How to make a speech to change the world

A 16-year-old boy is making headlines today after a brilliant speech at a political conference, and with No Pens Day tomorrow, we offer our top tips on the art of public speaking.

Conference season is here for British politicians. Audiences have already been treated to a battery of hard hitting political speeches at the Labour and Liberal Democrat gatherings, with the Conservative party conference still to come.

Tomorrow, coincidentally, schools across the country are taking part in a new nationwide initiative: No Pens Day Wednesday. It aims to get pupils to stop writing for a day, and start talking.

So, to mark the occasion, The Day presents a five-point guide to perfect public speaking, in the hope of inspiring as many of you as possible to put down your pens.

1. Make an impression

The best speechmakers grab their listeners’ attention before they’ve said a single word. Public speaking is like theatre: everyone loves a dramatic entrance. Elizabeth I was a mistress of this art. In a famous speech about the Spanish Armada in 1588, she shocked the crowd by appearing, not in queenly robes, but in steel armour, riding a warhorse and brandishing a silver truncheon.

But you don’t need to dress in a breastplate to make a strong first impression. Just stand up straight, look confident and engage your audience. Look directly at your listeners, not at the floor. Keep hands out of pockets. Most of all, try to enjoy the moment, and relax.

2. Know your audience

It’s important not to misjudge a crowd. The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu learnt that to his cost when he addressed a mob of angry protestors on live TV. Soon, angry chants against the dictatorship were being beamed all over the country – and Ceausescu’s regime crumbled hours later.

Of course, attempts to ingratiate yourself with listeners can go embarrassingly wrong. US President John F Kennedy, in a speech in Germany, told a crowd: ‘ich bin ein Berliner’, meaning – he thought – ‘I am from Berlin’. But when he said it (the story goes) a laugh went up from the audience. What he had really said, in strongly accented German, was: ‘I am a jelly doughnut.’

3. Practice makes perfect

The Ancient Greek orator Demosthenes strengthened his voice by giving speeches with a mouthful of pebbles. Eliza Doolittle, in My Fair Lady, spent hours doing voice exercises: ‘The rain, in Spain, falls mainly on the plain; How now brown cow’. The film The King’s Speech showed how George VI overcame his stammer through the power of vigorous swearing.

Will any of these techniques work for you? Don’t count on it. But there is a real point here: the art of oratory is not something you’re born with, it’s something you learn and which can be improved with confidence and practice.

4. Keep it short

Only authoritarian leaders can get away with long speeches. Kemal Ataturk holds the record, with a speech that lasted 36 hours, spread out over six days. Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro have both given speeches of more than five hours. These are not examples you want to follow.

By contrast, some of the most famous speeches in history are also the shortest. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, one of the finest orations of all time, is only 269 words long. The Roman general Julius Caesar went even further in the quest for brevity, reporting a whole campaign in three words: ‘veni, vidi, vici’ (’I came, I saw, I conquered’).

5. Speak from the heart

Two thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Nero caused a stir when he allowed the philosopher Seneca to write a speech for him. The Romans were shocked that someone would allow themselves ‘to depend on the eloquence of someone else’.

These days almost all politicians have teams of speechwriters on whose eloquence they happily rely – thus breaking the last and most important rule of good public speaking: speak from the heart. A piece of really inspiring oratory will be about something you genuinely care about. Real passion and interest are what you need to make a good speech great.


  1. Make a speech! Choose something you feel strongly about, or which you are really interested in.
  2. Choose a famous figure from politics or history, then hold a balloon debate. Each round, someone will be thrown out of the balloon – make a short speech to ensure it isn’t you.

Some People Say...

“People should be straight-talking, not use rhetorical tricks.”

What do you think?

Word Watch

Nicolae Ceausescu
A communist dictator who ruled Romania, in Eastern Europe, Ceausescu was toppled in 1989, following a swift popular uprising. The TV pictures of him failing to control the crowd during his ill-fated final speech became some of the defining images of the collapse of communism.
John F. Kennedy
The 35th President of the USA, Kennedy was well known for his powerful oratory, and made several important speeches before his assassination in 1963. The accuracy of the doughnut story is still hotly debated.
An Athenian orator, famous for his series of brilliant speeches which urged the Athenians to go to war with the Macedonians. The Athenians followed his advice, and were disastrously defeated, but his speeches are still held up as models of persuasion.
Kemal Ataturk
An inspirational Turkish leader who helped Turkey advance into the modern age after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He is still widely admired, but was not known for having very democratic tendencies.


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