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.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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