Microphone in auditorium

Words That Matter

Compiled by James Millius and Katarzyna Ignatik

Public speaking is a central part of our lives, and learning effective rhetoric is an important part of Hillsdale’s education. Insights into the minds of historically great orators are valuable to current speech students. Here, four rhetoric and public address faculty and students share their favorite quotes from orators of the past.

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Kristen KiledalDr. Kirstin Kiledal

“Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world.”

–Winston Churchill

Rhetoric does bring power, as Churchill notes, but those who would be statesmen and not tyrants must wield it wisely as well as strategically for the betterment of those whom they serve.

“Nothing is more beautiful, more elevating, more important in a speech than fact and logic. People think passionate and moving oratory is the big thing, but it isn’t. The hard true presentation of facts followed by a declaration of how we must deal with those facts is the key.”

–Peggy Noonan

Noonan reminds us that the job of rhetoric is not mere entertainment, not empty words, nor poetry, judged for its beauty or longevity. Rhetoric is situated in the reality of human life; it is called into being and the rhetor called to speak because of a perceived need—a policy to change, a war to fight, a hero to praise.

“If one must summarize the power of discourse, we will discover that nothing done prudently occurs without speech, that speech is the leader of all thoughts and actions, and that the most intelligent people use it most of all.”


Rhetoric is epistemic as well as instrumental.  It is a way of coming to know.

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DoggettDr. Matthew Doggett

“In general, whoever occupies the battleground first and awaits the enemy will be at ease; whoever occupies the battleground afterward and must race to the conflict will be fatigued.”

–Sun Tzu

The people who prepare first and hardest will be ready to win because they have taken account for all possibilities, and the people who wait and are lazy will lose – not because they are not talented, but because they aren’t prepared.

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Shad StrehleShadrach Strehle, ’19

“If you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.”

–Ronald Reagan

Say what you want about President Reagan, but he was a heck of a communicator. No president before or since has held the nation’s attention as effectively as Reagan did, and it was because he followed this guideline. Being larger than life—burning, if you will—gives a person the foot in the door they need to make a change. If you can hold someone’s attention, you can hold their ideas. Even if they don’t agree with you, a person can be swayed by pure and raw charisma. Nothing can beat charisma, and learning how to harness it can make the difference between a speaker and a great orator.

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Duncan VoylesDuncan Voyles, ’20

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

–Winston Churchill

I like this quote because it indicates that speaking is not just a skill but the outgrowth of virtue in the form of courage. Further, it provides a litmus test for what makes a good speaker: They will have the courage to both speak and listen.

“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.”

–Winston Churchill

I like this one because Churchill highlights the beauty through simplicity in speaking that my professors foster in my writing. The best writing and speaking are straightforward and simple. Note: I don’t mean dumbed down, but they’re good in their simple clarity and efficiency, which have a beauty of their own.

“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

Public speaking is humbling because it forces you to demonstrate that you actually care about your audience by putting your message in terms they understand.