“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation."1 Let’s pause and acknowledge the flashbacks to the grueling process of memorizing President Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech “The Gettysburg Address” (1863) in elementary or middle school. At the time, it wasn’t easy to understand the point of the assignment, but with age comes wisdom. More exposure to historical speeches shows their impact on society, including literature. Persuasive speeches have taken nations to war and changed moral views. Evaluating famous speeches teaches critical thinking and allows us to recognize the motives behind what our leaders tell us.

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Table of contents

    Speech definition in literature

    In literature, a speech is a public discourse performed by an orator. In other words, a person uses a public forum to inform, persuade, or entertain a group of people. Speeches help create a space for people to discuss policies that affect society, either after the decision or during the decision-making process. When a speech is widely believed to be particularly moving, it becomes classified as a work of literature.

    History of public speaking

    Egyptians were the first known society to formulate guidelines for effective public speaking. They believed speeches should focus on listening as much as speaking and that orators should carefully choose their words, emphasizing concepts with a sense of permanency. Their ideas about rhetoric mirrored their culture, as later eras would as well.

    At its most basic, rhetoric is how we communicate. The discussion around a formal definition of rhetoric continues today because the ways we communicate change. Rhetorical analysis concentrated on oral and written communication for much of history, but visual media is now included in rhetorical studies. Applying rhetorical rules effectively in a speech requires language skills, cultural knowledge, and a working understanding of the purpose, context, and audience.

    Classical Period (500-400 BC)

    Ancient Greece picked up where the Egyptians left off, and as political participation was highly valued, rhetoric became a serious philosophical study.

    Roman Era (30 BC-476 AD)

    The Greeks’ eloquence influenced the Romans, so they began to devise their own rules of rhetoric. Their speeches included humor and diversions to create interest for the audience.

    Medieval Era (400 AD-1400 AD)

    Popular thought during the Medieval era considered rhetoric a way to manipulate and hide the truth. Speeches were mainly religious in nature.

    Renaissance Period (1400-1600 AD)

    As this period saw an increase in academic study, scholars began looking back at previous forms of speech-making. There was an increased focus on style and logic over rhetoric. Other scholars felt morality and ethics were essential parts of an effective speech.

    Enlightenment Period (1600-1800 AD)

    The Enlightenment took the best of the past and applied it to the present. Philosophers studied persuasiveness and rhetoric through the lens of scientific and moral reasoning. The Enlightenment period combined Rhetoric inspired by the Classical Era with new ideas about how speech delivery influenced audiences.

    New School (1900-Today)

    Classical rhetoric informs modern theories. Thanks to technology, speeches can now be pre-recorded and delivered over the internet in addition to live events. Podcasts, Ted Talks, YouTube, and video conferences are all ways modern speeches are delivered.

    Speeches, Speech Poster Frederick Douglass, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and became known for his intellectually inspiring speeches.

    Types of speeches

    There are three broad types of speeches:

    • Entertaining: Speeches that deliver a message by stimulating their audience using humor or drama. Entertaining speeches are typical at special events such as weddings.
    • Informative: Speeches that educate an audience. There are four categories of informative speeches:
      • A definition speech explains the main points of a topic so an audience will understand it better.
      • A demonstration speech explains how something works.
      • An explanatory speech usually uses statistics or other data types to describe a topic.
      • A descriptive speech uses words to paint a picture of a subject.
    • Persuasive: Speeches that try to influence an audience to believe or do something.

    Persuasive speeches

    Speeches that become known as works of literature are usually persuasive. The best way to persuade an audience has been studied since the Egyptians laid a foundation for rhetoric. However, philosophers throughout history have offered different theories regarding the most effective ways to use rhetoric to persuade an audience. As a result, much of what is taught today is actually thousands of years old.

    Marcus Tullius Cicero of Ancient Rome established a five-step process for writing a persuasive speech that is still widely respected and used, called the Five Canons of Rhetoric (50 BC):

    1. Invention: How someone develops their idea. For example, to get ready for a political debate, a candidate will brainstorm about the main points they want to try to make.
    2. Arrangement: Deciding how the orator should organize the speech. Rather than diving right into the solution to a civil rights issue, a speechwriter first introduces the problem, so the audience knows why they’re supposed to act.
    3. Style: Language choices within the speech. For example, an orator should know their audience well enough to know whether or not humor will be appropriate.
    4. Memory: the act of memorizing a speech. To see why this is important, consider political leaders' consequences when they slip up mid-speech or misread words on a teleprompter.
    5. Delivery: How an orator presents the speech to the audience. People tend to trust a speaker who uses direct eye contact more than one who seems distracted because they keep looking down or off to the side.

    Many of these guidelines can also be helpful when writing a paper.

    Persuasive speech topics

    Topics of a persuasive speech usually boil down to one of three types of debatable points:

    • Issues of factresemble informative speeches because they provide information but go a step further and offer an opinion on whether the information is accurate.
      • For example, the specific details surrounding a historical event can sometimes be debated.
    • Issues of policyshed light on a problem and suggest a solution.
      • For example, public health is a policy issue.
    • Issues of valueare usually subjective and ever-changing because they concern beliefs about what is right or wrong, what is beautiful, and what is good or bad.
      • For example, a speaker's arguments for or against the death penalty are influenced by their values.

    Evaluating speeches

    A speech analysis essay examines how successfully a speech uses rhetorical devices to appeal to its audience.

    The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle established a formula known as the rhetorical triangle that balances three characteristics that work together to create a powerful speech:

    1. Logos (Word): In a speech, logos is the appeal to logic. In an analysis, look at how well the speech argues its main points.
    2. Ethos (Character): Ethos appeals to character, meaning it scrutinizes the reliability of the speech’s author. Ethos evaluates whether the speaker’s argument is credible.
    3. Pathos (Sympathy): Pathos appeals to the audience’s emotions. A speech analysis essay delves into the beliefs that underlie the argument and how they resonate with the audience.

    Evaluate a speech using the rhetorical triangle and these guidelines:

    1. What is the purpose of the speech?

    2. Who is the target audience, and how does the speech appeal to them?

    3. Does the speech back its claims with reliable proof?

    4. Who is the speaker, and what is their effect on the speech?

    5. How and where was the speech delivered?

    6. Was the speech compelling? Why or why not?

    Speeches, Ghandi Statue, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The speaking style of the famous Indian social activist, Gandhi, is similar to the Ancient Egyptians' in that he focused on listening to others.

    Famous speeches in English Literature

    Some speeches transcend their moment in time to become famous examples of the genre that continue to inspire others.

    Demosthenes “Third Philippic” (341 BC)

    Demosthenes was an Ancient Greek orator whose skills impressed Cicero three hundred years later. “Third Philippic” is the third speech Demosthenes made to his fellow Athenians to persuade them to go to war against Phillip of Macedon, who was creeping into their territory. After the speech, the Athenian Assembly immediately decided it was time to act.

    Demosthenes studied for years to become one of the most respected orators in Athens (Ethos).

    [I]n fact it is your indifference and carelessness that Phillip has conquered; your city he has not conquered. Nor have you been defeated–no! You have not even made a move.2

    Demosthenes calls out the Assembly’s previous inaction, which appealed to their sense of duty (pathos).

    If we are going to wait for him to acknowledge a state of war with us, we are indeed the simplest of mortals; for even if he marches straight against Attica and the Piraeus, he will not admit it, if we may judge from his treatment of the other states. 2

    Demosthenes provides proof of Phillip’s aggressive and devious behavior against other communities to convince the Assembly (logos).

    George Washington “1783 Resignation Speech” (December 23, 1783)

    George Washington commanded the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War and became the United States’ first President. He wrote this speech after the Revolutionary War was over and he had completed the duty bestowed on him.

    One of the things Washington is famous for is that he didn’t seek out the offices he held. Instead, people saw his leadership qualities and asked him to serve. And when the job was done, Washington respectfully stepped away to let someone else take over (ethos).

    The Successful termination of the War has verified the most sanguine expectations, and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my Countrymen, encreases with every review of the momentous contest.3

    Washington compliments the men he fought with and thanks God for their success, which is even better than the most optimistic expectations as an appeal to Congress’s peace of mind (pathos).

    Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theatre of Action.3

    He logically argues that his job is complete because the war is won, so he is ready to stand aside (logos).

    Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I A Woman?” (1851)

    Sojourner Truth was a formerly enslaved person who became an activist. She gave the speech “Ain’t I A Woman?” at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, which calls out popular beliefs about race and gender.

    Truth’s autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850), brought her national attention, and she began speaking on various topics. She helped enslaved people escape slavery, and when the Civil War started, she encouraged African American men to help fight with the Union (Ethos).

    I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! 4

    Truth appeals to the audience’s beliefs about motherly love to question why her race sets her apart as deserving the right to vote along with other women (pathos).

    Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! . . . I could work as much and eat as much as a man–when I could get it–and bear the lash as well!4

    Truth argues that she has done as much work as any man, so if men can vote because they work, she should be allowed to vote also (logos).

    Literary speeches meld rhetorical skills with creative writing. They transport the reader to their moment in history and inspire future generations to act. Literary speeches act as a time capsule that allows a glimpse into a famous (or infamous) person's thoughts and emotions and helps readers better understand their influence on society.

    Speeches - Key takeaways

    • When a speech is especially thought-provoking, it can become classified as a work of literature.
    • Rhetoric looks at how we communicate. Rhetorical study requires language skills, cultural knowledge, and a working understanding of the purpose, context, and audience.
    • Speeches that become works of literature are typically persuasive. Persuasive speech topics can be categorized as issues of fact, issues of policy, or issues of value.
    • When evaluating a speech, examine its use of pathos, logos, and ethos.
    • Great literary speeches invoke an emotional response thousands of years after they were written.


    1. Lincoln, Abraham. 1863 "The Gettysburg Address." Abraham Lincoln Online. 2020
    2. Demosthenes. 341 BC "Third Philippic." The Bibliotheke.
    3. Washington, George. 1783 "Washington's Address to Congress Resigning His Commission." National Archives.
    4. Truth, Sojourner. 1851 "Ain't I A Woman?" Lit2Go
    5. Fig. 1: Poster announcing a lecture of Frederick Douglass, Public Domain, (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Poster_announcing_a_lecture_of_Frederick_Douglass.jpg)
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Speeches

    What is speech in literature?

    In literature, a speech is a public discourse performed by an orator. In other words, a person uses a public forum to inform, persuade, or entertain a group of people. When a speech is widely believed to be particularly moving, it becomes classified as a work of literature. 

    What are the three main types of speeches?

    The three main types of speeches are:

    1. Entertaining
    2. Informative
    3. Persuasive

    What are the four types of informative speeches?

    The four types of informative speeches are:

    1. Definition
    2. Demonstration
    3. Explanatory
    4. Descriptive

    What is a speech analysis essay?

    A speech analysis essay examines how successfully a speech uses rhetorical devices to appeal to its audience.  

    What are some examples of famous speeches?

    Some examples of famous speeches are:

    1. Demosthenes's "Third Philippic" (341 BC)
    2. George Washington's "Washington's Address to Congress Resigning His Commission" (1783)
    3. Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I A Woman?" (1851)

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is Malcolm X's legacy?

    Why was "The Ballot or the Bullet" important?

    What parts of African American society did Malcolm X want them to control?

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