Speeches – listening to and sometimes giving them – are virtually impossible to avoid in the modern world. If a group of people gathered somewhere for almost any reason, the odds are pretty good that you will find at least one of them making a speech.
At its most basic, a speech is a form of public address in which one person speaks to a group of other people about a given topic or for a specific purpose. Speeches can be about almost anything. They can be long or short; lighthearted or impassioned; humorous or serious; formal or spontaneous (also sometimes referred to as ‘off the cuff’), and pretty much anybody can make one.
While many think of politicians or ‘keynote’ speakers when they think of speeches, these individuals represent just a fraction of the speech-making population. If you attend a lecture at a university, see a standup comic at a comedy club, watch a product presentation at your local supermarket or hardware store, or listen to a sermon by the pastor at your local church – you might not realize it, but you are attending a speech.
Speeches have a long and rich history dating back to Ancient Greece and Rome and probably beyond (one can easily imagine Og standing in front of the cave, addressing his tribe) and have evolved into a multi-billion dollar per year industry today. Universities teach courses on making a good speech; professional speechwriters and coaches are employed by many politicians, executives, and world leaders; and sought-after celebrities or experts are often paid tens of thousands of dollars to give a 30 or 45-minute speech to select audiences.
The Anatomy of a Speech
Giving a speech can be a harrowing experience for many people: studies have found that the fear of public speaking is more potent than the fear of death for some people. There is even a name for this phenomenon: glossophobia. Giving an effective, compelling speech is actually something of an art form and is a combination of both the words being spoken and how those words are delivered. Influential speechmakers are called orators and can sometimes use speeches to bring thousands and even millions of people to their way of thinking.
While there are no hard and fast rules as to what a speech is – other than the fact that it is a form of public address – many factors will determine how effective a speech will be and how an audience will receive it. These will usually include the following:
- Preparation: There is nothing worse (at least as far as attending a speech is concerned) than listening to someone speak who is unprepared. Successful orators will usually write their speeches out in advance, have the full text of the speech (or notes) in front of them, or sometimes work from a teleprompter. A good speech will often have been rehearsed before it is presented (sometimes to make it sound unrehearsed) in front of family, friends, aids, the mirror, or even pets.
- Purpose / Objective: Whether it is to educate the listeners, convince them of a point of view, show them how something works, or make them laugh, speeches will generally have a specific purpose or objective, and these will often be tailored to the audience to whom it is presented. Most effective orators will have their purpose and objective firmly in mind throughout their speech, even if it is not immediately apparent to their audience.
- Structure: Most effective speeches will have a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. In most cases, the beginning will lay out what is being spoken about and present the speaker’s credentials; the middle will outline and reinforce the speaker’s position on the subject, and the end will sum up the previously presented information in an easy-to-understand and remember.
- Presentation: How the orator chooses to make a speech – their tone of voice, body language, speed of delivery, etc. – will usually have a significant impact on how the audience receives a speech. The effective orator will also typically have at least a general understanding of their audience and tailor their use of language – or diction – to them.
- Length: In his excellent (and very short) book, The Little Red Handbook of Public Speaking and Presenting, author and respected speaker Stephen Keague quipped: “No audience ever complained about a presentation or speech being too short.” Holding the audience’s attention throughout a speech is crucial, and some of the greatest and most well-remembered speeches in history have been relatively short. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic ‘I Have a Dream‘ speech was just over 16 minutes long.
So what are some of the most common types of speeches you are likely to hear (or, if you are brave enough, make) today?
General Types of Speeches
Although, as previously stated, a speech can be about pretty much anything and have any number of purposes, there are four general main types of speeches (discussed in depth below): demonstrative, persuasive, informative, and entertaining. These four main types will often overlap: for example, an informative speech might be compelling, while a demonstrative one might be pretty entertaining. What form a speech eventually takes will be almost entirely up to the orator and be dependent on their subject matter and abilities. In some cases, all four types are utilized in a single speech.
As the name suggests, an informative speech conveys information from the speaker to the audience. A perfect example of this would be a college lecture, in which the professor addresses a group of students on a specific subject. It is usually assumed that the orator giving the informative speech knows more about the subject than his audience. If they are successful, the audience will come away knowing more than they did before hearing the speech.
Informative speeches will usually have a specific subject (or subjects) around which they revolve. These can be physical objects (for example, the anatomy of a tree); historical events (the fall of the Roman Empire); cultural phenomena (Lady Gaga’s impact on the music); critique (the subtexts of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings); discoveries or data (a breakdown of our increased 3rd quarter earnings); or even personal experiences (my 30 days in India). In effect, any information the orator and the audience wants can be the basis of an informative speech.
Most informative speeches will be fact (or the speaker’s interpretation of the facts) based, and many will make use of statistics, specific data (sometimes in the form of charts or other visual aids, such as PowerPoint), and quotations from other ‘experts’ on the subject. In some cases, informative speeches will lead to a specific conclusion that can be drawn from the information (“and so we can see that to sustain this level of growth, we must…”), while in other cases, the information is presented to increase the overall knowledge of the listener about the topic.
Informative speeches are often among the most extended types of speeches, sometimes lasting an hour or more – mainly when delivered in formal settings – and can often be among the driest if the orator does not have a well-developed sense of drama or humor.
Very closely linked to (and often used in conjunction with) the informative speech, demonstrative speeches inform the audience about something and demonstrate how that information can be used.
Sometimes referred to as ‘how to’ speeches, the purpose of the demonstrative speech is to give the listener an introduction to something and provide them with enough information to be able to utilize that practically.
An excellent example of a demonstrative speech is the product demonstrations we encounter from time to time in supermarkets, home stores, or (in the business world) trade shows. The orator will usually have the product about which they are speaking (and which they are trying to get you to buy) in front of them. After pointing out the various features, they will usually demonstrate how the product is used and why it is more robust, more manageable, better, etc. Many product-based demonstrative speeches will end with a ‘call to action,’ also known as a sales pitch.
Demonstrative speeches are also used – and sometimes quite effectively – to demonstrate how one concept, philosophy, strategy, etc., is better or more effective than another (for example, why capitalism is better than communism or why selling direct is better than selling retail). Having much in common with persuasive speech (discussed below), when used for this purpose, the orator will use facts, statistics, and concrete examples to demonstrate to the audience why one idea is better than another.
Demonstrative speeches tend to be relatively short (to keep the audience’s undivided attention), very well rehearsed, and employ a liberal amount of jokes or anecdotal humor.
Perhaps the most common type of speech most of us will encounter during our adult lives, persuasive speech is intended to get people to do something; change the way they feel or act; believe in something (general or specific), or bring the audience around to the orator’s way of thinking. Persuasive speeches are also often used to reinforce already held beliefs or opinions, expand upon them, or present them in a different or unique light.
Often incorporating elements of some or all of the other three main types, persuasive speeches are often used in politics (‘Elect me!’); business (‘Buy this!’); fundraising (‘Give!’); religious settings (‘Believe!’); and motivational applications (‘Change!’). Persuasive speeches will often be tailored to the specific listeners to whom they are presented. They will generally utilize simple, concrete, and easily understood language to appeal to the broadest possible audience.
Generally speaking, the orator giving a persuasive speech, after presenting whatever credentials they may have, will continually reinforce what they are attempting to persuade the audience repeatedly throughout the speech. In cases where the purpose of the speech is to convince the audience to choose one thing or person over another, the speech will often present the other thing or person (or opposition) in a negative, sometimes insulting manner.
A persuasive speech will often be well rehearsed and planned out; however, the effective orator will also usually be quite attuned to the audience’s reaction throughout their delivery and will constantly adjust their remarks during the address to return to those specific points that best resonate with the audience. In some cases, the length of a persuasive speech will be increased (or shortened) based on the audience’s reactions.
While most suitable examples of the previously outlined types of speeches will incorporate at least some entertaining comments or moments, the purpose of an entertaining speech is, not surprisingly, to entertain the audience. Often some of the most challenging speeches to deliver effectively, entertaining speeches will sometimes be relatively informal (after-dinner remarks/toasts) but can also be some of the most tightly structured speeches around (standup comedy routines/monologues).
Entertaining speeches will often incorporate jokes, anecdotal humor, sarcasm, parody, insults (usually, but not always, good-natured), and emotionally moving stories. Unlike most other types of addresses, which are geared toward getting the audience to learn or do something, the entertaining speech is usually designed to make the audience feel something.
Much like the persuasive variety, an entertaining speech will often be adjusted by an effective orator based on the audience’s reaction; for example, if a particular type of joke doesn’t elicit any laughter, the orator may choose to avoid similarly structured jokes for the rest of the speech. Unless it is a comedy concert or other paid event, most entertaining speeches will be relatively short. The general rule of thumb is that the longer someone speaks, the less entertaining they will often become.
Specific Types of Speeches
While many of us get tired of hearing them – and this can be particularly true in the days and weeks just before a major election – throughout history, political speeches have played a significant role in shaping the course of the world. While there is no way to determine when the first political speech was made, early examples of powerful political speeches date back to Pericles and Plato in the 4th century BC and orations in the Ancient Roman Senate. They haven’t changed significantly throughout the years in structure or general content. It is not necessary to be a politician to give a political speech.
Generally speaking, political speeches today fall into three broad categories: campaign, deliberative, and rhetorical. All three will normally be persuasive types of speeches.
Campaign speeches are used (generally in the days, weeks, and months before an election) to convince voters to vote for a particular candidate for an elected office. They can be made by the candidate or others supporting a candidate.
Campaign speeches will vary in length depending in large part on the forum in which they are delivered; for example, in a rally setting, the candidate might speak for up to an hour, while a speech delivered at the end of a debate (as their closing remarks) will usually only last a couple of minutes. As is the case with most persuasive speeches, the orator will usually have two or three main points they will return to repeatedly during the speech to avoid confusing the audience.
Campaign speeches will usually be either positive (extolling the candidate’s virtues) or negative (attacking the shortcomings of their opponents), although they will often have elements of both. Some research has indicated that both types can be equally effective.
In most cases, campaign speeches will be specifically geared toward the audience. For example, a presidential candidate in the US might speak about the coal industry while giving a campaign speech in rural West Virginia or Pennsylvania. At the same time, they might address manufacturing jobs when speaking in Michigan or Wisconsin.
Rhetorical political speeches are usually given in support of (or opposition to) a policy, platform, or idea as opposed to a specific candidate or individual. They are also often used by politicians to extol the virtues of their time in office and attempt to promote a larger political agenda.
Perhaps the most effective (and most evil) practitioner of rhetorical speech in the last century was Adolph Hitler. Through his use of rhetorical oratory, Hitler was able to sway the opinions of millions of Germans over to his way of thinking and convince them to support him in his political and military agendas, which directly led to the Second World War and the deaths of tens of millions of human beings.
In many cases, rhetorical political speeches will revolve around ‘hot-button topics’ of the day and often be made by orators who are not politicians. In the US today, for example, abortion rights, immigration policy, taxes, and healthcare are some of the more common rhetorical speech subjects.
Generally speaking, rhetorical political speeches will be persuasive, but the most effective orators will usually include aspects of all four general types of speeches. Sometimes running quite a bit longer than the campaign speech, rhetorical speeches will often be given to audiences who already support the orator’s position as a form of reinforcement. They are also often used as victory or concession speeches after an election has been won or lost.
Deliberative political speeches, like the rhetorical type, are typically made in support or opposition to something as opposed to someone (although this is not always the case, for example, when confirming a judge). The difference is that while rhetorical speeches are most often made to the general public, deliberative speeches are usually made by a member of a governing body (Senate, House of Representatives, Parliament, City Council, etc.) to other members of that same body in an attempt to get their support for a particular agenda or piece of legislation.
In many governing bodies, deliberative speeches will have a mutually agreed upon time limit as part of their rules of procedure, and so will often be relatively short (although in some cases they can be incredibly long, as is the case with the filibuster in the US Senate). While some of the most important speeches are often made regularly in local, state, and national politics, they are also usually heard by fewer people than any other type of political speech.
Usually, another type of persuasive speech, the motivational speech, is designed to get the audience to do – or in some cases keep on doing – something, or take proactive steps to improve something, in many cases themselves. Widely used in business, fundraising, charitable, and self-help applications, motivational speeches often have a single topic or purpose, a specific or broadly defined goal, and usually end with some ‘call to action.’
Although the majority of motivational speeches will offer some sort of positive reinforcement regarding what might happen (‘We can cure cancer,’ or ‘weight loss is possible’), some will utilize negative reinforcement (‘If the performance in this department doesn’t improve in the next quarter, heads will roll!’).
Motivational speeches will sometimes be passionate, as the orator will often believe sincerely in the subject, and can be quite moving. Interestingly, motivational speakers are also some of the most highly paid professional orators; this is particularly true in the self-help/improvement industry, where some motivational orators can fetch tens of thousands of dollars for a 90-minute presentation, often through ticket sales and the sale of their books and previously recorded CDs at the venue.
Closely related to motivational, inspirational speeches are, as the name suggests, designed to inspire the audience. Almost exclusively positive, the inspirational speech will usually be persuasive but often equally demonstrative and entertaining. A clergyperson giving an uplifting sermon or a community activist detailing the positive outcomes of a particular program or initiative would be examples of someone giving an inspirational speech.
Unlike the motivational variety, the purpose and goal of the inspirational speech are almost universally to make the audience feel good or optimistic about something. Rather than being specifically goal-oriented, inspirational speeches will usually be more results-oriented, focusing more on benefits to be gained as opposed to problems to be solved.
The introductory speech introduces the main focus of an event, gathering, or meeting. Frequently used to introduce the ‘keynote’ speaker at an event or someone who is being honored, they will also often be used to present bands or singers, films, staged productions and displays, award winners – whatever or whomever it is that the audience has come to see or listen to. They are also widely used at social or celebratory gatherings such as weddings, promotion or retirement parties, post-election events, graduations, and competitions.
The introductory speech will usually be relatively short (in most cases, the shorter, the better) and focus almost exclusively on the person or thing being introduced. When introducing another speaker, the orator will usually give a few biographical details, establish the person’s credentials or qualifications, and, if applicable, relate a personal anecdote or two about the speaker. An excellent introductory speech will be informative and entertaining and generally be positive and complimentary towards whom or what is being introduced.
The acceptance speech – often given directly after an introductory speech – is typically made by someone who has won some award, honor, or competition. Usually (although often to the audience’s discomfort, not always) relatively short, the acceptance speech will usually express the speaker’s gratitude for the honor and thank those that helped the speaker with their achievement as well as the organization or group honoring them.
Acceptance speeches can be difficult for amateur orators to give successfully, as they are often quite emotional or embarrassed. Former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (considered one of the greatest orators of his time) gave perhaps the best advice for making an acceptance speech: “Be sincere. Be Brief. Be seated.”
A eulogy is a speech usually given at a funeral or memorial service for someone who has passed away. Generally delivered by a close friend or family member, a eulogy will usually be a brief summation of the individual’s life and accomplishments, often featuring personal reflections on or anecdotes about the orator’s relationship with the deceased. Though usually delivered in a sad and depressing setting, eulogies are often celebratory, uplifting, and can sometimes be quite humorous. Depending on the relative stature of the individual and the wishes of the family, it is not uncommon for multiple orators to give a eulogy at the same service.
A valedictory (also often called a graduation) speech is usually given at a commencement ceremony (high school, college, military academy) by the student who has most distinguished themselves academically, or in some other way, during their educational career. Often the last speech given at the ceremony, the valedictory is an uplifting, inspirational farewell speech in which the orator bids goodbye to their fellow students, their teachers, and the past (while praising its virtues and importance) and presents an optimistic view of the future. Though not a hard and fast rule, valedictory speeches will generally be under 15 minutes (and sometimes quite a bit shorter), as the audience will often have already been seated for a considerable period and will usually want to get on with the partying to follow.
A toast is a speech usually made to honor another person or people. Generally followed by taking a drink (a typical ending for a toast is, “so let us raise our glasses to …”), toasts are often given at weddings, birthdays, retirement parties, awards dinners, holidays, and other types of celebrations. Although typically relatively short, toasts will usually have a very carefully designed structure and be relatively well rehearsed by the orator. In many instances, specific individuals are traditionally expected to give a toast (for example, the bride’s father or best man at a wedding reception) on particular occasions.
Toasts can be sentimental, humorous, insulting (for example, those delivered at a roast), inspirational, or solemn. The event’s tone will generally dictate the type of toast given, and the orator giving it will usually be closely associated with the subject of the toast in some way. One of the most popular and widely used types of speeches, toasts can also be some of the hardest to give effectively, as amateurs will often present them. It is not uncommon, particularly at celebrations, for the orator attempting to struggle through a toast to be far more entertaining than the toast itself.
Lisa has a Bachelor’s of Science in Communication Arts. She is an experienced blogger who enjoys researching interesting facts, ideas, products, and other compelling concepts. In addition to writing, she likes photography and Photoshop.