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Top 10 Most Powerful Orators in History

VO: Rebecca Brayton

Script written by George Pacheco.

There have been many famous orators throughout history, but only a few transcend time. Great speakers like Martin Luther King Jr, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi have given some of the most famous speeches in history, and have cemented themselves as some of the best communicators the world has ever seen. WatchMojo counts down ten of the greatest speakers in history to give you some inspiration for your next public speaking assignment.

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Transcript
Script written by George Pacheco.

Top 10 Most Powerful Public Speakers in History


They captured the public’s attention with the power of their words. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Most Powerful Public Speakers in History.

For this list, we’ll be ranking the most influential historical personalities who used their oratory talents for major social change during their lives – for better or worse.

#10: Mahatma Gandhi

It isn’t always wild gesticulations and booming voices that grab a crowd’s attention. Case in point? Mahatma Gandhi, a leader for Indian independence, who was known for his soft-spoken demeanor and policies of non-confrontational civil disobedience, or ahimsa. One of Gandhi’s most famous speeches, “Quit India,” saw the leader call upon Indians to utilize passive resistance against British occupation of the country and decline to participate in WWII. This practice involved boycotts of British products, including government schooling, while Gandhi himself went on fasts and hunger strikes, which often left him severely weakened. Nevertheless, Gandhi caused significant social change by backing up his compelling speeches with actions, making him an enduring figure in historical public speaking.

#9: Marcus Tullius Cicero

Ancient Rome, a legendary empire, hailed itself as the pinnacle of government and culture, and in turn influenced Western civilization. The texts from this era that survive give an idea of the compelling arguments used by preeminent figures of the day; one of these was orator Marcus Tullius Cicero. He was taught in both Latin and Greek, meaning he learned from yet another important culture, which had great speakers like the “First Citizen of Athens,” himself, Pericles. It was that grasp on language allowed Cicero to translate much of Greece’s rhetoric into Latin. Cicero was also involved in government and law, where he utilized rhetoric to convince all who listened of his arguments – including the generations of politicians, lawyers and public figures who study his work today.

#8: Margaret Thatcher

Early in her career, Thatcher was quoted as saying, “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime,” but she was obviously proven wrong. Taking office in May of 1979, Thatcher was quickly nicknamed “The Iron Lady.” Thatcher was the first woman to be British Prime Minister, and also held the position the longest out of anyone in the 20th century. Thatcher’s longevity as PM is in part thanks to her controversial and unyielding style of speech and leadership. Indeed, public opinion of Thatcher’s policies on deregulation, labor and privatization of businesses was so strong that her influence continues to be felt today, both in Britain and around the world.

#7: Ronald Reagan

The 40th President of the United States may’ve first found the fame as an actor, but his legacy as America’s Commander in Chief earned him the nickname “The Great Communicator.” This moniker was merited, in part, thanks to Reagan’s ability to connect with an audience during his speeches. This was largely due to the perception that the former President came across as sincere, simple and honest, using terms people could understand, but also being succinct and quotable. The country may not have always agreed with Reagan’s policies, but they almost always paid attention whenever he took the podium for a speech.

#6: Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela gave a speech in 1964 while on trial in Apartheid South Africa that remains of the most important and iconic addresses of the 20th century. Speaking for three hours, this activist used the power of the spoken word to resonate with his supporters and to challenge those who had put him on trial. Mandela stressed that he was willing to die for his ideals of a democratic South Africa, and it was this passionate belief behind his words that made Mandela a hero to many around the world. Though some have criticized Mandela’s switch to armed protest with the Spear of the Nation after first espousing peaceful, non-violent solutions, the leader’s legacy remains firmly entrenched within the culture of South Africa.

#5: Franklin D. Roosevelt

Roosevelt’s public speaking style is perfectly encapsulated by the Fireside Chats, a series of radio broadcasts that he used to discuss such issues as unemployment, finance and the costs of fighting a war overseas directly with the American people. These chats led the United States through both the Great Depression and World War II during his tenure as President. It was the perceived intimacy of these chats that likely led to Roosevelt’s popularity among his supporters, as they served as a comforting presence during times of troubling uncertainty and danger. His presence and assurance were especially needed following the attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941; in under eight minutes, he gave what is known as the Infamy Speech, convincing almost everyone that it was time to proclaim war.

#4: Adolf Hitler

The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement continues to be a chilling reminder of how powerful a zealous oratory presence can be in persuading a population. Indeed, Hitler made over five thousand speeches in his lifetime, and was instrumental in one of the most deplorable periods in history through an almost supernatural ability to tap into the fears and prejudices of an entire nation. Charisma and presence were just two of the ingredients needed to spark the powder keg that became World War II Germany. However, it was also Hitler’s ability to find the right things to say at the right times that managed to strike at the hearts of German citizens.

#3: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s talent and knowledge in public speaking made him more than just an icon of the civil rights movement that included other powerful speakers like Malcolm X. MLK’s iconic status as an orator is due not only to the passion of the words he chose, but also the manner with which they were delivered. Like the true preacher he was, King always appeared confident at the podium, and spoke with a relaxed cadence that seemed to put audiences at ease. Add to this the fact that King added to that impression of genuineness by rarely referencing his prepared materials during famous moments like his “I Have a Dream...” speech, and you have a recipe for one of history’s finest public speakers.

#2: John F. Kennedy

American presidents are often placed front and center as some of history’s greatest public speakers. John Fitzgerald Kennedy may not have served as his nation’s president for long, but in his almost three years in office he managed to make a lasting impact on the country – a significance that still resonates today. This was not only due to Kennedy’s youthful demeanor and natural body language, but also in his ability to use the tone and volume of his voice in a constructive way to strengthen his message. JFK utilized all of these skills to make famous speeches like his 1961 Inaugural Address and his “Moon” speech at Rice University a year later, both of which became milestones of his short, but memorable presidency.

Before we name our most impactful public speaker, here are a few honorable mentions.
- Abraham Lincoln
- Harvey Milk
- Charles de Gaulle

#1: Winston Churchill

Public speaking can leave some people absolutely petrified, and this fear can afflict even the most talented orators, like former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He conquered his fear through dedicated practice, and became PM in the thick of World War II. His first speech in the position positively inspired British Parliament. Then before the Battle of Britain, Churchill roused troops for their fight against Nazi Germany, aligning himself with them and motivating them. Churchill carefully chose every word for his speeches, meticulously editing and making sure to maximize their impact on his audience. He was obviously successful, and as a result Churchill solidified his position as one of history’s master orators.

Do you agree with our list? Which speaker do you think has had the most influence over an audience? For more powerful top ten lists published every day, please subscribe to WatchMojo.com!
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