3 of History’s Best Public Speakers and What You Can Learn From Them

history's best public speakers

The history of humankind is filled with inspiring speeches that changed the world. A good public speaker can inspire the audience, change their minds, make them laugh or cry. Even if you don’t need to give a speech to rouse thousands on a daily basis, talking in public can be a concern in our modern life still. Here are 3 of some of the best public speakers in history from whom everyone can learn a thing or two.   

“Apology” by Socrates

We can track the history of public speaking in the western world all the way back to ancient Greece. Around the year 485 b.C., eloquence was an art for the Greeks. It was a vital skill to have for any citizen who wanted to take pride in his ability to reason. The art of rhetoric was so important, that even Aristotle, one of the fathers of philosophy, dedicated a whole treaty on how to become more persuasive and improve in public speaking. 

Socrates best public speakers

Plato was Aristotle’s teacher, and, in turn, the student of Socrates. Socrates sadly didn’t write any of his wisdom down himself. But Plato took it upon himself to pass on Socrates’ ideas. “Socrates’ Apology” is one of these texts. At the end of his life, Socrates was accused of not believing in the gods and corrupting the youth. This text gives Plato’s version of how Socrates pleaded his defense against the Athenian jury.  

We will most likely never know how much of this speech was actually said by Socrates himself and how much of it was created by Plato. Despite this, it is still an incredibly powerful speech. There are many things you can learn from “Socrates’ Apology”. But there is one special element that anyone can use to make their presentations more interesting and memorable. 

Plato (through Socrates’ mouth) gives a masterful class on storytelling here. To prove wisdom is sometimes awarded to unworthy people, he told a story of how a disciple of him went to the Oracle of Delphi. This story helped him show how when people find their own wisdom questioned, it is common for them to get angry and defensive. With this, Socrates concludes that true wisdom is admitting your own shortcomings. The story not only helps to entertain but to show Socrates’ humility and respect for the gods. 


“I have a dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. 

Martin Luther King’s speech has been quoted innumerable times. It is a wonderful example of an inspiring, emotive speech that resonates even decades after it was written. “I have a dream” is just one (albeit the most famous) of the many speeches Martin Luther King wrote. It is so good, however, that just on its own it is enough to make its author one of history’s best public speakers. 


Martin Luther King Jr. best public speakers

The whole speech is incredibly passionate, as it advocates for equality and civil and economic rights for black people. Martin Luther King uses many references in his speech to illustrate his point. They all come together, however, in the end as a declaration of hope.

“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech shows us that the end of a presentation is the perfect opportunity to finish with impact. Martin Luther King takes the dream he has been talking about and imagines a world where it has become true. This is what makes the end of his speech so powerful. After sharing an ideal of justice and equality, Martin Luther King shares with his audience his conviction that it can (and will) be real one day. 


“The lady’s not for turning” by Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher, also known as the Iron Lady, was the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She was also, undoubtedly, one of the best public speakers in history. In the 80s, she was even described as “the most powerful woman in the world”. She had an extraordinarily long career in politics, and she gave a large number of speeches over the years. 

Margaret Thatcher best public speakers

In her speech “The lady’s not for turning”, there is one specific resource that is worth examining.  She uses wordplay to give a twist on the demands of the opposition. They asked her to take a “U-turn”, meaning a radical change in her politics. Instead, Margaret Thatcher answers that they can be the ones turning if they wish so, making the whole audience laugh.  

“To those waiting with bated breath for that favorite media catchphrase, the ‘U-turn’, I have only one thing to say: ‘You turn [U-turn] if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!’

Sometimes people can be a little shy when using humor in presentations. Truth is, it can be an extremely useful resource. In Margaret Thatcher’s speech, humor serves for making her more likable. But, at the same to time, it also serves the purpose of ridiculing the opposition. True, most of us might not have a strong political opposition to make fun of on everyday presentations. But you can still use humor to make yourself and the presentation more enjoyable.


Learn from the best

All three of these speeches are effective because of one main reason: they connect with their audience. Whether by telling a compelling story, building emotional impact, or humor, these speeches have become history because they make the public easy to identify with what is being said. Even if this sounds complicated, you can also do this in your workplace.

Try to make presentations personal when possible. Rather than just presenting some random facts, try to include your public. You can show how these will affect them, or how they have made an impact on the results. Making your public share the goals and achievements of the company is an effective way to make them more invested in what you are presenting. 

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