John Shosky, author of The Words Of Our Time: Speeches That Made A Difference 2001-2011, on the best political speakers of our time
I am often asked, 'Who is the best speaker in the world?' There are some good speakers out there; tough question to answer. Perhaps we need some guidance. There are many ways to define high quality in public presentations. Inherently, there is a subjective appeal: who do I like to hear and who speaks to me? There will be considerable room for disagreement.
I think a great speaker must be eloquent, of course. But there must be a subtle utilization of skill to persuade, an ability to unite an audience in common cause, a point to the speech that requires collective agreement, an underlying moral force to the words, a powerful and compelling message, and a strong, inspirational appeal that brings out the best in the listener. A great speaker must also be able to give a wide range of speeches, from impromptu comments to carefully-crafted programmatic and policy statements, to press statements, to eulogies, and everything in between. History must also provide an opportunity for greatness, a moment where an event or crisis forces the speaker to quickly search for exactly the right words to define the moment and turn speech into action. There are templates for such a speaker: Moses, Demosthenes, Cicero, Elizabeth I, Burke, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Churchill, Nye Bevan, Lloyd George, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Dr. King, Reagan, Thatcher, Cuomo, and Mandela.
If we limit the possibilities to current political figures, not in retirement, but still active on the world stage, I propose the following:
1. Tony Blair
Quartet Representative to the Middle East. Former Prime Minister. If I had to only name one person, I would nominate Blair. He is the best for me. Blair has 'the intelligence behind the words.' That is my phrase. He knows what he is doing with every word, every pause, every change of rate and volume, every gesture, and even the clothes he wears. He is the master of communication. He works very hard in his speeches. There is a strategy and technique in his presentations that should be studied and analyzed by European and American politicians. They would learn and lot and surely improve as speakers. Most importantly, he knows how to use a speech to unite an audience and to motivate that audience to action.
2. William Hague
British Foreign Secretary. He has more pure speaking skill and ability than any politician on the scene today, anywhere in the world. He became known through a party conference speech in his teens. Current viewers know him from parliamentary debates. Internationally, he is known for his clear, articulate, and engaging speeches as Foreign Secretary (I think he is the most eloquent Foreign Secretary of the post-renaissance modern era, which is saying a lot given the high quality of representation and eloquence by others in that cabinet position). I believe he has even better speeches still to come.
3. Dan Hannan
Conservative member of the European Parliament for South East England. Of course, he is well known for personally and effectively scorching Gordon Brown in a 2009 speech in the European Parliament. He is famous for his flame-throwing speeches in Strasbourg. He has a powerful message of empowerment and freedom, arguing for limited government and less regulation. Yes, he is a euro-skeptic. Obviously. But he is much more than that; he offers a visionary promised land. He is persuasive, steadfast, influential, and dangerous. In Washington and London he is a guaranteed draw, filling auditoriums and ballrooms. I have sat in the audience through some of his speeches. Hannan is electric, virtually drawing the audience to him. If I could only hearone speaker give one speech, it would be Hannan. If I could use one speech to teach others how to deliver a message, I would use that short 2009 speech.
4. Barack Obama
President of the United States of America. Some think he is the best American speaker of our time. Certainly Obama has given a number of speeches that define our time. With a teleprompter he is flawless (and I don’t mean that as a criticism). He works very well with his speechwriters. They regularly produce speeches of high quality. And he has a profound story, a story that has produced his presidency. Some of his speeches will stand the test of time, especially his 2004 Democratic Party Convention speech and his 2009 Cairo speech about American and Islamic relations.
5. Diana DeGette
Member of US Congress, First Congressional District, Colorado. In my view she is the best speaker in Congress. She has incredible rhetorical gifts, often displayed in an easy-going, conversational style (a great achievement, that). As a disclaimer, I must inform you that I’ve known DeGette since high school. But that has enabled me to hear hundreds of speeches (no hyperbole). She has a plain-spoken, down-home style that is intelligent and accessible. Like Hague, I think she has historic speeches still to come. But she should never be under-estimated as a speaker. She is often misrepresented as a ‘tax and spend’ liberal. That would be a shallow and stupid misreading of her record. There is a flexible and nuanced response to most issues except on women’s rights and biomedical research, where she has become a rhetorical opinion-leader and determined advocate. There is a graceful and surprising greatness in that voice from the west.
6. Azarias Ruberwa Manywa
Former Vice President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He is the head of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie. You may not have heard of him before. But he is a politician, lawyer, and minister in the DR Congo who ran for the presidency on a platform of good governance and transparency in 2006. He is a controversial figure who is beloved or tainted by his actions during the civil war that unseated Mobutu Sese Seko, and then threatened Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who was subsequently killed by his own bodyguards. I have heard the Vice President speak many times in academic settings, political meetings, refugee camps, as a representative of the government of the DR Congo at international events, and in the bush. In my mind his most effective speech was at a refugee camp after an unprovoked attack on the camp that left hundreds dead, including his uncle. He called for restrained reaction, non-violence, and an end to hatred. Ruberwa has an understated eloquence that is very moving. He is not a loud or bombastic speaker, advocating a cult of personality. Rather, he is a voice of reason and hope, tolerance and charity. The tribal conflicts in Congo may keep him from the presidency. Some people think he is a murderer; others a saint. But he speaks like a leader and his advocacy for an end of corruption, conflict, and civil war gives him a necessary message. I respect his courage and his vision. They give his presentations an undeniable gravitas. He is a speaker who may have further greatness thrust upon him as events develop in DR Congo.
I would give honourable mentions to the following: Bill Clinton (a great speaker still in search of a time-tested speech), Bono (prominent presence but needs to work on the construction of his speeches), Aung San Suu Kyi (who will give an epic, once-in-a-lifetime speech when she assumes the presidency of Burma), Marco Rubio (Florida Senator who has not yet produced a speech worthy of his enormous rhetorical gifts), Matthew Richardson (Corporation of London Councillor and rising UK political figure who has the ease and eloquence with audiences to become the next William Hague), Herman Cain (passionate preacher for economic sanity), Sarah Palin (laugh if you want, but she has a visceral and authentic magnetism with the audience that survives a mangled and undisciplined presentation), Sir Mervyn King (Governor of the Bank of England who knows how to make news), and Colin Powell (former US Secretary of State who has character and independence).
I invite bloggers to offer their own nominations. Please add a few words to justify your view.