Category Archives: Speechwriting

Revolutionary Speeches to Remember

Whether it’s to inform, entertain, unify or defend, speeches are a critical form of communication. Good ones  know how to grab and keep the audience’s attention, and great ones change thinking and inspire action.  This Memorial Day, I share examples of great patriotic speeches delivered here and abroad that made a lasting impact on the public during times of trial and times of healing.

Winston Churchill was among the great orators whose war-time speeches rallied both his country and the world. In his Suite101 post, Churchill’s Greatest Speeches, blog contributor Michael Rowland noted that Churchill’s “ability to motivate entire nations through the spoken word proved crucial in guiding the Allies to ultimate victory in World War II and saving Western civilization from Nazi tyranny.”

In June 1940, Churchill told his people and the world, “Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, 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!” offers these top 10 U.S. Presidential Speeches that transformed America that were given in times of war and peace. Topping the list is of course President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which was delivered on Nov. 19, 1863, four months after the bloody battle, and was intended to honor the fallen on both sides, who “gave the last full measure of devotion.” The president also hoped to heal the country and unify it. Lincoln’s conclusion resolved “that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

FDR’s famous Pearl Harbor speech following Japan’s premeditated attack on our naval forces in Hawaii rallied the country in a way that few speeches by U.S. presidents have before or since.  President Roosevelt words, carried over radio, began with, “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Toward the end of his speech, FDR declared, “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounding determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered during the March on Washington D.C. in August 1963 was a defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1999, it was ranked the best speech of the 20th century in a poll of scholars of public address.

Rev. King urged America to “make real the promises of democracy,” saying, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I conclude with a lesser known speech given on Memorial Day 1884 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who survived the Civil War with three wounds as a member of the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry. Holmes would serve 30 years as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. He captured the spirit of Memorial Day in these words of remembrance for fellow soldiers gone but never far from the hearts and memories of those left behind:

“But as surely as this day comes round we are in the presence of the dead. For one hour, twice a year at least–at the regimental dinner, where the ghosts sit at table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves–the dead come back and live with us.

“I see them now, more than I can number, as once I saw them on this earth. They are the same bright figures, or their counterparts, that come also before your eyes; and when I speak of those who were my brothers, the same words describe yours.”

One Writer’s take on 9/11, the death of bin Laden, and Obama’s defining speech

World Trade Center, Post 9/11 Attack, 2001

Do you remember where you were on 9/11? I do – that bright September morning 10 years ago I was in my apartment in Atlanta, getting ready to start my work day from home. I got a call from my girlfriend who worked in PR at NYU, urging me to “turn the TV on now.” I called my sister over and together we watched in disbelief as CNN showed a plane crash into the first tower. No surprise, my workday never happened as I remained glued in front of the TV the rest of the day.

9/11 is to my generation’s collective consciousness what John F. Kennedy’s assassination was to my parents’ generation. In the years since those attacks, life went on for many of us (I met my husband, started a family and worked to build my own piece of the American Dream).

It wasn’t lost on me the sacrifices being made by our servicemen and women in the global struggle against terrorism. In recent years, the recession and other domestic concerns were front of mind rather than this war, especially as the housing market collapsed,  the stock market imploded and joblessness increased.

John O’Boyle / The Star-Ledger
Doug Mills/The New York Times


So, when President Obama announced Monday night that the mastermind of 9/11 was killed by Navy SEALs in a secret raid in Pakistan, I felt elation and a sense of justice, and, above all, relief that “Geronimo” as he was called by our intelligence community, was no more. 
‘Images of 9/11 Seared in our National Memory’

As a writer, I thought President Obama’s speech was well crafted and hit the important points that an event of this magnitude should convey.
…His words needed historical context, clarity of purpose, and faith in the resiliency of our country to see this manhunt (and the broader terrorrism struggle) through.
…Above all, his words needed to tell a story. He was most effective as a storyteller when describing how the “images of 9/11 are seared in our national memory.” He said the “worst images” were those not visible publicly – such as the homes which had “an empty seat at the dinner table” and the children forced to grow up without a parent.

“Great speeches are made on occasions of emotional turmoil,” the late political columnist William Safire wrote in his book, Lend Me Your Ears – Great Speeches in History. Safire, who was Nixon’s speechwriter, also says that at their core speeches are storytelling and the best way to begin even an informal speech is with a story.

Speech Coach: Obama Delivered
“I think President Obama did a good job,” says my colleague Carmie McCook, a Washington, D.C.-based speech and crisis communications coach.
For a speech of this importance, McCook says three things needed to be conveyed– the “what,” the “why” and the “what’s next.”

“You need to speak to your audience and address their top concern,” she told me in an informal phone interview. “In this case, the terrorist of our decade is now gone.”

She adds that you need to provide as much detail as possible – observing that as the president recounted the operation in the compound, “you were visually going there with the SEALs,” she says.

“Finally, you need to explain what’s next – where we go from there. He made it clear that this doesn’t mean our war is over but it certainly means that we’ve made a huge impact on people.”

Jon Favreau, Obama’s director of speechwriting.

Obama’s speechwriter Jon Favreau certainly knows how to evoke emotions and convey the resolve that brought the country together after 9/11: “And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.”  

My One Peeve
If there was one thing I would have changed in President Obama’s remarks, it would be his use of “I” – “I directed,” “at my direction” “I repeatedly”…I understand the need to show strong leadership so close to a re-election bid, but I would have used more inclusive words like “we” and “us” every time.  Afterall, it was a collective effort that achieved this mission, and it will take every one of us to be vigilant to safeguard our country from another day like September 11, 2001. I pray that Monday’s actions lead us further along that noble path.
Links to read more
Associated Press
Reuters Front Row Washington
Economic Times



Natural Communicators

As someone who writes scripts on a regular basis, it’s always refreshing when I uncover presenters who are natural communicators. These folks know their subject intimately, and speak to it from a place of authenticity. They get their point across well, engaging their audience with their own experiences, relevant statistics and, above all, a call to action.

Earlier this week, I attended a breast cancer golfing event in Atlanta called Agile on the Green. The event has raised more than $130,000 in its six years of bringing Atlanta’s IT community together to make a difference in breast cancer outcomes. The event’s founder, Tricia Dempsey, started her IT staffing company and the fundraising event six years ago while recovering from Stage 3 breast cancer. Both she and Kelly Dolan, executive director of Komen Atlanta, spoke passionately about the need for more awareness and support for affordable mammograms in a state where one in three Georgians has gone without health insurance over the past two years.

Everyone’s ears perked up when Tricia shared a comment from her recent oncologist check-up. When she asked, “How is the cancer business going?” her doctor replied, “The cancer business is terrible.” That was her segue into an alarming trend of job losses leading to lost health insurance, which in turn, has led to fewer clinical exams and later cancer diagnoses. Kelly stood up and urged everyone in the room to break the 1,000 mark of company participation next year, and provided undeniable stats on the pervasiveness of breast cancer (one in eight women will be diagnosed with the disease at some point in her lifetime). What I found most memorable was Kelly’s personal tribute to Tricia, saying, “To have started the tournament the way Tricia did out of the adversity of breast cancer is a great testament to Tricia’s strength and commitment to this cause, and that is what motivates this entire cause.”

These ladies are inspiring role models who have mastered how to speak well to get their message across memorably.