What you can learn from a speech that helped change history

People helping take down a graffiti-filled wall (Flickr/Raphaël Thiémard)
Germans help bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989. (Flickr/Raphaël Thiémard)

“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.” So said President Reagan, addressing the Soviet general secretary at the Brandenburg Gate, near the Berlin Wall. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Reagan’s stark challenge gave shape to increasing international pressure on Moscow to make good on its promises of openness and reform. The Berlin Wall, which had become a symbol of Soviet oppression, came down two years later, on November 9, 1989, 25 years ago.

Good speeches focus listeners’ attention and engage their emotions. Sometimes they even steer the course of history.

Your Speech

If you are planning to speak in public, take some tips from speechwriters who have helped U.S. presidents write their most memorable lines.

Robert Lehrman, a former White House speechwriter who teaches speechwriting, advises that as you begin to write your speech, you ask yourself five questions:

  1. How will I get listeners to pay attention?

  2. What problems lie ahead?

  3. What solutions can I dream up?

  4. How can I inspire listeners so they have faith in my dream?

  5. How can I make listeners not just listen, but act?

Joshua Guilder, who wrote speeches for President Reagan, said to keep your tone in mind. “Imagine you’re speaking with family and friends,” he said, “not to an abstract audience. You’re speaking to Aunt Matilda. You’re trying to think, ‘What does this mean to her? How will it speak to her needs, concerns, hopes?’”

Peter Robinson, who wrote Reagan’s “tear down this wall” line, said his team knew what tone worked for the president: clarity, a sense of vision and a moral purpose.

Robinson also knew that sometimes great speechwriting requires breaking rules and following your instincts. Robinson had been advised by numerous diplomats not to mention the Berlin Wall in the speech. In spite of the advice, he left the line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” in every draft.

Fortunately, the person whose opinion mattered most agreed with Robinson. Hours before Reagan gave the speech, advisers were discouraging him from confronting Gorbachev so directly. “The boys at the State Department aren’t going to like it,” the president told his chief of staff, “but it’s the right thing to do.”