Voices of History: How to Talk Your Way to Power

In his latest book, Simon selects the most influential speeches of history, ranging from Alexander the Great to John Boyega.  Here he introduces his choices, and tells what makes a powerful speech.
Malala Yousafzai in the Oval Office, 2013, with two other speechmakers featured in Voices of History
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Friends! Brothers and sisters! Comrades! Fellow citizens! Your majesties and highnesses! My countrymen! My children! Fellow soldiers! Ladies and gentlemen!

You can tell much by the opening of a speech. Elizabeth I begins hers majestically, ‘My loving people’. Mandela says, ‘Comrades and friends’. Lincoln starts: ‘Fellow countrymen’. Toussaint Louverture combines ‘Brothers and friends!’. For Robespierre: ‘Citizen-representatives of the people’. Michelle Obama calls her audience of schoolgirls ‘future leaders of the world’. Stalin changes his entire relationship with the Soviet peoples when, after the Nazi invasion, he addresses them on 3 July 1941 not just as Communist ‘comrades’ but as ‘brothers and sisters, I am addressing you, dear friends’. Eleazar, Jewish rebel leader, calls his people ‘generous friends’ when he asks them to commit mass suicide with him. Calling an audience ‘friends’ is often a good start, though Cromwell, talking to English Parliamentarians, takes a different approach: ‘Ye pack of mercenary wretches. . .. Ye sordid prostitutes’. Donald Trump does not address his audience directly but just says: ‘Wow! Whoa! That’s some group of people. Thousands!’ The opening is all about defining the relationship – the terms of the contract, contact and compact – between speaker and audience. Invite them in, make them comfortable, but not necessarily too comfortable, because even the most egalitarian speaker must hold the helm and set the course.

Voices of History: Speeches that Changed the World is a wholly new book of the greatest speeches – and a companion to my Written in History: Letters that Changed the World. These are speeches everyone should know. Some are familiar and rightly so; some, I hope, are new to you.

Hitler speaking at the Reichstag in 1939

I would like to tell you the speeches that changed the world were the most poetic, truthful and decent; hymns of liberty, paeans of tolerance. Yes, there are many of those here, but the most powerful speeches are not all about love, beauty and poetry – they are often atrocious projections of naked power, of lies, hatred and calumny, dehumanising so-called ‘enemies’ with cruel hyperbole. Such speeches move worlds just as much as those of the noblest spirit and heroic courage. This collection includes the best and worst. Some of the most diabolical are here, partly for the fascination of seeing words that convinced so many in other epochs to do unspeakable things, partly to wonder at their obvious combination of evil and absurdity. Above all, I include these wicked speeches because in our own times, the very truth of these events has been challenged in an age of historical ignorance, resurgent hatreds and conspiracy theories. It has never been more important to see and hear the evidence, more essential to know such things, and realise there were times when mere words helped make violence and hatred not just normal and acceptable but desirable.

Many of these speeches are viscerally relevant today even though they were delivered centuries ago: in the age of populism, Brexit and Trumpism, when widespread indignation and exasperation with traditional parliaments and professional politicians is fierce, Cromwell’s furious attack on his own parliamentarians sounds familiar to us – he felt he was ‘draining the swamp’. It is impossible to listen to the speeches of Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King and Toussaint Louverture without reflecting on how racism, in America and Europe, has survived and thrived. John Boyega’s passionate address just after the murder of George Floyd in America, the killing that launched an international campaign against racism, catches the righteous fury of the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. It is tragic that in the 21st century it is relevant to include a speech against antisemitism – anti-Jewish racism – and anti-Zionism by Chaim Herzog. In Stalin’s speech, we hear the original Stalinist version of the antisemitism now resurgent on the American and British ‘progressive’ Left. Reading these speeches, we need to remember the idea attributed to Edmund Burke but originally spoken by John Stuart Mill during a speech in 1867: ‘Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.’

The best of these speeches are examples of human decency and sublime literature that can be enjoyed on every level. The finest are a marriage of speaker, message, audience and time, a mix of skill, felicity, serendipity and synchronicity that together, through a form of personal alchemy, can make gold. It is easy to make rules on the best oratory. It must be short without glibness; substantial without ennui; powerful without haughtiness; dramatic without contrivance; confident without bombast; intimate without condescension; emotional without melodrama; courageous without bravado; beautiful without artifice; passionate without posturing; poignant without plangency; honest without vanity; world-historical without grandiloquence. ‘In an orator, the acuteness of the logicians, the wisdom of the philosophers, the language almost of poetry, the memory of lawyers, the voice of tragedians, the gesture almost of the best actors, is required,’ wrote Cicero, one of the Rome’s best speakers, in his essay On Oratory. ‘Nothing there-fore is more rarely found among mankind than a consummate orator.’ It was written in 55BC but is just as true today.

The most revealing speeches are those that are the most personal: in Alexander the Great’s speeches, we can hear across two millennia his pride in his own divine greatness – and fury at the ingratitude and impertinence of his mutinous men. Nixon’s farewell to his staff must be the most awkward speech of his life. In Stalin’s secret last speech, we are witnessing the real tyrant as vicious old man.

Authenticity and brevity. The essence of a great speech is always the ability to communicate a simple message crafted to suit the chosen audience, not only through words but through the fusion of the character of the speaker and the message itself. The authenticity of that matching of speaker and message decides its success or failure. It’s this that makes Elizabeth II’s COVID-19 speech so effective.

Oratory is theatrical. It requires some of the gifts of the thespian and the tricks of the showman but it is very different. At the theatre, the audience knows the actor is playing an imaginary part and wishes to enter into the fantasy. In oratory, it is the opposite. There is indeed a stage, a show, a drama, but while knowing this is a performance, the audience must trust that the ‘actor’ is not acting at all, must believe in his or her sincerity and recognise their total self-belief. ‘The eloquent man is he who is no beautiful speaker but who is desperately drunk with a certain belief,’ noted Ralph Waldo Emerson. That self-belief, abnormal in most mortals, essential in leaders, can be both virtue and sickness: the asset of confidence can so easily degenerate into psychopathic narcissism.

‘All great speakers were bad speakers at first,’ argued Emerson. This is not always true: Danton was a born speaker – you can hear his passionate energy. Compare Hitler and Churchill. Both worked exceedingly hard on their speeches. Photographs of Hitler by his court photographer show him posing like a camp actor as he worked on his stage show. His henchman Goebbels recalled that he rewrote each speech about five times, dictating changes to three secretaries simultaneously. Churchill, who started with a slight stammer and a lisp, proves Emerson’s point. He wrote his speeches by hand, over and over again, correcting and polishing. Hitler’s performances were theatrical spectaculars of physical athleticism, sometimes lasting hours, delivered to crowds first in sweaty beer halls then in illuminated stadiums. Yet on paper, his phrases seem mediocre. Churchill’s were the opposite, delivered stolidly in House of Commons or BBC studio, but the phrases are golden and timeless. Both worked well on radio: would either have worked on television? Certainly not Churchill. Yet the melodrama of the movie Triumph of the Will shows that Hitler might have shone if CNN had existed to broadcast his long rallies.

Martin Luther King

In some ways, the speaker is extraordinarily exposed but the payoff is the ability to communicate directly to the audience. The speeches of the French Revolution often ended with the arrest and beheading of the speaker – a spontaneity that Robespierre and Danton both encouraged, and both fell victim to. It was the same in the assembly of democratic Athens. Alexander the Great could have been cut down by his mutinous soldiers when he addressed them so rudely. The speaker is taking a risk, and that very gamble can win the love of the audience: Napoleon’s speech to his Old Guard appeals to the intimacy of general and soldier. When he returned to seize power for the Hundred Days, he only had to speak to them and they defected to him.

In 1989, the Romanian dictator Nikolai Ceauşescu lost control of his country in a speech that culminated in booing, then revolution. He fled by helicopter and was then arrested and executed. In 21st century Venezuela, the brutal bungling dictator Nicolás Maduro regularly revealed his coarseness with comical mispronunciations: during a speech on education, he meant to quote Jesus multiplying the ‘loaves and the fishes’, but instead said, ‘to multiply ourselves like Christ multiplied the penises – sorry the fish and the bread’, to national guffaws. The Spanish words for fish and penis are similar – but not identical.

The length of a speech is often proportional to its vainglory. ‘Brevity is the great charm of eloquence,’ decreed Cicero, who believed ‘the best orator is to the point and impassioned.’ While Lincoln’s masterpiece at Gettysburg is just 278 words long, Fidel Castro, Communist dictator of Cuba, once spoke for seven hours: the image he was seeking was machismo personified; virile, almost priapic, endurance coupled with dictatorial omnipotence. The wartime speeches of Hitler and Italian dictator Mussolini were also preposterously long. ‘Speeches measured by the hour,’ said Jefferson, ‘die with the hour.’ Pitt the Younger’s speech lasted a few seconds but is sublime. The power to bore an audience is a classic manifestation of tyranny. The freer an audience the less it will tolerate.

Yet fairground hucksterism not only works – it is often mesmerising. As Hitler, Eva Perón and others in this collection show, audiences revel in the brazenness of charisma, bombast and melodrama: bold theatricality and the excitement of crowd behaviour can combine to enchant and intoxicate, audiences embracing a sort of frenzied madness.

There is a difference between demagoguery and oratory: ‘Eloquence cannot exist under a despotic form of government,’ wrote Tacitus in his essay The Corruption of Eloquence. ‘It can only exist in lands where free institutions flourish. There is nothing in the world like a persuasive speech to fuddle the mental apparatus and upset the convictions and debauch the emotions of an audience not practised in the tricks and delusions of oratory.’ But the difference between vulgarity and eloquence is in the eye of the beholder.

Worthy virtue can bore its listeners to death: ‘In doing good, we are generally cold, and languid, and sluggish; and of all things afraid of being too much in the right,’ comments Edmund Burke. ‘But the works of malice and injustice are quite in another style. They are finished with a bold, masterly hand; touched as they are with the spirit of those vehement passions that call forth all our energies, whenever we oppress and persecute.’ The Devil often has the best lines. Robespierre’s call for Terror is powerful, elegant and bloodthirsty. But not always. Himmler was no orator.

Speeches are tools of power as essential as artillery or gold: ‘instruments that a president uses to govern’, in the words of JFK’s speechwriter Ted Sorenson. Even without the poetry of a Martin Luther King, there are methods to make them work. ‘If you have an important point to make,’ said Churchill, ‘don’t try to be subtle and clever, use a piledriver. Make that point one time, hit it again. A third time. A tremendous whack!’

Each speech tells a story in which hindsight can be heart-breaking. Egyptian president Sadat and Israeli prime minister Rabin both had made their careers as warlords – and when they made peace, their speeches were powerful, not just because they were superbly written (Rabin’s especially touching since he was in person shy, rough and reticent). They are even more poignant now that we know that both of them paid for their courage with their lives. It is impossible to read Martin Luther King’s ‘I’ve seen the Promised Land’ without feeling that he understood that he was doomed.

Then we have the ritual of the last goodbye. The dying Evita’s adieu from the Casa Rosada is every bit as emotional as the song from the musical she inspired. Napoleon’s tearful departure verges on cheap melodrama – very different from the sad elegiac haughtiness of Charles I before his execution. It is hard to grieve for the merciless secret police killer Yezhov who appeals to his master Stalin before he is shot.

The best speakers have the ability to make ideas and aspirations come alive – ‘thoughts on fire’, as William Jenning Bryan, the American populist, put it – so that their audiences feel they are part of something greater than themselves, part of a dream that may come true. JFK’s inaugural speech and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ both achieve this.

Wartime speeches have special functions: they depend on the management of expectations. Elizabeth I made a virtue of the perceived weakness of femininity. Churchill ‘mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’ (in the words of CBS reporter Edward Murrow and reused by JFK) by offering only blood and tears. The Jewish commander Eleazar at Masada persuaded 900 men, women and children that they should commit suicide en masse rather than face execution, slavery and rape at the hands of the Roman victors.

Lincoln speaking at Gettysburg

Speeches that begin wars offer easy prizes in return for little blood spilled – and that blood is hopefully foreign. Pope Urban II invented Christian holy war as the equivalent of Islamic jihad and inspired the first crusaders to take Jerusalem, offering a mix of faith, penance and plunder. Hitler’s speech opening World War Two with his invasion of Poland is full of militaristic bravado. His audience believed victory was assured since he had outwitted all the great world powers and annexed two countries without a shot fired. Similarly, when he declared war on America in December 1941, he believed he was losing nothing and intimidating America to keep out of Europe. The consequences were the opposite of those intended.

Elizabeth, Hitler, Churchill, Lincoln wrote their own speeches, but JFK worked on his with Sorenson; Reagan’s were brilliantly written by Peggy Noonan. The best speech writers are literary ventriloquists. They are moulded to the speaker but they can also invent a new persona. Noonan’s cowboy’s lament for Reagan’s retirement evokes the myth of an old cowboy of the American West:

‘There’s still a lot of brush to clear out at the ranch, fences that need repair and horses to ride. But I want you to know that if the fires ever dim, I’ll leave my phone and address behind just in case you need a foot soldier. Just let me know and I’ll be there, as long as words don’t leave me and as long as this sweet country strives to be special during its shining moment on earth.’

But it must be plausible to maintain authenticity. Slickness can be suspicious; loquacity so quickly becomes verbosity. Trotsky was the wizard of oratory during the Russian Revolution, but ultimately the rough Bolsheviks distrusted his showmanship, preferring a speaker who made a virtue out of his own lack of magic which he presented as plain-speaking: Stalin. Gladstone’s performances to huge audiences were astonishing for their sanctimonious energy but they were also displays of grandiloquent vanity pricked by his witty rival Disraeli, who called Gladstone ‘a sophisticated rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity’.

The nature of speeches has changed over history thanks to technology. Some of the speeches from the ancient world were recorded by historians who wholly or partly invented speeches they had not heard – but it is likely that Josephus, Tacitus and others quoted here did talk to those who were present. Some of these speeches were the regular table talk of a monarch given to tiny groups of courtiers, such as Genghis Khan’s reflections on conquest and Muawiyah’s on the art of ruling. Cleopatra’s line about her fate was probably repeated by Octavian and recorded by the well-connected historian Livy – I count it as a speech because she was aware they were perhaps her last words on history’s stage.

Nero’s entire life as emperor was a self-conscious theatrical performance – as if he was living on a Roman reality TV show. If he had been alive today, he would certainly have starred in one. Of all the tyrants of the ancient world, he is strangely the most modern. He would have fitted well into the brutal buffoonery of 21st century politics.

For most of human history, speeches could only be heard by a small number of people, thousands, not more. Those given in the Roman Senate, the Athenian Ecclesia or the English Parliament were initially heard only by those present. It was the same with the battlefield speeches of Alexander the Great before Issus or Henry V before Agincourt. The problem was solved on battlefields by the officers repeating the speeches to their regiments. In the age of printing, the public could read an official version – Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech was published. Before TV or radio, political speeches were a form of entertainment, almost as much as theatre or musical recital. Thousands turned up to hear Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaign.

The invention of the microphone in 1877 meant that by the early years of the 20th century, speakers could address much larger crowds, leading to stadium spectaculars: ‘I know that men are won over less by the written than by the spoken word, that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great orators and not to great writers,’ Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. But live harangues to large crowds lacked the intimacy that the new technologies of TV delivered in the 1950s.

Television favoured some, undermined others. Kennedy looked glamorous, Nixon furtive. Speakers could reach an even larger audience yet attention spans grew shorter. Some speeches were reduced to just the phrases – ‘the soundbite’. Tape recordings and video also meant that speeches could be given in private then copied and broadcast. The Iranian Revolution was won not on the streets or the minbars but in cassettes smuggled into the country bearing the speeches of Khomeini; Osama bin Laden spread his jihadism through smuggled videotapes.

The internet and the podcast restored interest in listening to words, yet one might have expected 24-hour news, multi-channel radio and TV, and the epidemic of smartphone distraction to shorten the patience of audiences. The laconic Lincoln would have found no problem with this, even if his lanky simian looks and clumsy, jerky movements would not have worked on screen. Yet the merging of news and entertainment has worked for some. The elegant Obama gave speeches – beautiful, almost classical phrases, exquisite delivery (touches of Dr King), inspirational themes (echoes of Lincoln) – that carried him to the presidency. Yet his polar opposite, the bombastic Trump, is an unconventional but very successful communicator and orator, improvising long meandering speeches that delighted rallies of his supporters. They were often broadcast in full, and proved compelling even to his critics. One does not recall the phrases but the impression is authentic and unforgettable.

Trump’s speechmaking highlights something bigger: today, oratory is flourishing in a way that is more visceral and popular than it ever was, even in Cicero’s Rome or Pericles’s Athens. Young speakers like Greta Thunberg and Malala can become instantly world-famous in one televised speech fighting for climate change reform or education. A brilliant novelist like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie can talk about feminism as a podcast and reach millions. Speeches – or often visionbites or extracts of speeches – are viewed many millions of times on the internet. The speech has never been more powerful because television and internet have never been more dominant, while the ‘old’-style media – newspapers, mainly, and trustworthy news TV – has withered dangerously. So far it is autocrats and populists who have exploited this best by appealing over the heads of traditional media directly to ‘the people’. But if they can do so, others can too.

The real theme of Voices of History is a celebration of – and warning against – the power of words. Leaders are responsible for their words, and words have consequences. The violence of language normalises the acceptability of violence, which leads inexorably towards the practice of violence. When murderous leaders like Robespierre, Lenin and Hitler spoke, they were surprisingly frank in their intentions but instead of judging them by their words, listeners ignored or downplayed their statements due to wishful thinking or fatal underestimation. Words and ideas of violence helped make the 20th century into the century of blood.

In our age of populism, racism, antisemitism and conspiracism, we must always judge politicians by their words. ‘When bad men combine,’ writes Burke, ‘the good must associate; else they fall one by one.’ When Burke says ‘associate’, we might say, write your own speech; use your own words; find a speaker who can articulate ideas to a new audience. The fashion today is to exaggerate the evil of opponents; to accuse them of ill-defined betrayals, to dehumanise imagined ‘enemies’ and supposed ‘outsiders’ using an unsettling combination of preposterous nostalgia, invented facts, incontinent hyperbole and threats of violence. This leads to depletion of trust and respect, to further polarisation, which then makes decisions, based on compromise, ever harder. The failure to compromise can lead to the collapse of civil societies. This vicious circle is not confined to Left or Right, each echoes and mirrors the other, as if ‘through a glass darkly’. Yet many of the exquisite speeches in this book prove that words can be the balm that heals wounds, the elixir for cruel times. Or the poison.

In my selection I hope readers enjoy some of the finest words ever spoken – and some of the most ignoble. Words matter. Respect them – and those who use them well. Take your choice. Language is everything.

Thank you – and good night.

Simon Sebag Montefiore is the bestselling and prize-winning writer of history and fiction whose books are published in 48 languages. His latest is Voices of History: Speeches that Changed the World.

Voices of History

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