There’s Something About Speeches: A Modern Playlist

Among the many tools found in today’s communications toolkit, speeches seem –– at least to us –– to be oddly underutilized. 

Speeches wield a unique power. A well-written, well-timed, and well-delivered speech can resonate with its listeners for a lifetime. They can serve as a rhetorical time capsule, capturing the ethos of a generation. A tweet can make you chuckle, but rarely does it give you chills. An earnings call can change the trajectory of a company, but rarely does it change the career paths of those tuning in. 

There’s no universal consensus on what defines a speech. A political stump speech, a toast, a TED Talk. A wedding reception, a locker room, a graduation ceremony. Speeches can be scripted. Speeches can be spontaneous. But in every speech, there’s an opportunity to evoke emotion and affect the audience. And that’s what makes speeches special. 

A number of curated collections of speeches have been published; Great Speeches of the 20th Century and The Penguin Book of Modern Speeches among them. While the written word is a pivotal part of any speech, the delivery, pauses, body language, audience interaction, and other non-scripted elements are often just as important. 

It’s for that reason that we’ve curated a playlist of videos capturing the speeches the Breakwater team pointed to as being particularly memorable, inspiring, and meaningful to them. By listening, learning, and reacting, you can begin to hone your own speechwriting (and speech-delivering) skills into the future.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, “My Stroke of Insight”

“I go back to watch this video every few years to remind me that I have a choice every day at every moment on how I choose to view the world. As a neurosurgeon who recovered from a stroke, she paints a beautiful picture of what it means to take responsibility for watering what you want to grow.”  

Aly Raisman addresses team doctor Larry Nassar at his sentencing hearing

“Two-time Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman confronts ex-team doctor and convicted serial child molester Larry Nassar at his sentencing hearing in her survivor statement. In her speech, Raisman calls out not only Larry Nassar, but the system that enabled him, including USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee. Her strong tone and boldness to look her abuser in the eye and call into question the morality of the organizations that made her an Olympian make this speech undeniably powerful.”

President Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address to the nation

“There’s a reason President Reagan was known as “the Great Communicator”; his ability to convey complex issues to a universal audience via metaphor was unmatched. He spoke in a way that painted a picture to the listener through prose, and the calm confidence of his delivery was infectious. His farewell address to the nation is a timeless masterclass in artfully effective speech composition and delivery.”

David Ortiz’s famous “This is our F***ing city” speech 

“This one’s personal because it’s my hometown and I was lucky enough to be there that day. concisely summed up how many Bostonians felt in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing and shows the importance of choosing just the right word at the right time. (And thanks to the FCC for making the right choice and letting this one slide.)”

President Barack Obama’s keynote 2004 address at the Democratic National Convention

“Most of us were introduced to the powerful oratory skills of then Senator Barack Obama as he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. His passionate speech not only conveyed a message of unity and shared values, but also served as a catalyst to launch him into prominence as a political figure on the national stage. That night offered us an initial glimpse at Obama’s ability to captivate an audience and capture the elusive “lightning in a bottle” that we would see in the years ahead.”

“You were born for this” speech from the movie Miracle

“Pretty much anyone who grew up in Wisconsin has seen the movie Miracle, about the 1980 US Olympic hockey team upsetting the Soviet Union, an unreasonable number of times. Kurt Russel’s pregame speech as Herb Brooks will get you excited for just about anything and always brings back the same emotions that I felt watching it for the first time as a kid with my family.”

Chief Justice John Roberts’ 2017 commencement speech at Cardigan Mountain School

“The Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court delivered this speech for the Commencement Address at Cardigan, his son’s high school, on June 3, 2017. Rather than taking the traditional route in wishing graduates a happy and prosperous future, he tells the graduates: “I wish you bad luck.” That start turn of phrase offers a more real, and resonating, account of the growth through adversity that inevitably awaits the graduates –– his own son included.”  

President Joe Biden’s Commencement Address at Colby College

Speech can be viewed here.

“Biden’s speech at my graduation focused on the importance of treating people, especially those who may be different or have different opinions, with dignity. The idea that understanding and honoring each individual’s perspective truly resonated with me at the time, is something I think about frequently as a public opinion researcher, and a value I try to carry throughout my personal and professional interactions.”

Inaugural Poet Amanda Gorman’s 2021 Speech

“Amanda Gorman gave a powerful performance at President Biden’s inauguration delivering her original poem, The Hill We Climb. She was able to convey a heartfelt message of unity during a very difficult and divisive time for our nation.”

UNC men’s basketball coach Roy Williams’ 2021 retirement speech

[Segment above; the speech in its entirety can be viewed here]

“Roy Williams was a UNC basketball legend who’s stubborn, unwavering approach to college basketball won the Tar Heels three national championships under his watch. In his retirement speech, he acknowledges that his coaching philosophy may not be best suited for today’s modern college basketball landscape. He did not want to change his deeply rooted beliefs and his approach to coaching, but at the same time he recognized that a change was needed for the Carolina basketball program. I imagine one day I will become so deeply rooted in my beliefs that it will be almost impossible to change them, but I hope I can learn from Roy Williams and at least recognize when the world around me is changing and make room for new ideas.”