June 11, 2023

Powerful speaker, enduring messages: Frederick Douglass in Five Speeches

Seen|Read|Heard , Great Speeches , Significant Speeches

Above, a photograph of Frederick Douglass taken when he was in his 20s, the age he was when he made the first speech explored in the HBO documentary "Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches."


An HBO documentary follows the life of Frederick Douglass, using five of his speeches as its framework. Not only does the program present the life of an amazing person, it also provides insights into how words can have enduring power and how a speaker can influence individuals, audiences, and the world.

"Though his actual voice was never recorded, the power of these performances offers an opportunity to hear the potency of his words with timely urgency over a century after his time."

– HBO, describing Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches

For students of public speaking, you may note:

The power of sharing personal experience: Douglass's early speeches make an impact, in part, because he tells white audiences about the horrors of slavery from his own experience. (You'll also learn that Douglass found demand to hear his story repeated so often felt limiting to him.)

Douglass's approach to presenting ideas an audience will find difficult to hear: Biographer David Blight breaks down Douglass's most famous speech, describing how Douglass starts where the audience can relate before challenging them.

How delivery enhances and influences our understanding of messages: Throughout the documentary, actors deliver the five speeches. To hear Douglass's words delivered with pauses, emphases, and inflection invites us to consider how he might have invested his own emotion and skills as an orator into the words he wrote.

Learn more:

Find HBO's excellent website with additional materials here.

Here's more about Douglass's speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July."

See how Douglass says reading The Columbian Orator helped set  the course for his remarkable life.

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