From Winston Churchill to Malala Yousafzai, history is awash with inspirational speeches spoken by great men and women. Naturally, though, not all speeches are created equal. You need only look at the orations of certain current political figures to notice that sometimes, when people speak, they really aren’t saying anything at all.
Luckily, everyone on this list not only has a point worth making, they deliver it with rare elegance, grace, and often humour. Whether you’re searching for best man speech inspiration, or simply looking to become a more rounded individual, there’s plenty here to serve as inspiration. And if your favourite speech is Mel Gibson’s pre-battle “Freeeedom!” call to arms in Braveheart, this is the list for you.
1. Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat
Britain’s most popular Prime Minister (sorry Theresa) is perhaps most famous for his rousing soliloquies on defiance in the face of adversity. Naturally, the most memorable of his speeches were given during his first run in the top job, from 10 May 1940 to 26 July 1945. Inheriting a tough job just as World War II was heating up (we’ve all seen Darkest Hour, right?) Churchill delivered his “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” speech to a parliament less than convinced that he was actually the right person to lead Britain to victory.
In it, he sets out his stall and explains the make-up of his new government. The most famous bit, though, comes towards the end: “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs —Victory in spite of all terror — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.” Not bad for his first speech in the job.
The lesson: Stick to your guns, even when those around you doubt your capabilities
2. Royal Wedding Sermon
Bishop Michael Curry
A passionate African-American preacher giving the sermon at a British royal wedding? It’s sad that in 2018 this seemed so radical. But judging by the much-memed expressions of certain guests, Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon was exactly the shake-up the establishment needed. And what a sermon it was. Focusing on “the power of love” (no, we’re not talking Frankie Goes To Hollywood), Curry’s speech reminded everyone that there’s nothing to be ashamed about when it comes to the warm fuzzies and that we’d all benefit from letting a little compassion into our lives. Well, it was a wedding, after all.
The lesson: “There’s power in love” obviously
3. I Have A Dream
Martin Luther King Jr.
This 1963 speech is perhaps the most famous speech in history. As King explains, it should be “self-evident that all men are created equal.” But, over half a century later, can we really say that King’s dream has come true? With #BlackLivesMatter today equally as vital as King’s campaigns, and less inclusive reforms taking place across the West, you might argue that we’re someway off. It’s worth, then, reacquainting yourself with King’s words, and seeing what you can do to help bring about equality between men, women and non-binary people of all creeds and colours. Because, occasionally, dreams do come true.
The lesson: Love thy neighbour, and keep fighting the good fight
4. That Rock N Roll
The Arctic Monkey’s third Brit Awards win for both best British Band and Best British album made them unique among their peers. It’s understandable, then, for thinking Alex Turner – a real rock star, no less – might be a trifle tired of accepting awards from the pop-promoting awards body. His 2014 speech, in which he references rock n roll emerging from the slime may have had people making jokes about “rockstars in the toilet, practising their lines”, but to mock Turner is to miss the point. And the grins his bandmates are trying to hide. Let’s have a bit more mic-dropping, and a bit less Ed Sheeran. That rock n roll, eh?
The lesson: Don’t take yourself too seriously
5. Ich Bin Ein Berliner
The US President’s 1963 address to West Berlin crowds, against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall, is often considered the Cold War’s most important speech. In it, Kennedy rallies the hearts and minds of the West against the tyranny of communism. The US will stand strong with the residents of West Berlin – a people surrounded on all sides by the Russian-held half of Germany. So strong is JFK’s dedication that he wants to declare himself an actual Berliner. Their pain is his. And their strength is his. What he actually does is declare himself a “jelly donut” in the local parlance. Which only serves to make him seem even more likeable. Bloody Google Translate…
The lesson: Make sure you’ve got the local lingo down
6. Abolition Speech
When Yorkshire man William Wilberforce stood before the British House of Commons in 1789, slavery was still very much alive and well in the UK and her overseas colonies. It took some guts, then, to denounce the trade in human lives and freedoms as wretched and shameful. He asked for “cool and impartial reason”, and claimed that every single person in the House was guilty of compliance. Twenty years later, the Slave Trade Act of 1807 was passed, but the trade was not abolished until 1833. Wilberforce, by then retired from Parliament, died aged 76, just three days after hearing the the abolition act had been passed.
The lesson: If something’s worth fighting for, it’s worth being in it for the long haul
7. Quit India
India was the jewel of the British Empire, but enforced colonial rule could not last. When Britain refused to let India form its own government, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – leader of the Indian Independence Movement – sought to rally the people with this famous 1942 speech. In it, he urged the people of India to come together, and resist, without violence.
“Ours is not a drive for power, but purely a non-violent fight for India’s independence.”
A long five years later, Gandhi achieved his aims when India claimed its independence in 1947.
The lesson: Words will always be more powerful than a fist
8. The Decision To Go To The Moon
Delivered to a crowd at Rice Stadium, Houston on 12th September 1962, JFK’s address was designed to persuade the average American to support the effort to land a man on the moon. It was a resounding success, and simply historic in the scope and scale of the ambition it outlines. The payoff came on 20th July 1969, when Apollo 11 became the first manned mission to the moon, changing the game for good. A must-see for any manager or general trying to rouse the troops.
The lesson: The sky is no longer the limit
9. Barack Out
A president with style, charisma and comic timing is a rare thing. Even more so these days. But, in his final speech at his last White House Correspondent’s dinner, Barry O is fantastic throughout, referencing Game of Thrones, shouting out Michelle and poking fun at his future. You’ll watch between your fingers though, as he hints that Hilary is a sure thing for the next presidency. Oh, and bill him for the mic. A masterclass in how to bow out with grace, even when everything seems like it’s going down the pan. The lesson: Always leave in style
10. The Power Of Sport
You might think that after 28 years in prison, Nelson Mandela would have bigger fish to fry than encouraging the youth of South Africa to take up sport. But, as anyone who’s seen Invictus knows, Mandela saw sport as a way of unifying his country, and instilling national pride in people of all creeds and colours. In this sports awards speech, he says simply that sport has “the power to inspire… the power to unite people in a way that little else does… sport can create hope where once there was only despair… it is more powerful than governments.”
The lesson: Don’t write off something that gives you happiness
11. The Fringe Benefits Of Failure…
J. K. Rowling
And The Importance Of Imagination. Good title. And J.K’s speech at Harvard University is just as inspiring as it sounds. After a round of jokes to get the audience warmed up (with only a handful of Harry Potter references, just in case you forgot) J.K. gets down to brass tacks: the importance of failure, and compromise. She talks of how her parents pushed her into a vocational degree, believing English Literature would never pay the bills. But while that turned out to be far from the case, her point is that life is difficult to control, and whatever path you set off down, you never know where you’ll end up. Magic.
The lesson: Go with the flow
12. Worldwide Access To Education
After being shot in the head by the Taliban, standing up and addressing the UN must be a doddle, right? Yeah, right. But, if she was as terrified as we would be, 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai did not show it for a second as she recounted her story, and asked for better education for children throughout the world so that we might welcome a more enlightened future.
The key, though, is to forgive and search for new ways to solve problems. In Malala’s words: “I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him… This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhi Jee, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learnt from my mother and father. This is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.”
A masterclass in bravery, and fighting for what’s right.
The lesson: Education and compassion are the key to greatness
13. Questioning The Universe
A TED talk from Stephen Hawking? Yes, you are so lucky. In this 2008 speech, Hawking raises the biggest questions in the universe and tries to help us find answers. Are we alone in the universe? Where did life come from? And what is the future of the human race? Was there anything before the Big Bang? You’ll have to watch to find out.
The lesson: Always stay curious
14. How To Live Before You Die
In his 2005 speech at Stanford University, a very different type of genius tells three simple stories. The first is the story of his adoption, the second about getting fired from Apple – the company he started – and the third about death. Each morning, Jobs said, he woke up and asked himself if he’d be happy doing what he had to do that day if he only had a few days left. “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” Just six years later, Jobs would indeed be dead, and it’s hard to say he didn’t live by his words each and every day.
The lesson: You have nothing to lose
15. Fall Forward
In 2011 Denzel addressed the University of Pennsylvania. His message: “Every failed experiment is one step closer to success.” According to Denz, it’s a fact that you will fail, lose and embarrass yourself – that’s inevitable. What matters is what you do after you’ve failed. In other words, keep on showing up.
The lesson: There’s no such thing as a mistake, just an opportunity to learn
16. Freedom or Death
Speaking in Hartford, Connecticut on 13th November 1913, the suffragette leader took no prisoners in her call for women to be treated as equal members of society, whatever it takes:
“We were called militant, and we were quite willing to accept the name. We were determined to press this question of the enfranchisement of women to the point where we were no longer to be ignored by the politicians… We wear no mark; we belong to every class; we permeate every class of the community from the highest to the lowest; and so you see in the woman’s civil war the dear men of my country are discovering it is absolutely impossible to deal with it: you cannot locate it, and you cannot stop it.”
The lesson: Equality above all else
17. This Is Water Speech
David Foster Wallace
The late, great writer begins his speech with “If anyone feels like perspiring, I’d invite you to go ahead, because I’m certainly going to.” And it only gets better from there. His subject is, well, banal platitudes, and how they do, sometimes, have meaning – all told through the dissection of the traditional commencement speech. This might take a few watches but it’ll stay with you afterwards.
The lesson: We’re all part of something bigger
18. MUM Commencement Address
Continuing the trend of actors speaking to students, the comedian gave the commencement speech to the Maharishi University of Management’s class of 2014. Sure, there are some wild tangents, but the core of the speech sees Carrey at his most tender, touting the benefits of soft-serve ice cream, and the degree to which fear will have a role in your life. Most of us, he says, choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality.
But there’s no point in doing so. He talks about his father choosing to be an accountant instead of pursuing a career as a comedian, only to later be made redundant. The lesson he imparted to Carrey junior is that you may as well take a chance, because you can always fail doing what you don’t love.
The lesson: Take a chance, because you can still fail even if you play it safe
19. Commencement Address Agnes Scott College
One of history’s most unique writers brings his peculiar take on life to the 1999 Agnes Scott College commencement address. What’s most touching is how thankful he is for education, and the possibilities awaiting new students: “Thanks to you, the forces of ignorance and brutality have lost again.” He also quotes from Robert Browning, “A [wo]man’s reach always exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Beautiful words from two beautiful writers. Including the best advice of all time from Vonnegut: “Wear sunscreen”.
The lesson: The possibilities of the future are endless, if you have the courage to embrace them
20. Speech to the Troops at Tilbury
Queen Elizabeth I
Before Liz The Second, Britain had OG Liz, and some say she was the country’s finest queen. Case in point: on the eve of a decisive battle against Spanish forces in 1588, Elizabeth spoke to her troops on the front line:
“I am come amongst you… not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust… I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”
Her willingness to fight and toil alongside her soldiers was rare enough at the time (least of all for a woman) but even more so now. A truly inspirational leader.
The lesson: Lead by example, and leave it all on the line