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Lesson Plan Booster: What Makes a Great Speech?

Grade level: 6-12

Student learning objective

Getting students to understand the components that make up a great speech and identify these traits in famous addresses.


  1. Teachers should familiarize themselves with at least three famous speeches from a variety of sources. Presidential addresses like the Gettysburg Address are a good start, but don’t limit yourself to politicians. Great orators like Martin Luther King, Jr. can provide a wealth of inspiration. Also look to fiction for examples. Film, television and literature contain a seemingly endless supply of truly great speeches, and AMC offers a list of the best from film. Be sure to pre-screen any film and television speeches to ensure they don’t contain any inappropriate content.
  2. Come up with a list of at least five essential elements of great speeches. There is no definitive source for what makes a great speech, but teachers can look to Web sites like Write-Out-Loud for some guidance. Other sites offer more specific help; LifeHack offers 10 tips for writing a great speech based on the practices of Abraham Lincoln. EducationWorld provides a list of the top speeches delivered by American Presidents.
  3. Consider that many, if not all, great speeches are remembered as much for their stirring words as for the context in which they were delivered. FDR’s remarks about "a date that would live in infamy" certainly stir emotions, but they would not have been so heralded were it not for the fact that they were delivered less than 24 hours after the country was attacked.
  4. Determine whether students will be given a choice about the speech they want to discuss, or whether a particular one will be assigned. You may want to give students the option of breaking into groups based on interest in a particular speech. These small groups can then report back to the large group.

Introducing discussion to students

We should all think about the importance of getting our ideas across in an eloquent and persuasive manner. We’re going to read and discuss some famous speeches and consider what it is that makes them so effective and memorable. Speeches are often delivered to large audiences under grave or dramatic circumstances, but recognizing the elements of good speeches also can help in our everyday communication.

Options for student discussion questions

  1. [After reading and/or reciting a famous speech] Which of the essential elements of great speeches are present in this speech? [Have students underline passages and explain how they demonstrate the essential elements.]
  2. [After reading and/or reciting a famous speech] Would you consider this a persuasive speech, an inspirational speech, and/or one that paints a picture of the human condition? Let’s generate a few other categories of speeches, and then we’ll think of examples of famous speeches that fit these categories.
  3. How many times a day do you make a “speech” or persuasive argument? To a parent? To a teacher? To a peer? What are some ways in which you can apply the essential elements of great speeches to your everyday communication? [Another option: The teacher can present a silly scenario, such as “Convince me why we shouldn’t have tests in this class,” or “Convince your classmates that every Monday should be ‘hat day’ in our school” and have students compose speeches using some of the essential elements.]
  4. Great speeches are frequently remembered for one great line. The “I Have a Dream” speech is a good example. What are some lines that are often quoted from this speech? Why do you think these lines are so popular? [Students can choose or be assigned other speeches—perhaps some famous and some not as well known. Have them pick out what they think is the “great line,” and explain why.]
  5. What are some of your favorite speeches? What do you like about them? What about them motivates you, or speaks to you?
  6. One of the most common speeches in America is the political speech, yet very few of these speeches are remembered beyond the day they were delivered. [Teachers can reference a recent speech such as a State of the Union address.] Why do you think that is? How would you change that if you were a political speechwriter?


Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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