What Makes A Speech Great?

Most of us have had the opportunity to attend an event where a person makes a speech that leaves the audience murmuring: “That was a great speech.”  The event need not be a grand affair, the speaker of great renown nor the subject matter of global significance.  I have heard great speeches at small weddings, corporate gatherings, parent-teacher nights and even over Thanksgiving dinner.

That said, the perception of the greatness of a speech is clearly magnified when the setting is one of pomp and circumstance, the speaker of national reputation and the subject matter of substantial weight.  Such was my experience last night when I had the opportunity to attend the biennial Pete du Pont Freedom Award Dinner.

The award and the dinner pay homage to our former Governor Pete du Pont by recognizing current leaders who have committed themselves to the preservation and enhancement of individual freedoms.  Past recipients include Rudy Guliani, Steve Forbes, George Will and Newt Gingrich.  This year’s keynote speaker and award recipient was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Governor Christie delivered a great speech.  He spoke at length about his unlikely ascent to the governorship of New Jersey as a Republican candidate in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by some 700,000.  He also expounded upon the many unpopular stands he has had to make as governor against the status quo of vested interests, and the reputation he has earned for having to say “no” when the history of officeholders everywhere is to find a way to say “yes.”

Most memorable for me was when the Governor made it clear that he was intent on changing public opinions, not following them.  That, in a nutshell is what he understands leadership to be.  It is his strong belief that New Jerseyians, and by extension Americans at large, know that there are grave problems in our public sector, and that they want to be told the truth about those issues, not coddled.  Moreover, they want to be given sound reason to make sacrifices that will ensure, in his words, “a prosperity that they will not see, but that their grandchildren will enjoy.”

The Governor was throughout his remarks intent, but not fiery, humble (frequently even self-deprecating), but confident, and inspiring, while sober.   Though he played to an admittedly partisan crowd, he did not resort to throwing “red meat” or ham-handedly attacking the President or the Democratic legislature in his state.  He drew contrasts for certain, however, with his leadership and what he perceives to be a failure of leadership at the national level.

In all this, the Governor did not say anything truly profound or novel.  He did not conjure forth heretofore unarticulated policy solutions nor propound revolutionary ideas.  He did not use soaring rhetoric, invoke God or wave the flag.  If anything, I think his appeal to us can be summed up as follows: we need to shoulder our load.

So, what made it a great speech? And, more generally, what makes a speech great?

I don’t claim that there is one right answer here, but in reflecting upon Governor Christie’s remarks last night and the memorable addresses by others I have heard before, I offer this: Great speeches are defined by their clarity of purpose.

This focus, this clarity, is not the product of speechwriters.  It is the stuff of the person making the remarks.  Governor Christie did not have a written text last night.  He had no teleprompters.  I sat very close to the podium and I will aver he did not even have any notes.  I don’t know if he spoke for 30 minutes or the better part of an hour, but he spoke fluidly and without pause or interruption.  This is not possible unless the speech itself is the manifestation of a personal mission.

As we approach the one year mark for what will surely be another epic battle for the White House, for state houses across the country and for legislatures at the national, state and local levels we will have opportunity to hear many speeches.  A good many of them will be forgettable, some even regrettable.  But, a few will be great, and I argue their greatness will come not from their prose but from the clarity of mission of their speakers.  It is from these we should choose our leaders.

Ken Simpler is a Delaware native, former investment professional and current student of public policy at the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Delaware. He is also a 2011 Leadership Delaware fellow. 

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About the Contributor

Ken Simpler

Ken Simpler

Ken Simpler has served as Delaware’s State Treasurer since January, 2015. He is an owner of Seaboard Hotels, which develops and manages hotel and retail properties in Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach and Nags Head, NC.

3 Comments

  • Ken – this is an insightful commentary, and one that is timely for me personally.  I had the opportunity to hear Maria Hess, Editor-in-Chief of Delaware Today, speak in an intimate setting last night at Wilmington Women in Business.  At times, she took my breath away, and she certainly captivated the audience throughout the talk.  I felt fortunate to be in the room to hear her talk.  She, like Governor Christie, spoke without notes, and her words clearly came from her heart and passions.  I think that speakers like Gov. Christie and Ms. Hess possess a natural gift – one that separates truly great speakers from good ones.  Thanks for a wonderful article!

  • Ken, I too was at the DuPont Freedom award  Dinner and was impressed by Gov. Christie’s speech. It’s not everyday you hear someone “tell it like it is!” refreshing!

  • What makes a speech great?  You almost said it directly — one of the many key components is … what is left out.  I’ve learned by being a student of the subject that what to leave out is a more difficult set of decisions than what to include.  One of the most astute commentaries on the subject I’ve ever heard, and one I remember every time I stand up, is that folks won’t miss what you don’t say. 

    And as for the absence of notes, another astute observation:  If you want to be successful speaking, speak from the heart, speak of that which you know and are passionate about.  Thus Christie’s observed success.

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