Book Review -
Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History
Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (edited by William Safire) will provide you with hours of speechwriting inspiration.
Every serious speaker should own a speech anthology, and Lend Me Your Ears is arguably the best.
This article is one of a series of public speaking book reviews from Six Minutes.
Lend Me Your Ears is an impressive compendium of 233 great speeches throughout history, from ancient Rome to modern times. There is an emphasis on political speeches, but you will also find commencement speeches, lectures, media speeches, eulogies, farewells, trials, and debates. Each one is preceded by a detailed introduction which helps the reader appreciate the themes, occasion, and figures of speech.
The editor — William Safire — was a presidential speechwriter, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a writer for the New York Times, New York Times Magazine (“On Language”), and many works of fiction and nonfiction. His speechwriting credibility is unparalleled, and it shows in the depth of analysis he provides.
At the time of writing this review, you can get this book for only $29.55 from amazon.com. This is 34% off the list price. A steal! (Sadly, I paid full price years ago.)
1. The comprehensive selection of speeches
Lend Me Your Ears is among the most comprehensive speech anthologies I’ve ever seen. (I own five.) I reach for it regularly when writing and editing Six Minutes articles, and when I’m seeking speechwriting inspiration.
While it isn’t a book that you are likely to read sequentially from cover to cover, it will boost your skills each time you immerse yourself in its pages. As Safire writes:
There are secrets to speechwriting and speechmaking that you can learn and use. Dip into this book often enough, and you will get the hang of them. Here is how to acquire eloquence by osmosis: close the door, or go out in the woods with only a dog as an audience, and read these speeches aloud.
2. Insightful analysis for every speech
If the “star” of the book are the speeches themselves, then the “co-star” is certainly Safire’s speech commentaries — often a couple of pages in length. These speech introductions are not merely bibliographical. They offer deep insights into what makes each speech great. It is this feature which sets this speech anthology apart from all others.
3. Introduction identifies speechwriting secrets
In the book introduction, Safire includes an “introductory address” where he reveals “the ten steps to a great speech“. I’ve listed them here, but you’ll need to read his address to gain the full benefit.
- Welcome (“Shake hands with the audience.”)
- Structure (“a thematic anatomy”)
- Pulse (“A good speech has a beat, a changing rhythm, a sense of movement…”)
- Occasion or forum
- Purpose (“to inspire, to ennoble, to instruct, to rally, to lead”)
- Phrase, or quotations
- Deliverable (“steer clear of forty-dollar words”)
4. Comprehensive Index
I love a great index, and this is one of the best. Speeches are cross-referenced by:
- speaker e.g. Lincoln, Abraham
- topic e.g. Gettysburg, Battle of
- key lines e.g. “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”
Many speech books only index speeches by the speaker. This doesn’t help me if I can recall a famous line or a topic, but forget the speaker. So, I really appreciate the extra time devoted to this index.
Criticism around this book seems to be centered on the omissions, and this is summed up well by Robert Winder (referring to a previous, shorter edition):
Of the 200 speeches in question, only 44 are by people who lived outside the United States, and only 13 are by women.
I won’t dispute the numbers, but that doesn’t make me appreciate this anthology any less. It isn’t attempting to capture every great speech. Rather, Safire only claims that the selected speeches are great.
Everyone will find one of their favorite speeches missing, but the book is already 1145 pages long. Other speech anthologies pick up where Safire left off.
Ratings on amazon.com are solid: 71% of reviewers give it 5 out of 5 stars.
Bob Morris, Blogging on Business:
If there is a better anthology of great speeches, I am not aware of it.
This is an invaluable reference for writers and speakers, students of history and those who simply appreciate great oratory.
Robert Winder, The Independent:
The contents page is a roll-call of the great, the good, the bad, and the extra bad. The anthology travels in time from the condemned Socrates … to the born-again Billy Graham …
I especially appreciated Mr. Safire’s ability not only to recognize a great speech, but also to define for the reader the qualities that made the speech great and to place it within a historical perspective.
What Safire does is to give the reader a sort of ten commandents that the great speakers of the past must have followed.
I strongly recommend that you get a copy of Lend Me Your Ears and keep it within arm’s reach whenever you seek speechwriting inspiration.
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