Plato once wrote that we should be suspicious of persuasive speakers. He was in a perfect position to judge. Throughout the late fifth century, his native city of Athens had been ravaged by the Peloponnesian War, an ill-advised but eagerly fought conflict with Sparta spurred on by a series of persuasive Athenian orators.
The susceptibility of the demos (people) to fall for their powers of persuasion instilled in him—and subsequent philosophers—distrust in the power of rhetoric. It leads to an important question though: what makes a good (or for that matter bad) speech?
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is often held up as the gold standard of American oratory: combining rhetorical flair with emotional appeals that critically engaged his listeners with questions about their national identity. Fast-forward 60-or-so years and you have a more universally famous, though much more controversial, example: Hitler’s Nuremberg Speeches.
You don’t need to be fluent in German to grasp their magnetic, demagogic, and palatably chilling allure. But judge them on their result, and they were undisputedly bad: rallying a nation to a war that ended up costing millions upon millions of lives. How Plato had a point; how history repeats.
Assuming that good speeches are emotionally engaging, rhetorically proficient and lead to good outcomes, then by definition bad speeches must be flat, garbled and publicly damaging—either for the speaker or for the cause they’re trying to promote. Here are 8 examples that fit into the second category.
William Henry Harrison’s Presidential Inauguration Address
Oratory might not be an exact science, but it has a number of essential components. Content is the most obvious one. Engaging, popular, and relevant, the best speech is that which captures the zeitgeist of its time. Just as important is the content’s delivery—not just the natural charisma of the speaker but also their ability to sprinkle their speech with some rhetorical flair.
Then there’s the location—ideally a setting of some symbolic relevance that even in the worst weather conditions isn’t too demanding on its audience. Where William Harrison’s inauguration speech is historically exceptional is that it failed on all of these accounts.
On March 4, 1841, President William Henry Harrison delivered what many consider the worst inaugural address in history. Amounting to 8,445 words, it took Harrison an-hour-forty-five-minutes to deliver, totaling twice the length of this article. Though you, the reader, will ultimately be the judge of this, it was also far less engaging: a tired exposition on the role of government glued together by vague and uninspiring anecdotes from Greco-Roman history. The overall effect seemed more like a poorly planned school lecture than an inaugural address.
Ultimately the speech spelled death; not just of Harrison’s reputation as a public speaker but of Harrison himself. Firstly, the 68-year-old delivered it during a raging snowstorm without wearing a hat or coat. After the speech, he then took up position outside the White House for most of the evening so he could greet well-wishers. To finish proceedings, he attended not just one but several events on the eve of the address.
All of this ultimately proved too much for him and he died 32 days later from pneumonia—earning him the dubious historical distinction of being the president who gave the longest inaugural speech yet held the shortest term in office.