The World’s Biggest Speeches

What makes a great speech? The annals of history are replete with examples of great oratory, often recognisable from their first beats: ‘four score and twenty years ago…’.
A platform is clearly important; no one is going to remember the speech delivered into the bathroom mirror. The great speeches of history are embedded in a context, often a crucial event, which endows them with special significance. A great speech needs the right audience. Numbers matter in these circumstances; they are one metric by which we judge a speech’s impact.

Pericle’s Funeral Oration
It seems fitting to begin in antiquity, given that ancient Athens was the birthplace of a codified style of rhetoric which remains influential to this day. This long and complex oration belongs to the Athenian tradition of epitaphios. The funeral oration was part of an annual public funeral where the speech was the final act, delivered always by a prominent Athenian citizen. Pericles was a statesman and military strategist, acclaimed by Thucydides, a contemporary historian, as “the first citizen of Athens”. Thucydides does not estimate the number of attendees but he does make clear the funeral was open to all, stating ‘any citizen or stranger who pleases, joins in the procession’. Athens was at its most populous during this period, numbering around 150,000 Athenians and 50,000 aliens. It is not hard to imagine Pericles delivering his speech to ranks of Athenians and curious foreigners, as the city came together in a public acknowledgment of loss. A model of rhetoric, many scholars have drawn comparisons between it and speeches given centuries later.
Queen Elizabeth 1 at Tilbury
Leaping forward some twenty centuries we come to another great leader and monarch, Queen Elizabeth the first. On the eve of an expected Spanish invasion, she delivered her most famous speech to 4,000 troops assembled at Tilbury, in Essex. Extolling the virtues of the Monarch subject relationship she uttered the following famous words: “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and of a king of England too”. Of course, these troops were never needed after the British Navy’s successful campaign against the Spanish Armada.
Adolf Hitler at the 1934 Nuremburg Rally
Speechmakers in the twentieth century had access to increasingly sophisticated means of communication, allowing them to reach national and international audiences. Few used this technology more effectively and towards more sinister ends than Adolf Hitler. Over 700,000 people attended the 1934 rally, technology amplifying Hitler’s unmistakable and terrifying staccato delivery to the assembled masses. These rallies were further documented in films and books. The 1934 rally is especially famous as the origin of the Riefenstahl film, Triumph of the Will, which was a huge national success and made the name of its director.
A date which will live in infamy – Franklin D. Roosevelt
America was a nation in shock after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. Roosevelt had the unenviable task of acknowledging the nation’s grief while rousing the public for what might be a long and bloody conflict. Though only a few hundred congressmen sat before him, millions listened at home. 81 percent of the American population tuned in to hear Roosevelt declare war on the Japanese.

Barrack Obama’s inauguration address
A huge event in recent American political history, which was seen by many as evidence of America’s endlessly capacity for renewal and reinvention, Barack Obama’s inauguration was a colossal spectacle. 1.8 million people showed up at the nation’s capital to listen to Obama’s first speech as president. Amidst a tumultuous and dramatic election cycle and severe economic woes, Obama affirmed America’s commitment to particular set of values. But this event was also a staggering testament to the communicative power of media old and new. Some 37.8 million American viewers tuned in and many millions more overseas.
Oratory, an esteemed quality since antiquity, and modern technology have combined to create a grand and daunting platform for the public speaker. Speechmakers know that their performance may be recorded in exquisite resolution and detail, publicly available for centuries to come.
Courtesy of archer 10 (Dennis) –
Courtesy of Obama-Biden Transition Project –
This article was created on behalf of London meeting room and conference venue provider De Vere Venues.