The powerfulness of words

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Public speaking allows people to make arguments through the use of words, whether in a speech or an exchange. Words can be a double-edge weapon: they can either inspire people to strive for a better world, or they can become dangerous tools of propaganda. In both cases, words become a weapon for politicians. How can words be manipulated to convince?

I. Unifying political speeches

1) Rallying a nation

Powerful speeches from eminent political figures often stay in collective memory. Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill was known for his uplifting speeches that brought the population together during World War II. He presented the retreat of the troops from Dunkirk in 1940 as a victory to strengthen British morale in his historic “We shall fight on the beaches” speech (June 1940). During the Battle of France, Churchill also delivered two other famous speeches: “Blood, toil, tears and sweat” and “This was their finest hour”.


During the invasion of France, German troops pushed Allied forces (French, Belgian and British) to retreat to Dunkirk and to evacuate by the sea.

Another example would be American president John Fitzgerald Kennedy whose September 1962 speech “We choose to go to the Moon”, in Houston, initiated public support for the Apollo program which eventually led to the Apollo 11 mission landing on the moon seven years later. His goal was to launch a national effort to win the space race by defining space as “the new frontier” that America needed to conquer.

2) Fighting for civil rights

One of the most famous orators in the U.S. was Martin Luther King. He was the leading figure of the Civil Rights Movement, which fought for the end of segregation and equal rights for African-Americans. He made his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of more than 200,000 people at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

As Martin Luther King was a preacher, he often used allusions to religious elements, promoting acceptance in his speeches which were made even more powerful as it allowed him to appeal to his audience’s emotions and beliefs. “I Have a Dream” is still remembered today as a greatly inspiring speech that marked an entire generation.

II. Division and domination through words

1) Defending controversial opinions

If words can be unifying, they can create division. In 1968, Enoch Powell (a Conservative Member of Parliament) tried to defend the idea that immigrants were a threat to the British people in his “Rivers of blood” speech. It created a chasm in British society: part of the population was outraged by Powell’s speech, whereas some found his dismissal from the government excessive.

Margaret Thatcher, another Conservative, became Prime Minister in 1970. She was highly unpopular throughout her time in office and she resigned in 1979 after a dire period in British economy. In a speech she made in 1979, she accused strikers to be responsible for the fall of the economy. This speech was not well-received as the workers were striking to defend their rights.

2) Manipulation through totalitarian propaganda

Other examples of speeches with negative impact are propaganda speeches. This kind of speech was satirised by George Orwell in Animal Farm (1945), an allegorical critic of the Soviet regime. As the novel opens, Major, a pig, persuades the animals to rebel against their owners and take control of the farm.

In this “revolutionary” speech, Major makes a typical use of manipulative rhetoric tools. Pretending to put himself aside, he praises the audience in order to make them more apt to believe him. And once he has the animals’ attention and confidence, he does not clearly state his ideas, but instead he deftly (avec adresse) leads them to formulate these in their own words, so they eventually believe Major’s ideas are an expression of their wishes.