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The Art of Great Speeches and Why We Remember Them

By Dennis Glover, Fellow, Per Capita

Per Capita fellow Dennis Glover has just released a new book The Art of Great Speeches and Why We Remember Them. The book discusses seventy or so of the best known speeches of all time, and, using insights from classical and modern speechwriters like Cicero, Ted Sorenson, Graham Freudenberg and Don Watson, explains why those speeches work so well. The book is also a plea to politicians of all political persuasions to improve their oratory and to citizens to demand better. Its conclusion is that if lovers of democracy, freedom, equality and tolerance neglect oratory, the vacuum will be filled by ugly demagogues preaching hate.

The Art of Great Speeches is published by Cambridge University Press (RRP $39.95). Per Capita subscribers and followers are invited to purchase The Art of Great Speeches at a 20% discount until December 31, 2010. To take up this offer, please order through the Cambridge University Press catalogue and enter the promotion code: SPEECH10 at the checkout.'

Cambridge University Press catalogue

Exclusive extract for Per Capita

In an extract made available exclusively to Per Capita, Dennis discusses one of the most impressive and quietly moving speeches of the modern era to illustrate how to appeal successfully to the emotions – Bobby Kennedy’s remarkable speech to a largely African-American crowd in Indianapolis on 4 April 1968 to announce that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated by a white man.


On a technical level, successfully appealing to emotion is one of the orator’s toughest tasks. Like anything in life its genuineness can be faked, and demagogues know how to counterfeit it on demand. It’s also the orator’s most dangerous task – which derives from what might be called ‘the first law of pathos’: for the orator, every emotion generates an equal and opposite emotional response.

On 16 March 1968 Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Presidency. For the next 82 days – a story recounted brilliantly by the historian Thurston Clarke in his book The Last Campaign– ‘Bobby’ captured the imagination of voters across parties, races and classes with a frenzied campaign based not on television sound-bites and attack-advertising but speeches to huge public rallies. He was assisted by excellent speechwriters like Adam Walinsky, Jeff Greenfield and occasionally Ted Sorensen, but necessity often required his stump speech to be thrown away and replaced by extempore remarks. While no political ingé́nue, Kennedy used these occasions to educate his audiences about the momentous issues facing America’s fractured society in that troubled year: poverty, racism and the war in Vietnam. On every possible occasion he challenged the audience’s smug views – whether it was telling college students that their draft deferral rights should be abolished, telling sober businessmen that they bore some of the responsibility for what was happening in Vietnam, and telling angry African Americans to stop rioting. To conservatives, these messages, combined with the frenzied reception he received from minorities and young people at his motorcades and rallies, made Kennedy appear a frighteningly radical demagogue. Bobby knew this and was well aware that in America in 1968, angry gunmen of the type who had murdered his brother five years before abounded. And in one of his finest moments – his reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King, three weeks into his primary campaign, and only hours after the event, to a mainly black audience in Indianapolis, many of whose members were still unaware King had just been declared dead – he called for another emotion: calm. Composed in his head in the car on the way to the rally and on the stage as it was being spoken, and made largely without reference to notes, the speech, with its appropriate anaphora, polysyndeton and parallelism, demonstrates once again the naturalness of rhetorical devices to talented and practised orators. It remains a model for intelligent public speech to candidates of all parties and beliefs, and a reminder that it’s not necessary to talk at the level of the tabloids and talkback radio to connect with everyday people:

Ladies and Gentlemen.

I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some – some very sad news for all of you. (Could you lower those signs, please?) I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black – considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible – you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization – black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with – be filled with – hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favourite… poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King…
And let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

As Clarke relates, after the speech even the most radical black militants listening knew the answer wasn’t to attack the whites in the mixed-race crowd or possibly even kill Kennedy himself as a representative of white society. The crowd broke up and went home, and Indianapolis, a city with a history of racial tensions, was the only major American city to escape riots as a result of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

But Bobby couldn’t calm the whole nation. Shortly after midnight on 5 June he was shot at close range by a deranged Palestinian-American named Sirhan Sirhan.

As Marvin Gaye’s moving song Abraham, Martin and John, reminds us, four of the most emotive speakers in American history – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John and Bobby Kennedy – were all assassinated. Brutus, Antony and Cicero also died violently – the latter in direct repayment for his oratory. Ronald Reagan escaped assassination through chance. Barack Obama had to make his election night address from behind a transparent bullet-proof screen. If we are looking for our old friends Abraham, Martin, John and Bobby, their spirit lives on today in thoughtful and emotive speech, as martyrs to Cicero’s conception of the ideal orator.

Stirring up audiences through grand, emotive oratory comes at a potential price, and the emotive speaker needs both extraordinary courage and something we discuss next: character.