Talks I Love: Historical Oratory

This is part of the Talks I Love series.

Thus far my “Talks I Love” series has only included technical speeches. At this point, it would be easy to believe that this series is about fantastic technical content, not about the art of speaking. But this series has always been focused on the art of speaking, and I’ve wanted to pull from non-technical sources of inspiration. So this month, instead of technical talks I’ve used speeches from American politicians.

One of the other interesting things about political speeches is that they’re shorter than the average tech talk. Both of these speeches are very compelling and less than 20 minutes long. So go ahead and watch them both all the way through. It will take less time than one average tech talk.

Barbara Jordan: Impeachment Speech

Representative Jordan is well known for her eloquent speeches, and this is the most famous example. She employs many standard rhetorical devices in this speech. Many of us use these same devices without realizing it. Most strikingly, she uses repetition frequently. “The misconduct of public men,” “the President did know,” and “the nature of impeachment” are all repeated. She also uses phrases that are very similar to emphasize them. Two of my favorite examples were “these assertions, false assertions” and “those who misbehave. Those who behave amiss”. “These false assertions” would have conveyed the same message but the words would not have been nearly as memorable. Likewise “those who misbehave” proceeds a quote that starts “Those who behave amiss.” The transposition of “misbehave” and “behave amiss” emphasizes her point and draws in the listener.

The other rhetorical device she uses extensively is the Rule of Three. Some of us are familiar with this from writing, and others naturally use it, so it seems almost silly to call it a rhetorical device. The rule of three is using lists of three items to engage the listener and create a rhythm to your speaking. One example from this speech that I particularly liked is, “And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.” This example also uses a variant of the rule of three where the items are similar in how they sound to make the rule of three more pronounced. In this case diminution, subversion, destruction, and Constitution all end in the same phoneme furthering the use of the Rule of Three.

I also couldn’t include this talk without calling out the fantastic imagery she uses towards the end, “perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder!”. Imagery is one of the most impactful rhetorical devices that we can employ, and Representative Jordan uses it fantastically.

John F Kennedy: Go To The Moon Speech at Rice University

President Kennedy’s speech heavily makes use of the rule of three. In fact, the body of his speech starts with a beautiful double example of the rule. “We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance.” I won’t try to list all of the examples of threes in his talk, but a few others I like are, “the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished” and “new ignorance, new problems, new dangers.”

President Kennedy also makes use of repetition. A great example is toward the end of the speech when he repeats “will be done in this decade” twice in the same paragraph. Another example of repetition is because in the section, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.” Because is a common word but the way it is used here to start phrases over and over forms a pattern that is still quoted today.

Like Representative Jordan’s speech above one of the best parts of this speech is at the very end. President Kennedy quotes George Mallory saying “because it is there” and then uses this same idea in his closing. “Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” One of the things that I find most inspiring about this speech is that it doesn’t shy away from the science and technology. It marvels in it. Throughout the speech, explicit numbers are used, and various measurements are compared to the football field in the stadium where the speech was given. But at the end, Kennedy comes back to something much more emotional, the human drive for exploration. That is masterful speaking.


Next month I promise another set of technical talks, but I’m not done reaching into our past or to our politicians for examples of skillful oratory that all speakers can learn from. Technical speakers should draw from all sources that inspire and instruct them, whether that is politicians, comedians, or religious leaders. The core skills of speaking are the same no matter the content.