Rhetoric and Voice: the power of a speech

Nov 30, 2020
Every speech has a purpose. Over the years, we’ve seen speeches that aim to elicit sympathy, change minds and rally support. And the most memorable of these tend to come from Presidents of the United States. As the most powerful people in the world, getting their message heard is easy – but that’s only half the battle. The second and more challenging aspect is getting listeners to act or react. So, with Joe Biden now the US President-elect, and a new inauguration speech expected on January 20, 2021, we look at a handful of the most memorable President addresses and examine what’s helped them live on in the public psyche.

FDR inauguration: 1933

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural address came at a time of great upheaval and immense societal difficulties in the United States. It was 1933 and the country was at the peak of the Great Depression, with unemployment standing at 25%. FDR knew he must deliver a speech which acknowledged the harsh realities, while also offering hope and reassurance to his people. And in doing so, he gave us a line that has since entered folklore and transcended his own Presidency. “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It’s a quote that proves a great speech, well delivered, can cement a legacy.

JFK inauguration: 1960

In 1960, America was in the midst of the Cold War and facing a long-coming reckoning with civil rights issues at home. This is the political landscape in which John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural speech, and it was a chance for him to confront the nation’s challenges and present a vision that was just as much filled with hope as it was realism. Although JFK’s speech was among the shortest in inauguration history, he made his time count. Standout lines like “my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man” show how his words combined strong themes with even stronger rhetoric to create a moment he is still remembered for to this day.

Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate: 1987

By 1987, the United States had been engaged in the Cold War for several decades, but President Ronald Reagan had started to build good relations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. That’s one of the reasons his speech at the Brandenburg Gate caused controversy in some quarters. With international relations on a knife’s edge, President Reagan addressed his opposite number directly when he said: “If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev… Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Two years later, the wall was down. The significance of Reagan’s speech is often disputed, but what undeniable is the legacy of his words. With laser-sharp clarity, he delivered a line that sent ripples through time.

A More Perfect Union: 2008

Our next speech comes not from a President, but a Senator. In the spring of 2008, Barack Obama was seeking the Democratic nomination, but faced controversy over his links to a divisive pastor. He chose to tackle the issue head on and deliver his ‘A More Perfect Union’ speech in response. Obama addressed and denounced remarks made by the pastor, but also framed his response in the wider context of race within the United States. He stated the goal of his campaign was “to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.” This standout line connects civil rights with American prosperity, and draws on parallelism to create rhythm and leave memorable, meaningful takeaways. It’s thought his impassioned delivery went some way to putting him in the White House.

These speeches had an immediate impact but also contributed to future discourse, and in some cases, still form a part of popular culture today. There are many social and political reasons for that, but without a mastery of both rhetoric and delivery, each would be consigned to history. The rhetorical devices used put some power behind the meanings of each speech, manipulating language to influence the audience. The final piece of the puzzle, though, is the orator – the voice. Without the right voice, even the most carefully crafted of scripts would fade into obscurity.