Speeches that Shook the World

In “Speeches that Shook the World” (BBC4, 6 November), the poet, writer and broadcaster Simon Armitage went in search of the ‘alchemy’ that can transform the written word into a great speech.

Many of the speakers featured in the programme were very well known – Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Earl Spencer for example – while others may be less familiar, such as Colonel Tim Collins addressing his troops before going into battle in Iraq in 2003; or Pauline Pearce, a local resident spontaneously challenging rioters on the streets of Hackney in 2011. Other contributors included Philip Collins, once a speechwriter for Tony Blair; the human rights activist Peter Tatchell; and the actor Charles Dance.

The commentary and analysis were often illuminating. The ‘rhymes and half rhymes’ in the line-endings of Churchill’s speeches appealed to Armitage’s poetic sensibilities – ‘beach’, ‘street’, ‘believe’, ‘see’, ‘fleet’ – while vocal coach and actor (notably in The Thick Of It) Vincent Franklin introduced us to Logos, Ethos and Pathos. No, not The Three Musketeers but the 3 persuasive elements of classical rhetoric, as defined by the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.

  • Logos – structure, logic and explanation
  • Ethos – trust and sincerity
  • Pathos – emotion

Or to put it another way, if effective speech-making is the art of persuasion, then you need to appeal to the mind, the heart and the guts. To do this, you must first identify what it is that you want people to know, to feel and to do.

Franklin also explained ‘the ladder of abstraction’, from the top rung (the big idea or concept), via the middle rung (the decisions needed to realise the big idea) to the bottom rung (the real things required to achieve it). This was well illustrated by the example of raising educational standards (the big idea) through investing in schools (the middle rung) and reducing class sizes (the bottom rung). According to Franklin, good speeches range up and down this ladder.

Other classical tricks of the trade put in an appearance including Anaphora (repeating words or phrases for effect); Praeteritio (drawing attention to something by saying you’re not going to talk about it); and Hendiatris (the Rule of 3). These were well illustrated in turn by extracts from speeches by President Kennedy, Barack Obama and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Armitage also tackled the power of language to shock, divide and inflame, notably what has become known as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech by Enoch Powell in 1968.  In contrast, the climax of the programme was a speech that he felt demonstrated how the combination of the right words, a strong argument and powerful delivery could change the mindset of a whole nation: Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech from exactly 50 years ago this year.

Reflecting on the programme, fellow and prospective members of Toastmasters will be reassured, encouraged and delighted to learn that much of the advice provided by Armitage and his expert guests echoed the objectives of speech projects in the Toastmasters ‘Competent Communicator’ manual – e.g. setting out a clear structure (Organise Your Speech); choosing the right words (How To Say It); and improving your delivery by varying your pace, pitch and power …. and using pauses (Vocal Variety).

Toastmasters can’t promise to turn you into a speaker of Martin Luther King’s calibre overnight, but we can help you find your public speaking voice. So if you dream of speaking well in public, why not drop in to one of our meetings. Guests are always welcome. Please see the Calendar pages for details.


For a detailed analysis of Earl Spencer’s eulogy at the funeral of Princess Diana, see the Toastmaster magazine of December 2003

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