The Power of Speech

My Chronicle column this week is on speechmaking.

Speeches Hold Power to Shape Actions, The Chronicle, 5 August 2014

In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama was under attack. The topic was the thorniest of US political issues: race. A scandal over Obama’s preacher, Jeremiah Wright, was threatening to derail his campaign.

Did Obama respond with a press conference? A 60 Minutes interview?  Neither. Instead, he booked a hall in Philadelphia, and gave a 37-minute speech about race and politics. Over four-fifths of Americans heard at least some of the speech, and it is credited with helping to win him that year’s Presidential election.

From John Curtin’s wartime call to the United States (‘Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom’) to Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, speeches have helped shape Australian history.

Even in the age of Twitter and 24-hour news, speeches matter. Thanks to social media, Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech could go viral within hours.

What makes a great speech? In his updated collection of speeches, Men and Women of Australia! Our Greatest Modern Speeches Michael Fullilove argues that ‘Every great speech has a big idea at its heart.’

Launching the collection in Sydney last week, Malcolm Turnbull – one of parliament’s best orators – argued that spontaneity helps make a great speech (he then demonstrated his point by roasting me in front of the audience). Engagement with the audience enlivens a prepared text, and injects the humour that helps build the bond between speaker and audience.

For budding speechmakers, the Australian Parliament is now running a ‘My First Speech’ competition. Open to students in years 10 to 12, the competition invites high schoolers to submit a three minute video, in which they imagine themselves as a newly elected member of parliament.

The winning speaker will receive a prize of $250, plus $500 for their school. Entries close 12 September. So if you have a big idea, it’s time… to get speaking.

Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fraser, and his website is Information about the ‘My First Speech’ competition is available at

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