The Big Question: half a century ago, Martin Luther King had a dream and JFK said he was a Berliner. Both were famous speeches—but what is the best speech ever made? We asked six writers to make their choice. Sam Leith sets the scene

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013

Fifty years ago Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declared: "I have a dream." His words were heard, it is for once no exaggeration to say, around the world. Whole passages now live in folk memory; and, with its formal links to the black folk pulpit and the language of the Book of Amos, the speech itself drew on folk memory.

Great speeches don’t come out of nowhere. Threads of debt and inheritance tie the earliest recorded oratory to the speeches of the present day. Every speech relies for its power on the common language of the tribe, and that language is itself shaped by the great speeches of the past.

So, though some two and a half millennia separate the earliest two speeches championed herePericles’s funeral oration and the Gettysburg AddressLincoln’s words exactly rehearse the themes and structure of Pericles’s. Barack Obama, one of the most technically gifted orators of the modern day, consciously appropriates the language both of Lincoln and of Dr King (who himself referred to Lincoln). Nelson Mandela’s 1964 trial speech invokes Magna Carta and the US Bill of Rights. And so on.

So what makes a good speech? It must be forceful in argument, memorable in style, resonant in its references. It must also, before anything else, connect its speaker to its audience. This is what Aristotle, the first Western authority on rhetoric, called ethosthe basic movement in any effective speech that transforms the "me" of the speaker and the "you" of the audience into "we": "Friends, Romans, countrymen..."

Ethos is established by, quite literally, speaking the audience’s language: shared jokes, common reference points, recognisable situations. As the rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke has said: "You persuade a man only in so far as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his."

You can then take the shared languageand with it your audiencewherever you want it to go. The turns of language that technicians call figures (as in "figures of speech") capture myriad ways of making language dance: the tricolonsgroups of three termsthat make sentences ring; the rhetorical questions (or erotema) with which you challenge the audience and shape an imaginary dialogue; or the anaphora with which, by repeating a word or phrase over and over again, you build an irresistible gathering rhythm.

Is great oratory dead, as some claim? It is not. But it is true that it doesn’t look like it did. It adapts itself ceaselessly to the means of its transmission. Language changes, convention changes, media change. The Greek notion of kairosor timeliness—is apt here.

Cicero, addressing the Senate around 50BC, would speak unamplified and at some length. His audience was present, and such written records as survive were usually created afterwards (and probably polished) by Cicero himself. In the age of newspapers, when speeches would be disseminated by third parties, a different tack was required, though it might not always work: "I have a dream" didn’t make the next day’s Washington Post. Churchill, remembered as a great orator, was a radio star; his wartime speeches went over less well in Parliament, but the audience that counted was the one listening at home. The intimacy of the television camera offers yet another set of opportunities. In his famous 1952 Checkers speech, Richard Nixon was able to address the American people, as it were, eye to eye.

In the internet agethis ecosystem of interruptionsyou’d soon lose your audience if you served up two hours of formal oratory in the high style. Soundbites, though much bemoaned, are not a recent innovation: Cicero was fond of them. But they have come front and centre as first rolling news and now social media have swept in to favour the juicy quote over the rounded argument.

The technological arms race is not over. A wonderfully embarrassing YouTube clip shows Ed Miliband answering a series of questions with near-identical versions of the same prepared sentence. He sounds like a robot; but then, he never expected us to see more than a single ten-second clip on the news. His mistake was to gear his strategy to the age of rolling news, not to an age in which the rushes can be posted to YouTube and spread virally on Twitter.

It’s a mistake he won’t repeat. Oratory now lives in the age of electric dreamsbut the dream goes on.

Sam Leith is a columnist on the Evening Standard and the author of "You Talkin' to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama"

Photograph Getty