7 of the greatest public speakers in history

We compiled a list of seven of the greatest public speakers of all time, people who forever changed the course of history with their words.

7 of the greatest public speakers in history

A speech is more than a set of spoken words. It's a combination of the speaker, the context, the language, and these things working together can make it far greater than the sum of its parts. In that vein, we compiled some of the greatest public speakers of all time, people whose words changed the course of societies and defined eras.


Winston Churchill

When Paris fell to the Nazis on June 14, 1940, England began to steel itself for the brunt of the Axis powers on the Western front. Winston Churchill, who had taken over as prime minister just a month prior, delivered his famous "Our Finest Hour" to a country bracing itself for full-scale attack. In 1953, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in part for his speeches, which he wrote himself.

In his history of World War II entitled "The Storm of War," Andrew Roberts writes:

"Winston Churchill managed to combine the most magnificent use of English — usually short words, Anglo-Saxon words, Shakespearean. And also this incredibly powerful delivery. And he did it at a time when the world was in such peril from Nazism, that every word mattered."

John F. Kennedy

Few speeches are as oft quoted as John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, which he spent months writing. Kennedy's ability to speak as if he was having an authentic conversation with an audience, as opposed to lecturing to them, is one quality that made him such a compelling communicator.


Socrates

Standing accused of crimes including corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates had a choice: defer and apologize to his accusers for his alleged crimes, or reformulate their scattered accusations into proper legal form (thereby embarrassing his accusers) and deliver an exhaustive defense of the pursuit of truth, apologizing for nothing. He chose the latter and was sentenced to death. Part of Socrates' “Apology" includes:

"How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was - such was the effect of them; and yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth. But many as their falsehoods were, there was one of them which quite amazed me; - I mean when they told you to be upon your guard, and not to let yourselves be deceived by the force of my eloquence."


Adolf Hitler

Hitler was well aware that mastering the art of public speaking was crucial to his political career. He wrote all of his speeches himself, sometimes editing them more than five times. He practiced his facial expressions and gestures, and he was adept at interweaving metaphor and abstract ideas into his speeches about political policy.

Martin Luther King Jr.

The strong musicality of Martin Luther King Jr.'s rhetoric is perhaps just as recognizable as the words “not be judged on the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Martin Luther King drew inspiration from Shakespeare, the bible, his own past speeches, and numerous civil rights thinkers to write his "I Have a Dream" speech, one of the most famous of all time.

James Baldwin

Until his death in 1987, James Baldwin pushed the conversation about race in America forward with his carefully intense social criticism. He traveled extensively throughout his life, saying that “Once you find yourself in another civilization, you're forced to examine your own."

Mister Rogers

Mister (Fred) Rogers spent his life communicating soft-spoken yet direct messages of practical advice to children, ultimately earning him a Peabody Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rogers was an expert in using rhetoric to effectively communicate with any audience, not just children, a quality best evidenced in his appearance before a senate committee to save his show's funding in 1969.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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