10 Persuasion Lessons From The Greatest Speeches Of The Last 400 Years
A great speech is like a warm bath. It feels good while you’re in it, but the feeling dissipates the minute it’s over. A former mentor of mine used to rail against seminars for this very reason. By the end of an inspiring, energizing seminar everyone high-fives, hugs, and jumps up and down with a fever pitch that rivals the 1980 Olympic Miracle On Ice victory.
And then, of course, the feeling dies. You leave the seminar and by the time you get to your car, you’re thinking about bills you need to pay, the clogged sink you need to deal with and all the missed calls you have to return.
This is the case in 99% of speeches. A great one inspires you and excites you, but the feeling is fleeting. It’s nearly impossible to sustain.
Every so often a great speech lingers. It continues to inspire us. It plants a seed and forces us to question our beliefs. We remember and study these speeches years, decades and centuries later. I’ve picked out six of these speeches over the last four hundred years. Of course, there are more than six that have had a lasting impact but I had to draw the line somewhere.
Yes, the success of a speech has as much to do with oration skills, time and place as the actual words uttered. A timeless speech, however, needs all those pieces in place. Each speech offers at least one meaningful takeaway you can add to your communication toolbox.
To be included in this analysis, a speech needed to be at least fifty years old and spoken in English. I’ve summed up all ten lessons at the end of the story.
The Golden Speech by Queen Elizabeth I, November 30, 1601
Scholars can debate which of Queen Elizabeth’s now famous speeches were more influential. In 1588, she gave the famous Speech To The Troops At Tilbury. She used similar techniques in both speeches so I’ll include examples from her earlier speech as well.
Note: I’ve modified parts of the verbiage to make it more compatible to modern-day readers.
In her Golden Speech, Parliament had expected her to address specific grievances over monopolistic practices. It soon became apparent she had other goals in mind. She opened the speech by placating the members of Parliament with a genuine show of respect and admiration.
“Mr Speaker, …We have heard your declaration and perceive your care… I do assure you there is no prince that loves his subjects better, or whose love can countervail our love…For I do esteem it more than any treasure or riches; for that we know how to prize, but love and thanks I count invaluable…”
In this section, she credits others for her remarkable success, a stark contrast to modern-day political leaders.
“… you give me thanks but I doubt I have greater cause to give you thanks… and I charge you to thank them of the Lower House. For had I not received knowledge from you, I might have fallen into the lapse of an error, only for lack of true information.”
She used a similar tactic in her speech at Tilbury. She showed deference and respect to her troops and inspired them not by offering cheap motivational gimmicks. Instead, she acknowledged how much she relied on them to protect her kingdom. She went further and suggested she would die with them if need be.
“… have placed my strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust”
Credit your followers and stakeholders for your success. Show how much you rely on them for your strength and wisdom. This humble approach yields more support and loyalty than the brash, arrogant style.
Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death by Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775
Is there an American alive today who hasn’t heard the phrase give me liberty or give me death? Patrick Henry delivered this speech to the Virginia legislature in the run-up to the American Revolution.
Notice how in this passage, Henry starts by making use of the senses (eyes and ears).
“…We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?…”
In this passage, he poses a question that will work in his favor. Henry then promptly answers his own question.
“…Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other….”
He then goes into detail about all the things they have tried in order to remedy the problems. He’s building his argument piece by piece.
“…have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable, but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves…”
Next, he builds to his finale, declaring the strength they already possess and hinting that war is inevitable.
“…The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us… Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable — and let it come!”
He inserts a bit of guilt before his legendary finish.
“…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!…”
Henry did not rush the point. He built his argument, layer upon layer. He set the stage by describing the enormity of the situation. He made it difficult to refute the truth. He explained how they had tried everything reasonable to remedy the situation. Then he explained they were already at war and their brethren were already dying. It was only after the build-up that his now famous one-liner had its effect.
Andrew Hamilton — Peter Zenger Trial, 1735
Andrew Hamilton’s closing argument stretches the definition of a “speech.” But the impact of his closing argument was so profound it compelled me to include it here. In 1735, a damaging claim against another party was considered libel, irrespective of whether it was true or not. Peter Zenger was a printer who found himself on trial for libel — printing the newspaper that contained the alleged libel.
Henry began his closing by arguing that the laws of England should not apply to New York.
His arguments made logical sense, but the law was clear. You cannot claim “truth” as a defense against libel. The judge admonished Hamilton for using such a specious argument and instructed the jury as such. This was the predictable response. Hamilton must have known he had the jury on his side, but he needed to give them something to justify their desire to contradict the law.
“…I know that they have the right beyond all dispute to determine both the law and the fact; and where they do not doubt of the law, they ought to do so. Leaving it to the judgment of the court whether the words are libelous or not in effect renders juries useless (to say no worse) in many cases. But this I shall have occasion to speak to by and by…”
He then finishes his eloquent close by giving the jury a justification to violate the law. It later became known as “Jury nullification.” I’ve abbreviated some of the text but you should read it in its entirety.
“… The question before the Court and you, Gentlemen of the jury, is not of small or private concern….No! It may in its consequence affect every free man that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty. And I make no doubt but your upright conduct this day will not only entitle you to the love and esteem of your fellow citizens…and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity, and our neighbors, that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right to liberty of both exposing and opposing arbitrary power (in these parts of the world at least) by speaking and writing truth.”
The jury returned a verdict of not guilty ten minutes later.
Hamilton convinced the jury to defy a clearly written law. He first proved the unjustness of the law. Once Hamilton had the jury on his side, he gave them justification for nullifying the law. He handed power over to the jury. He gave them permission by suggesting it was their duty to nullify a tyrannical law.
Lincoln — Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863
Lincoln’s opening line reminds his audience of a shared heritage, a commonality everyone cherishes. There would have been a nostalgic feel to that line, especially in 1863. Nostalgia is a great way to bring your audience to a common frame of mind.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
He then praises those who have sacrificed, a familiar gesture by most leaders. This praise sets up the finale of his speech. He exhorts the audience to carry on until the task is complete.
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Level set your audience. Bring them to a collective mindset at the start. Remind them of those who came before you and your responsibility to continue their efforts.
JFK — To Go To The Moon, September 12, 1962
This speech inspired a nation to land on the moon less than seven years later. It was a remarkable achievement, and it shows how powerful a few carefully chosen words can be.
Notice how he uses the power of contrast in the passage below. He proclaims that space will be good or evil in no uncertain terms.
“…For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war…”
There are two critical points to note in the next passage. First, he uses specificity. Kennedy states we will go to the moon this decade. This deadline gives listeners a definite target. Next, he acknowledges the negative and spins it into a positive.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too..”
Contrast is a powerful tool. Specificity gives credibility to your goals. Take a negative and turn it into a positive.
Martin Luther King — I Have A Dream, August 28, 1963
You can’t include a list of great speeches without this one. There’s one small problem. This speech is copyrighted until 2038, so I’ll refrain from quoting actual passages. This speech has been analyzed countless times by people smarter than me. In this analysis, I’ll focus on a few specific principles that reinforce some of the earlier ones.
No doubt, his skill as an orator contributed to the lasting success. It’s also clear he conducted a significant amount of research as evidenced by his references to the Bible, the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln.
King made several references to the Bible, Abraham Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence. He references the Declaration of Independence and challenges us to live up to the ideals stated in that document. This is another example of appealing to shared values. All three of those themes resonate across color, religious and ethnic boundaries.
Let freedom ring. Free at last. I have a dream. King repeats these phrases but uses different variations throughout the speech. (I have a dream that…, I have a dream today…). Repetition is a powerful technique. Varied repetition — repeating the same thing with slight variation — is even more powerful.
The first half of the speech paints a picture of modern-day America. The second half of the speech transitions to hope and points to a better future. Again we see the power of contrast.
His vision of future America is inclusive, one that people of all races, religions and nationalities can embrace. He avoids the easy we will be victorious trap. That implies the other side will lose. Instead, he paints a picture where everyone wins.
Let’s review the key lessons from all six speeches.
1. Acknowledge the power and contribution of others to your success. Show genuine appreciation and admiration for their efforts.
2. Don’t rush to the finish. Build your case, piece by piece.
3. Give your audience justification and permission to take the action you ask of them.
4. Use a shared value or nostalgia to bring your audience to a common mindset.
5. Remind them, with subtlety, of their responsibilities by referencing the sacrifice of others before them.
6. Use contrast to stress your point.
7. Specificity instead of vagueness.
8. Acknowledge a negative and turn it into a positive.
9. Use repetition it to drive home a point. Vary the repetition by using slightly different words or different comparisons.
10. Offer a vision of a future state that the vast majority can embrace — one where everyone wins and nobody loses.