3 criteria for a transcendent speech

A book about the greatest addresses in American history inspires this trifecta of oratory must-haves for your next opportunity at the podium.

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Speeches, like flowers, are a moment’s monument. They exist most powerfully for a specific audience, a specific speaker, and a specific message. Attempts to make them have a wider impact usually fail.

Of course, there are some magnificent exceptions. If we set out to create a list of the greatest American speeches, we could easily compile the short stack of moment’s monuments that continue to move people to action years later: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Beyond this short pile, the controversies would begin, politics would intervene, and personal prejudice would play a greater and greater role. Would we include Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death”? How about Ronald Reagan’s Challenger disaster speech? Or FDR’s “Fear itself”? There would be lots of opportunities to argue about what makes a great speech and which speeches meet the criteria.

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