The printing press, the radio, television, the internet … none of these technological advances has managed to kill oratory. In fact, you could argue that each has transformed the motivational speech, bringing it to more people than otherwise could partake of it. As advanced as our technology is, there is still no substitute for the power of the communication between a speaker and a receptive audience. Fortunately, we live in a time when we can gain access to recordings and transcripts of the greatest speeches of all time, and CEOs may find that reading, watching, or listening to these speeches can jump-start stalled motivation. Here are 4 memorable speeches with timeless takeaways for today’s CEO.

Motivational speeches

1. Meryl Streep, Vassar, 1983

One of the most respected actresses of our time, Meryl Streep spoke more than 30 years ago about selling out your dreams. She said, “That choice, between the devil and the dream, comes up every day in different little disguises. I’m sure it comes up in every field of endeavor and every life. My advice is to look the dilemma in the face and decide what you can live with. If you can live with the devil, Vassar hasn’t sunk her teeth into your leg the way she did mine.” In other words, can you live with yourself if you sell out your dream? She goes on to say, “I firmly believe that this engagement in the attempt for excellence is what sustains the most well-lived and satisfying, successful lives.” By all measures, 30-plus years later, Ms. Streep has lived her words. Strive for excellence, not the easy way, and not the lesser of two evils.

2. Winston Churchill, 1955, House of Commons

In 1955, Winston Churchill’s farewell speech to the House of Commons mainly concerned Britain’s approach to nuclear weapons. But the speech also turns back toward hope from this grim subject, as Churchill’s most famous speeches do, emphasizing the power of determination to overcome obstacles. “The day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow-men, respect for justice and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.” These were particularly powerful words, coming from one of the world’s greatest leaders and someone who led a nation through horrors that had been unimaginable only a generation earlier. Our most noble values, like justice, freedom, and love for mankind, equip us to overcome more than we imagine.

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Individual humans, and humanity are stronger than we sometimes realize.

3. The Dalai Lama, Oslo, 1989

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and his address to the Nobel Committee reflected the concept that fulfillment comes, at least partly, through commitment to our part in universal responsibility. He said, “People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We need to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share.” In other words, what we do has effects that ripple outward more than we know, for good or ill. Ultimately, we are all in this together.

4. Anne Lamott, University of California at Berkeley, 2003

Writer Anne Lamott has made no secret of the demons she has battled, and her graduation speech at UC Berkeley in 2003 emphasized the importance of pursuing what is genuine rather than outcomes that may ultimately ring hollow. She told the new graduates, “I’d been wanting to be a successful author my whole life. But when I finally did it, I was like a greyhound catching the mechanical rabbit she’d been chasing all her life – metal, wrapped up in cloth. It wasn’t alive; it had no spirit … So from the wise old pinnacle of my 49 years, I want to tell you that what you’re looking for is already inside you.” Each of us has an inner strength that can surprise and amaze, and that’s more important than the number on the bottom line.

The power of oration hasn’t been negated by any technology so far. If you’re in need of some inspiration, I would suggest reading, watching, or listening to powerful words by someone you respect and admire. It can be just the thing to jostle us out of ourselves long enough to come unstuck and start moving forward. I encourage you to check my speaking and training services, leadership coaching, and corporate culture services.


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