Only as Good as the Material: How to Write a Great Speech

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The following is a guest post from Katheryn Rivas.

The human psyche is a place of many quirks, idiosyncrasies, and phobias.  But of all the fears that loom in our collective minds, the fear of speaking in public remains the most terrifying to the average American, and is considered worse even than death by most.

Volumes upon volumes could and have been written about this peculiar fear, but what is often overlooked in these studies and inspirational tomes is the content of a speech and how it relates to the confidence one feels while delivering it.

It is true that a dull or timid performance of a speech can diminish its power, a bad speech spoken badly is even worse.  Examples of this abound, especially in popular media.  Consider a movie you expected to be excellent, given the actors and directors starring in it, but turned out to be trite, melodramatic, and cliché, even despite good performances. Even the most talented actors can only do so much with a poorly written script.

And the same holds true for a speech.  You might not be a brilliant orator, but if you craft an excellent speech, your audience will be much more likely to forgive your delivery, and will admire your rhetorical skills all the same.

To write a compelling, captivating speech, you need to be a master of the right rhetorical tools and techniques.  The following are some of the most common and effective rhetorical tools for speeches:

Figurative Language

Technical jargon is typically uninspiring and alienating to audiences.  The best speeches appeal to an audience’s emotions, and few rhetorical tools do this as strikingly as figurative language.  With figurative language you can simplify concepts, draw parallels between two things, demonize or praise something, and give your speech the quality of a narrative, especially if you carry one metaphor through an entire speech.  Figurative language technically comprises many tools:

  • Metaphor
  • Simile
  • Imagery
  • Personification
  • Euphemism

Whatever you choose to use figurative language for, make sure that you are prepared for that to be the highlight of the speech, because audiences tend to remember images and metaphors more vividly than other kinds of language.


A classic rhetorical tool, repetition is also extremely powerful when used correctly.  A perfect example is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Repetition makes a speech memorable, almost like a chant, and has a way of hypnotizing an audience.  Furthermore, repetition drives the message of the speech home and leaves no room for misinterpretation.  Be careful not to overdo it, though.  Overly repetitive speeches are juvenile and can sound manipulative.


In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus explains to a frightened audience why he rose up against Caesar, famously saying, “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.”  This is one of the most haunting and memorable examples of antithesis in any speech ever written.  It also provides an immediately accessible example of antithesis: Brutus contrasts his love for Caesar and Rome rhetorically, using the parallel arrangement of “I loved Caesar less, but that I love Rome more.”  The less/more parallel is antithesis, and is used to excellent effect in the play.  Another superb example is JFK’s imperative to US citizens to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”  Antithesis is hard to master but makes for some extraordinarily memorable phrases.

Allusion, Quotes & Anecdotes

The explanation of the previous rhetorical tool began with an allusion and a quote.  It alluded to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and quoted it as well.  Anecdotes are interesting or amusing stories (personal or otherwise) and can be very entertaining.  All three are great tools for capturing the attention of an audience — but make sure your allusions and quotes aren’t too obscure, and make sure that your anecdotes aren’t too long or obnoxious.


Probably the hardest to master of all the above rhetorical tools, structure is what usually distinguishes good speeches from great speeches.  Speeches should be structured so that there is an inherent progression of ideas, such as from small to universal or from past to future.  Turns of phrase and powerful images are good tools, but aren’t as potent if they aren’t held up in context of a larger structure.  The best way to develop a sense of structure is to read and listen to famous speeches and follow their progression.

This guest post is contributed by Katheryn Rivas, who writes on the topics of online university.  She welcomes your comments at


Share this, please!

1 Comment

  1. Donn King

    Thanks for contributing, Katheryn! Nice to have a fresh viewpoint!

© 2021 King's Corner

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑