What then makes a good political speech? An analysis

Over the change-of-year break, we have had the opportunity to appraise several political speeches. Some of you have ventured an opinion about the characteristics of a ‘good’ speech. Some have given straightforward advice about how to create such speeches; for others, creating good speeches has seemed more complex and not amenable to a simple solution.

The purpose of this piece is to draw together those comments and fashion a framework for creating and evaluating political speeches for your consideration.

Let’s begin by detailing the purposes of such speeches:

A generic statement of purpose might read:

To gain and stimulate interest to:
- enable transfer of information, ideas, motivation and inspiration,
- hold concentration through the speech.

To transmit information about:
- what already is,
- what is planned,
- what might be possible,
- what is predicted.

To explain:
- why actions have been taken,
- the expected consequences,
- the benefit of the actions,
- the possible or anticipated drawbacks of the actions.

To garner approval for:
- what has been achieved,
- what is planned,
- what might eventuate.

To seek ideas about:
- the current situation,
- what might be done about it,
- creative alternatives,
- design ideas.

To motivate and inspire the audience to:
- accept the value of what has been done,
- accept the need for further action,
- change attitudes and values,
- create a vision of a better future,
- establish a different paradigm, another way of viewing issues.

To catch the imagination of the audience so as to:
- paint an exciting picture,
- describe a new perspective,
- generate a desire for action.

To induce harmony and understanding among the audience so as to:
- engender cooperation,
- achieve consensus,
- enable compromise where consensus is not possible.

Not all speeches will embody all of these elements, but all will embrace some.

In brief, the speechwriter and the speaker will need to ask themselves:
- what are the desired ‘take-home’ messages?
- how will they be transmitted?
- what inspirational devices will be used to maximize attention and assimilation?
- how will we know that the messages have been heard and assimilated?

There are a number of devices that facilitate the creation of good speeches:

Message and emotion
To begin with, there is a proven connection between what is to be transmitted and the emotional garment in which it is clothed. We learn and assimilate better when we are emotionally engaged, especially when swept along by the inspirational words, manner of speech, and gestures.

One reason that the speeches by Kevin Rudd, Paul Keating, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus are so highly regarded is that they touched the souls of the people, identifying injustice and discrimination. Ben Chifley’s speech reminded the people of traumas not long past and assured them support.

Speakers know that if they can engage the consciousness of the audience and establish good rapport, if they can build on the emotion that resides in their bosoms, the message, especially when it is one of hope and promise, will impinge more strongly. Unless the audience can be emotionally involved, messages will seem inert and devoid of feeling, and will usually go unheard or unheeded.

Sometimes the emotion is so adverse that transmission of information is nigh impossible, as we have seen several times in regional meetings about the Murray-Darling Water Plan. Unless anger and opposition in the audience are recognized, acknowledged, addressed, and neutralized, at least in part, little of the message will be heard, and even less remembered.

Words and their emotional clothing go together.

Engaging the audience
A speaking device that is a proven success is engaging the audience on a personal level. While even the best of speakers cannot engage everyone in a large audience, they can and do engage selected members. They eyeball one or two near the front and a little way back. It is possible to also target some right at the back and the sides. Good speakers talk to them as if they were the only ones present, moving from front to back, and from side to side, looking intently at their eyes, with an unspoken but unmistakable “You know this to be so”, or “I’m sure you understand this” or “I know you will give me your support”. At a distance, others nearby the targeted ones will also feel as if they are being addressed personally too. In this way, it is possible to personally engage large sectors, even of a big audience. This engagement is vital. Without it, the audience feels ‘out of it’, becomes restive and finally disinterested and unresponsive, and remembers nothing much positive, only feelings of boredom and disengagement. Some have suggested Julia Gillard lacked such a connection to her audience in her address to the ALP National Conference.

Of course, if some members of the audience come carrying adverse baggage about the speaker, it makes it even more difficult for the speaker to engage. From the description of PM Gillard’s audience, it seems as if there were some carrying such baggage, somewhat surprising among an audience of the so-called party faithful.

Avoid reading a speech
Eyeballing selected members of the audience requires the speaker to take his or her eyes from a prepared script. Anyway, it is desirable, if not essential, to not read a speech parrot-fashion. There is a technique of using written notes as a reminder, yet look at the audience while speaking. A quick glance at the notes then raising the eyes to the audience to speak is a well-tried method. The trick is to not read the script, and to speak only when looking at the audience. This is possible if time is taken to rehearse the speech so that most of it is committed to memory, and the script is used only as an aide memoir.

Tell them what you’re going to say
Another device used by successful speakers is the well tried – tell the audience what you intend to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you have just told them. They then know what’s coming, they recognize it when it comes, and they are left with the distilled ‘take home messages’. Handouts at the end of the take home messages are valuable, and visual aids to accompany the spoken word are useful, so long as they match. These devices are perhaps less suitable for political audiences than for other learning situations.

Repetition and reiteration
Repetition is a sound technique. Martin Luther King powered his address by repeating the now-famous words: “I have a dream.” Kevin Rudd repeated: “We are sorry” many times.

Many a good speech, at least in parts, includes short sentences, often using similar words or themes, delivered rhythmically, which create an attractive cadence that can be almost mesmerizing. Martin Luther King used this device, and so did Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd.

Reiteration too is effective. Reiterating the key elements of the message drives it into memory. Several of the speeches use this device.

Summing up or ending with a rhetorical flourish reinforces the message and the emotion that clothes it.

You may care to refresh your memory of the endings of these speeches by Julia Gillard, Ben Chifley, Kevin Rudd, Paul Keating, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus, and remind yourself of the take home messages and the rhetorical flourish with which most conclude. The initial final words are in the links.

We are the people who share and stick together.

I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket...

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

There is one thing today we cannot imagine.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet…

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…

Manner of speech
This can have a significant effect on audience attention and affect the potency and attractiveness of the message. Julia Gillard’s ocker drawl is often criticized, and the less than enthusiastic reception she sometimes receives is attributed to this trait. Sometimes she is said to appear condescending or school-marmish.

There is no doubt that those with a strong resonant voice like Martin Luther King have an oratory advantage. Kevin Rudd spoke in suitable deep tones in his ‘Sorry’ address.

Speakers are stuck with their usual voices, but voice training can improve lesser voices.

The use of hand and arm gestures can enhance, or sometimes detract from the speech. They too can be improved with training.

How long ought a speech to be?
Many commented on the length of the speeches and drew the conclusion that shorter speeches are to be preferred. That is likely to be so when a politician is engaging a remote and largely disinterested audience, such as in a televised address. The attention span of most audiences is said to be about twenty minutes, after which concentration lags. For many audiences it is much less, conditioned as they are to ten second grabs on TV, and rapidly changing subject matter. Even serious subjects, such as those on news bulletins, generally last no more than a few minutes. When a politician is addressing a wide audience the speech needs to be brief. But if the audience is in an auditorium, the duration depends on the subject matter and the nature of the audience. An interested audience, anxious to hear the speaker’s message, will look for a longer presentation, and provided the speaker follows the twenty minute rule and gives the audience a break or takes them in a new direction, good speakers can hold the attention of audiences for an hour, and often do, for example in academic environments.

Speakers at meetings of the party faithful ought to be able to hold their attention for substantial periods. Politicians addressing businessmen or farmer groups, or mining executives, or economists, for example, ought to be able to hold their audiences for as long as it takes to transmit the message in its emotional cloak. Indeed, such audiences would rightly feel short-changed if offered only short ‘grabs’, when what they are seeking is detailed information, plans, predictions, encouragement, and inspiration. Shorter speeches are not necessarily better – the duration is very much a matter of ‘horses for courses’.

In conclusion
Above all, the good speech delivers clearly messages that the speaker wishes to be readily remembered, does so to an attentive and motivated audience that gathers inspiration and hope from what is said and how it is said, an audience that is emotionally engaged throughout.

Writing and delivering speeches is an exacting and complex process. To some it comes easily; others struggle to ascend to great heights. There is no simple formula. Each speech needs to be fashioned to suit the audience, and the message that the speaker wishes to transmit and have remembered. The relationship between the speaker and the audience is critical. A congenial relationship is essential for success – the opposite brings disappointment to all participants.

Although the above suggestions cover a lot of ground, there may be other elements of speechwriting and speechmaking that you would wish to advance. Please add them and tell us what you think.

What makes a good political speech? Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

This is the last in the series of change-of-year speeches. Some may consider it solely religious, but the scribes and Pharisees would have seen it as highly political. Compare it with the others in the series. Would you, as many do, rate it as the best speech of all time?

Here is the source. It is taken from the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 5. An audio version is also available via the link.

1: And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:

2: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,

3: Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4: Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

5: Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

6: Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

7: Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

8: Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

9: Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

10: Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11: Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

12: Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

13: Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

14: Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

15: Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.

16: Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

17: Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.

18: For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

19: Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

20: For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

21: Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment.

22: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

23: Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

24: Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

25: Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.

26: Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.

27: Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery.

28: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. 


29: And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

30: And if thy right hand offend thee, cut if off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

31: It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement.

32: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

33: Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:

34: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne:

35: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.

36: Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.

37: But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

38: Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

39: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

40: And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.

41: And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

42: Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

43: Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

44: But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

45: That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

46: For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same?

47: And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

48: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

There it is. Let’s have your comments. How do you rate it? How does it compare with the others in the series? What do you think?

What makes a good political speech? Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech

Although it was only 278 words and took only two minutes to deliver, US President Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg is regarded as one of the finest in American political history. It was given on Thursday, November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Here it is, and here is the source.

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.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 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.


What is it that makes this speech so impressive? Could a latter day politician give such an address today? How would it be received? How would the media rate it? How well would it be remembered?

There is one more speech in the change-of-years series to come.

What makes a good political speech? Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech

Martin Luther King’s famous speech, delivered on 28 August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. to a vast throng, is classed as one of the top ten speeches of all time; some would place it near the top.

Here it is. The source is here.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

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.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" 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. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. 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.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

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!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

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.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, 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!


There it is – around eighteen hundred words. Why is it so highly regarded? What makes is so inspirational? How readily can politicians talking on other subjects achieve the same impact? How does it compare with other speeches in this series?

There are two more to come.