The art of persuasion: analyzing legendary English speeches

Welcome back, learners!

In the vast tapestry of human history, few things have proven as powerful as the spoken word. The ability to articulate thoughts, to sway opinions, and to ignite action is a testament to the persuasive power of well-crafted speeches. They have provoked revolutions, quelled fears, and inspired millions to dream…

But what exactly makes a speech ‘great’? Is it the passion in the speaker’s voice, the rhythm of their language, or the depth of their message?

In this article, we will visit several of the most iconic and influential speeches in English. We will delve into the linguistic subtleties and stylistic nuances that transformed these speeches into enduring masterpieces of oratory. By dissecting their composition, we hope to glean insights into the art of persuasive speech-making and, in the process, improve our own language skills!

So, get comfortable and be prepared to be enthralled by the power of words!

1. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream”

Link to watch: Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream”


“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Here is a breakdown of the language features and factors that contribute to the effectiveness of this speech:

  • Metaphor: King uses metaphor to bring to life abstract ideas. For instance, he refers to states with heavy racial discrimination as “sweltering with the heat of injustice” and contrasts this with “an oasis of freedom and justice.” These metaphors make the abstract ideas of injustice and freedom tangible, vivid, and relatable.
  • Appeal to shared values: King references the American creed, “that all men are created equal,” invoking shared values and common ground with his audience, making his argument more persuasive.
  • Concreteness: King provides concrete examples to illustrate his abstract dream. For instance, he dreams of a time when “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
  • Inclusive language: King uses inclusive language, like “one day this nation,” to involve the audience and to make his dream their dream as well.
  • Future perfect: The use of future perfect tense (e.g. “will have been able to sit down together”) emphasizes the inevitability and the optimism of the change that King envisions.
  • Emotive language: King uses words such as ‘oppression’, ‘injustice’, ‘freedom’ and ‘brotherhood’, which are charged with emotions, and can strongly resonate with the audience.

These features make King’s speech an excellent example of effective rhetoric, and they’re part of why the speech is so well-remembered and influential.

2. Soekarno’s Bandung Conference opening speech 

Link to watch: Soekarno’s Bandung Conference opening (however, it’s not complete)


“Let us remember that the people of Indonesia have been in the vanguard of this struggle, the struggle of the colored peoples of this world against those who have subjected us to domination. It is a new type of war, a war against colonialism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism.

There is a new awakening, and the 20th-century peoples of Asia and Africa are now wide awake. We recognize the need to stick together and together to render our joint service to the cause of world peace, prosperity, and progress.

This unity is imperative, for it has become an incontrovertible fact that the prosperity of the world cannot be had except through common prosperity. There must be a world order, a better world order. It must be a world in which every nation respects the personality of the other nations.”

Here is a breakdown of the language features and factors that contribute to the effectiveness of this speech:

  • Historical context: Sukarno positions Indonesia, and by extension the nations of Asia and Africa, as leaders in the struggle against colonialism. This assertion acknowledges their shared history and challenges, and it implicitly calls for their cooperation and unity in the face of ongoing threats.
  • Anaphora: Sukarno uses repetition, for example, “a war against colonialism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism.” This repetition is used to emphasize his point and to rally his listeners against these common foes.
  • Inclusive language: Sukarno uses inclusive language, referring to “we” and “us,” which creates a sense of solidarity among the nations in attendance.
  • Abstract and concrete goals: Sukarno speaks to both abstract ideals like “world peace, prosperity, and progress” and concrete issues like the struggle against colonialism and imperialism. This gives his speech both inspiring vision and practical relevance.
  • Appeal to mutual respect: The appeal for a world in which every nation respects the others plays on an ethical level, suggesting that change isn’t only driven by economic or political reasons but moral ones.
  • Emotive language: The use of words such as ‘struggle’, ‘awakening’, and ‘prosperity’ evoke strong feelings in the audience. This allows the speaker to tap into their emotions and make a deeper impact.
  • Imagery: The phrase ‘a new awakening’ creates a vivid mental image of nations that were once subdued now coming to consciousness and asserting their independence and rights.

These features contribute to the power and resonance of Sukarno’s speech, using language and rhetoric to inspire his audience and promote unity among the diverse nations present at the Bandung Conference.

3. Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches”

Link to watch: Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches”


“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.”

Here is a breakdown of the language features and factors that contribute to the effectiveness of this speech:

  • Anaphora: Similar to the previous speeches we’ve analyzed, Churchill uses anaphora, the repetition of a certain word or phrase at the beginning of successive lines or sentences. This is seen in the repeated phrase “We shall fight,” emphasizing the determination and resilience of the British people.
  • Imagery: Churchill uses vivid imagery to paint a picture of the various battlegrounds. He doesn’t just speak of fighting; he specifies the locations such as “on the seas and oceans,” “on the beaches,” “on the landing grounds,” “in the fields and in the streets,” “in the hills.” This helps to create a more vivid and compelling image in the listeners’ minds.
  • Emotive language: Churchill uses strong, emotive language to instill courage and determination, and to rally the British people against the threat they were facing. Phrases like “we shall not flag or fail” and “we shall never surrender” convey powerful emotions.
  • Future Perfect: Just like in previous speeches, Churchill uses the future perfect tense (e.g., “we shall fight,” “we shall defend,” “we shall never surrender”). This gives an impression of inevitability and certainty, despite the bleak circumstances.
  • Personification: Churchill refers to the New World (America and its allies) “steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.” This personifies these continents as if they are heroes in a narrative, which can appeal to listeners’ emotions and imagination.
  • Juxtaposition: Churchill juxtaposes the grim reality of the present (“this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving”) with a hopeful future (“the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue”). This contrast makes the hopeful future appear even more appealing and intensifies the listener’s desire for victory.

These features contribute to the power of Churchill’s speech, which played a crucial role in bolstering British morale during the grim days of World War II.

4. John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural speech 

Link to watch: John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural speech


“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility–I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Here is a breakdown of the language features and factors that contribute to the effectiveness of this speech:

  • Rhetorical questions: Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country” is one of the most famous rhetorical questions in American political discourse. The question flips the typical citizen-state relationship, inspiring citizens to take initiative and act in the country’s best interests.
  • Imagery and metaphor: “The glow from that fire can truly light the world” is a metaphor that uses vivid imagery to depict the impact that the citizens’ energy, faith, and devotion can have.
  • Inclusive language: “My fellow Americans,” and “My fellow citizens of the world,” are inclusive phrases that foster a sense of unity and camaraderie.
  • Pathos: Kennedy appeals to emotions through his references to the defense of freedom, strength, sacrifice, love for the land, and the divine blessing.
  • Antithesis: Kennedy uses antithesis effectively, as seen in the phrase “I do not shrink from this responsibility–I welcome it.” This contrast emphasizes his readiness and willingness to take on the challenges his presidency will face.

These rhetorical strategies together create an inspiring, uplifting, and motivating call to action that resonated with both the American public and people around the world, cementing this speech as one of the most memorable in U.S. history.

5. Emmeline Pankhurst’s Freedom or Death speech

There’s no recording of the speech, as it was delivered in 1913. However, you can read the full transcript here: Freedom or Death speech

For context, this speech was delivered by Emmeline Pankhurst, who was an influential suffragette activist and pushed for the right for women to vote in the United Kingdom. Here’s an excerpt from the speech:

“You have two babies very hungry and wanting to be fed. One baby is a patient baby, and waits indefinitely until its mother is ready to feed it. The other baby is an impatient baby and cries lustily, screams and kicks and makes everybody unpleasant until it is fed. Well, we know perfectly well which baby is attended to first. That is the whole history of politics. You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under.”

Here is a breakdown of the language features and factors that contribute to the effectiveness of this speech:

  • Analogy: Pankhurst starts with a simple analogy of two babies. This analogy is a powerful tool, making the complex world of politics accessible and relatable to her audience.
  • Juxtaposition: The contrasting behaviours of the two babies illustrate two different political strategies, reinforcing the idea that action (rather than patience) yields results.
  • Colloquial language: The phrase “snow you under” is a colloquial expression used to describe the action of being overwhelmed or disregarded, making her speech more engaging and relatable to the common people.
  • Direct address: The use of “you” in her speech serves as a direct address to the audience, making it more personal and more likely to provoke an emotional response or action.
  • Appeal to pathos: By using the analogy of hungry babies, Pankhurst evokes strong emotions of empathy, and urgency. This effectively mobilizes her audience to realize the immediate need for action.

This excerpt exemplifies Pankhurst’s ability to use language features to make her points powerfully and persuasively. The relatable analogies, direct language, and strategic repetition work together to make a strong call to action.


Reflecting on these speeches, it’s impossible not to be struck by the beauty and depth of the language and the artful persuasion at play. Consider those thought-provoking rhetorical questions that pull us into introspection, or the beautifully simple comparisons that bring intricate ideas to life. There’s a sincerity in the language used, making us feel personally addressed, and a part of something greater.

These speakers have shown us that the magic of genuine, heartfelt speech has the power to touch hearts, change minds, and sometimes, even rewrite history.

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