Politicians in previous decades had a simpler job than their more modern counterparts. For example, they did not have to worry about a poorly delivered speech going viral on YouTube. They did not have the challenge of delivering a speech simultaneously to live and televised audiences. Because they wrote and delivered their own speeches, they weren’t responsible for personalizing a stranger’s words or reading them from a teleprompter.
However, today’s political speakers also have more media savvy, more training, and more access to diverse and interested audiences than their predecessors did. These advantages are apparent in the following five speeches, which have already earned their places as some of the most memorable in modern American political history.
Michelle Obama’s 2012 Convention Speech
Today’s political audiences do not judge a candidate by his words alone. They also expect to meet the candidate’s family and colleagues before they cast their vote. Candidates with skilled orators in their close circle can expect to fare better at polls. Michelle Obama’s 2012 convention speech has been cited as one of the best political speeches in convention history for exactly this reason. Yet Michelle wasn’t even a candidate; she succeeded because she humanized her husband in a way even he couldn’t. She made Barack Obama relatable to listeners nationwide.
Bill Clinton’s 2012 Convention Speech
President Bill Clinton has a career’s worth of public speaking experience. Repeated practice has improved his delivery skills, but Clinton’s success as a speaker doesn’t come from simply his words. He is also a gifted impromptu speaker who deftly blurs the lines between prepared speech writing and ad-libbed speaking. In his 2012 convention speech on behalf of Barack Obama, Clinton showed his command of speech structure, offering two opposing viewpoints and allowing his listeners to choose. His speech, along with Michelle Obama’s, helped sway the popular vote in favor of Barack Obama’s reelection.
Clint Eastwood’s 2012 Convention Speech
It is no accident that many memorable modern political speeches came from the 2012 election. In recent years, candidates have been endorsed by athletes, actors and other celebrities, often with mixed results. Clint Eastwood is a Hollywood legend as well as the former mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea in California. Eastwood, like every actor, knows that any press is good press. However, his speech created a great deal of controversy, arguably weakening candidate Mitt Romney’s cause and steering undecided voters toward Barack Obama.
George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Acceptance Speech
When a political candidate delivers a speech, listeners are most likely to remember that speech in sound bites. Candidates who create short phrases to sum up their major points make it easier for voters to remember their candidates’ platforms on Election Day. When crafting his acceptance speech, new President George H.W. Bush helped his speechwriter by listing out words he felt an emotional connection with. Out of these words, his speechwriter created catchphrases such as Bush’s “kinder, gentler nation” composed of “a thousand points of light.” Bush’s blunt promises, such as “Read my lips: no new taxes,” also set the standard for political transparency.
John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Acceptance Speech
John F. Kennedy was the first American president to run for office under the scrutiny of television as well as radio campaign coverage. He was a natural with his charisma, good looks and metaphors. In his 1960 acceptance speech, JFK painted a picture of America as a “New Frontier,” full of challenges that could yield amazing opportunities. He proposed a partnership of mutual sacrifice and benefit that appealed to Americans, and in his short tenure as president, he secured his place as one of the most beloved political leaders in history.
Each of these speeches made a tremendous impact on listeners. Future generations of politicians will refine their own campaign strategies by studying these speakers and the speeches they delivered.
Image provided by Robert Huffstutter from Flickr’s Creative Commons
About the Author: Evelyn Triblin is a communications professor. To understand what makes speakers motivational, she often offers extra credit to students who attend local speeches. In the past, she coordinated keynote speeches for corporate events, using services such as Leading Authorities Speakers Bureau.