the nation to survive, promising to live and die amongst her people.
The speech is lauded as an example of the pride and bravery of a determined woman standing up for what she believes is right and being prepared to die to defend it.
“My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery. But I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people.
Queen Elizabeth I
I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you on a word of a prince, they shall be duly paid. In the meantime, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over these enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.”
6. The Surrender Speech by Chief Joseph
The Surrender Speech is another powerful, yet short, speech delivered in 1877 by Chief Joseph, or Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it, of the tribe Nez Perce on the occasion of his surrender to general Howell Howard.
In this short speech, he presents the demise of his people and voices his realization that all hope is lost and that even the young people are either dead, starving, or freezing. In his gut-wrenching final words, he exclaims that he merely wishes to find his children, those alive and those who are dead and that he is tired of fighting.
The speech is a sad reminder of how colonists destroyed the lives and cultures of native populations, not just in America, but around the world.
“I am tired of fighting.Chief Joseph
Our chiefs are killed.
Looking Glass is dead.
Toohulhulsote is dead.
The old men are all dead.
It is the young men who say no and yes.
He who led the young men is dead.
It is cold and we have no blankets.
The little children are freezing to death.
My people, some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food.
No one know where they are–perhaps they are freezing to death.
I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find.
Maybe I shall find them among the dead.
Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired.
My heart is sad and sick.
From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
7. “We Shall Fight on The Beaches” by Winston Churchill
Perhaps one of the most rousing speeches ever delivered was “We shall fight on the beaches” by Winston Churchill. This is also possibly his best-known speech. The speech still stands against the trials of time and even today it resonates with clarity.
In 1940, Prime Minister of Britain Churchill had an uphill battle on his hands. He shared the military disasters that had taken place as well as warned his people about the threat of invasion from Nazi Germany, while still maintaining hope and a promise of victory.
In his speech, he promises to fight and asks the people to do the same, wherever they are, until a better and more just world was established.
“When Napoleon lay at Boulogne for a year with his flat-bottomed boats and his Grand Army, he was told by someone, “there are bitter weeds in England.” There are certainly a great many more of them since the British Expeditionary Force returned…
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
We shall fight on the seas and oceans,
We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
We shall fight on the beaches,
We shall fight on the landing grounds,
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
We shall fight in the hills;
We shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
8. “How Dare You?” by Greta Thunberg
How Dare You is a razor-sharp speech aimed at the listeners at the UN climate meeting in 2019. In her speech, the 16-year-old Greta Thunberg voiced the anxieties and concerns of younger generations in the 21st century, realizing that they have been left with a scorched planet that might never be healed again because of the greed and irresponsible behavior of the previous generations.
Thunberg delivers a roaring speech in which she claims that the eyes of the world are going to be on the politicians. She accuses them of stealing childhood – that she, as a child, should have been in school, not delivering speeches in front of the people that destroyed the world.
The question “How dare you?” is a rhetorical one, aimed at those who have stolen the dreams and childhoods of so many people around the world with empty words and promises, on the cusp of another mass extinction.
“My message is that we’ll be watching you. This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!..
We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.“
9. “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou
In Still I rise, Maya Angelou portrays the struggles of African Americans, refusing to give up and leaping like a wide ocean and rising into a new dawn in which nothing can subjugate them ever again.
Written in the form of a poem, Still, I Rise escapes the boundaries of what it was originally meant to be and turns into a beautiful and empowering speech that has been delivered on stages all over the world. The poem is about self-respect, confidence, and self-esteem. The poem demonstrates the author’s power and how nothing, not even the color of her skin, can bring her down or hold her back.
“You may write me down in historyMaya Angelou
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
10. “The Earth Is Running a Fever” by Ban Ki-moon
Another resonating speech about climate change was delivered by the ex-UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-moon, commemorating the anniversary of the monumental Paris Climate Agreement in 2020.
Ban Ki-moon championed a new era in which he managed to bring the topics of climate change to the forefront at the table in the United Nations and reinforced his belief that climate change is the biggest challenge we have ever had to face.
In this effective speech, Ban Ki-moon reminds us that we need to collectively find solutions and implement them because the Earth is running a fever.
“As we convene here in Bali the eyes of the world are upon us. This is a historic moment, long in the making. Decades of careful study by the planet’s leading scientists. Years of heated argument among the world’s policy makers. Countless media stories debating the linkage between observed natural disasters and global warming…Ban Ki-moon
This is the moral challenge of our generation. Not only are the eyes of the world upon us. More important, succeeding generations depend on us. We cannot rob our children of their future…
We are all part of the problem of global warming. Let us all be part of the solution that begins in Bali. Let us turn the climate crisis into a climate compact.”
The greatest speeches are the ones that come from the heart, and sometimes they do not follow any rules or boundaries. Great speeches manage to escape the boundaries of how we think during a certain time and present a different, better version of the world in which we could all live.
Many have fought wars and made great changes to this world by using weapons and other tools, but the most lasting changes and the most profound ones are almost always enabled and empowered by those who possess the masterful skill of public speaking.
We hope that these speeches inspired you and gave you another perspective on the world that we live in and that you may take their timeless wisdom as a reminder and as advice.