Speeches of Note: What Makes Them Memorable?

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Megan Jackson - MA Journalism, University of Roehampton

Phillip Collins, former speechwriter to Tony Blair, and author, Shaun Usher, joined us to discuss what makes a speech powerful. Actor Alex Gwyther and Mara Huff recited some of the most famous speeches, and a few forgotten ones, to allow the audience to hear for themselves what extraordinary writing sounds like.
Elizabeth I – The Heart and Stomach of a King, 1588
Addressing troops at Tilbury, in the face a Spanish invasion, Queen Elizabeth proclaimed: “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king… I am the Queen, I am the nation.”
These lines remain as powerful and memorable today as when they were first spoken. Phillip says this is because she directly confronted her audiences’ suspicions, and criticisms, of her. She knew that many, at the time, wouldn’t have taken her seriously because she was a woman and war was considered the domain of men.
Sojourner Truth – The Women Are Coming Up, 1851
“If women have a pint and man a quart - why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold… But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between-a hawk and a buzzard.”
“History is for the winners” says Phillip. So it’s no surprise Sojourner and her speech given at Woman's Rights Convention in Ohio, are not remembered in anthologies today. Sojourner was born into slavery but escaped with her young child in 1826. She dedicated the rest of her life to traveling around America advocating for abolition and equality of the sexes.
Winston Churchill – Finest Hour, 1940
Speaking at the House of Commons during the height of World War Two, Churchill had to choose his words carefully. He couldn’t scare the audience, but he also needed to be realistic.
Dubbing the war “the battle of Britain” he said: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
Phillip says this was the most successful of Churchill’s speeches because it was the one occasion that was worthy of the rhetoric he used. He says: “Churchill [usually] wasted words on events that didn’t need it.”
Elizabeth II – Solemn and Awful Duty, 1983
“The horrors of war could not have seemed more remote as my family and I shared our Christmas joy with the growing family of the Commonwealth… Now this madness of war is once more spreading through the world and our brave country must again prepare itself to survive against great odds.”
Kept under wraps until 2013, this drafted speech was intended for broadcast should there be a third world war. If the day had come for the Queen to read this speech it would have been extraordinary due to its political nature. The contrast between war and Christmas is stark one, and the rhetoric used creates the idea that the nation is one family and must come together.