What greatness sounds like

US President Barack Obama stands out as one of the great orators of the modern era.
US President Barack Obama stands out as one of the great orators of the modern era. Photo: AFP

The last time I heard a great speech I was sitting on an exercise bike at my local gym. The TV screen on the wall above was tuned to Barack Obama's president-elect victory speech in November 2008. He addressed the Chicago crowd, telling them the moving story of 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper:

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

By the end of the "yes we can" speech, I was a blubbering mess, wiping my face with my towel, and hoping that nobody in the gym had noticed.

Dr Martin Luther-King gives his "I have a dream" speech in Washington DC.
Dr Martin Luther-King gives his "I have a dream" speech in Washington DC. 

That's what a great speech can do. It can move you in ways you never thought possible. And the very best speeches can actually make you believe.

When it comes to delivering great speeches, Obama is the best we've seen since JFK. His 2004 convention speech is a case in point:

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.

Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.

There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.

Many of the great speeches of the 20th century are so well known that a mere grab from any of them is instantly familiar. Such as Winston Churchill's 1940 address to the House of Commons:

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.

Ditto, Martin Luther King Jr's landmark speech delivered to 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963:

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

And JFK's 1961 inaugural address:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

Author Don Watson, a former speechwriter for Paul Keating, believes there are several essential elements to constructing a great speech –belief, intelligence, and a minimum of abstraction.

“The language should be concrete, otherwise people don't listen and they turn off,” he says. “And there should be lots of verbs; all the great speeches are rich in verbs.

“A great speech should challenge the audience, not just tell them what they're used to hearing. Every great speech should encourage the audience to think anew.”

Context is another important element to a great speech, although that is often not something that can be controlled. Luther King's 1968 speech at the Mason Temple (in Memphis, Tennessee) is so much more profound because he delivered that speech the night before he was assassinated:

Because I've been to the mountain-top. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that behind the world's greatest speeches, is a person employed to actually write the speech. For instance, most of JFK's speeches were written by Ted Sorensen, while Peggy Noonan was responsible for putting words in Ronald Reagan's mouth. And many of Gough Whitlam's erudite pronouncements owe much to Graham Freudenberg, who also wrote for Bob Hawke, Neville Wran and Bob Carr.

The relationship between the speechwriter and the orator can be a difficult one, something Watson found out when he famously fell out with Keating over ownership of the famous Redfern Speech (see below).

“Always remember that the person who delivers the speech, owns the speech,” Watson says. “It's the speaker who is taking the political risk, who ultimately makes the call, not the speechwriter.”

For inspiration from closer to home, try these great Australian speeches:

The Redfern Speech

Arguably the greatest speech in Australian political history, and certainly the most powerful. Delivered by Paul Keating in Redfern Park on December 10, 1992, the speech was a game-changer. Keating became the first Australian prime minister to openly acknowledge the role of European settlers in destroying indigenous lives and culture.

We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.

Watson believes the key line to the speech was where Keating addressed the crowd:

We failed to ask, how would I feel if this were done to me?

The 'Get Out' Speech

Perhaps the most stirring speech in recent memory was that delivered by Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, via video to his troops. The speech was made in the wake of a sex scandal in the ranks, and Morrison holds nothing back:

If that does not suit you, then get out. You may find another employer where your attitude and behavior is acceptable, but I doubt it. The same goes for those who think that toughness is built on humiliating others.

Morrison's response was so swift and self-assured that some called for him to run for PM.

Gillard's Misogyny Speech

The impassioned speech by the former PM in October last year, made whilst pointing at Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, garnered attention all around the world and drew a line in the sand for the rights of women.

I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not. And the Government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.

Let's see her successor improve on that.

The It's Time Speech

Delivered at Blacktown Civic Centre by Gough Whitlam, this speech inspired a generational shift and signalled the end of 23 years of Liberal/Country Party rule. It also was the first time we heard Whitlam utter his famous introduction: Men and women of Australia.

In the speech, Whitlam told the gathering it was time for change.

There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time.

Calwell's Election Speech

Labour stalwart Arthur Calwell went on to lose the 1966 election to Harold Holt. But not before he'd made clear his vehement opposition to Australia's military involvement in the Vietnam War.

The most important issue in this campaign is Conscription, the conscription of a section of our 20-year-old youths, against their wishes and their wills, to kill or be killed in the undeclared, civil war in Vietnam … Conscription is immoral, it is unjust and it is a violation of human rights. It must and will be defeated.

It wasn't defeated. The majority of Australians, the subsequent vote seemed to show, were in favour of our involvement in Vietnam. Still, it was a ripping oration.