What makes a speech great? In an era where a great speech can go viral across varying platforms in a matter of minutes, an effective, captivating speech can sway public opinion and bring meaningful attention to a problem. We remember a great speech for its material, passion, context or circumstance, which touch each of us in a unique way. Since the beginning of 2016, we have witnessed speeches that will go down in history because they either fulfilled the aforementioned criteria so well, or because they so clearly failed to do so.
A clear standout this year was first lady Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. She laid out a clear, persuasive argument while emphasizing the importance of the general election, claiming it would “have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.”
It was not just Obama’s passionate endorsement of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that made her remarks notable or important, but the context in which she made her speech. By emphasizing and relating to Clinton’s role as a former first lady, she established how Clinton has been a strong advocate for children and a widely identifable mother, lending an air of credibility to her endorsement of the former Secretary of State.
Another well-wrought address came from the other side of the aisle. In March, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) met with a crowd of interns to share his hopes for a “confident America.” His speech centered on long-sighted hopes for unification, and it was the context of its delivery that gave the speech such power. It interspersed personable anecdotes with apolitical messaging at a time when the Republican Party was beginning to struggle with having Donald Trump emerge as its eventual nominee.
By sharing anecdotes about bussing tables at Tortilla Coast during the start of his career, Ryan effectively connected with his audience, a group of 20-somethings with political aspirations. He also widened his base of appeal without alienating hard-liners. If Ryan is laying the groundwork for his own future presidential bid — which some argued he was doing — this speech put him on strong footing as it appealed to a wide demographic while conveying positive notions of hope and hard work.
Politicians are hardly unique as public figures; Hollywood has produced its own bevy of influential people, and one particularly effective, politically charged speech came from outside the Beltway this year.
After winning the 2016 Humanitarian Award at the BET Awards, “Grey’s Anatomy” actor Jesse Williams used vivid imagery to convey the degradation of racial justice and cultural appropriation. His measured delivery brought the audience to its feet, and his powerful final words about “gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit” resonated in the room and across a country currently dealing with racial injustice.
Of course, every lauded speech has its disastrous counterpart. At the Republican National Convention, Melania Trump showed that issues of plagiarism extend far beyond the classroom when she delivered an address that was reminiscent of Obama’s own convention remarks eight years prior. The stolen words ignited a firestorm of controversy and distracted completely from the RNC’s coalition-building efforts. Even Donald Trump’s own convention speech did little to unite the Republican Party, for his address appealed to an existing base rather than those who remain unconvinced of his viability to hold office as president.
In 2016, identifying a great speech is not as simple as reading a historical address or tuning in to the radio. These days, any speech on the internet has a boundless audience and an endless shelf life. But even during a time when celebrity is fuzzy and prestige inconclusive, the art of speechwriting is not lost. The highly effective speeches, whether they come from a podium, a pulpit or your newsfeed, share common elements of strategic communication. Such clear, simple rhetoric will always be both effective and in style.
Erin Hickok is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Maddi Kaigh is a senior in the College. They are the presidents of the Georgetown Speechwriting Advisory Group.
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