Quick notes:

  • Josef Stalin loathed public speaking, and always wore platform shoes to conceal his short stature.
  • Energetic and articulate Theodore Roosevelt was an extreme bore to hear but loved to give speeches
  • His fifth cousin Franklin Roosevelt nailed what’s called “personal magnetism,” but was as boring as Christmas at the in-laws in his early days.
  • George S. Patton’s voice sounds like a little kids version of the portrayal of him in the movie Patton.

Josef Stalin

Let’s start with Josef Stalin. Stalin was a mass murderer, conqueror, and all-around evil genius. With a sharp intellect and an infallible memory, he skillfully maneuvered his way to the top job in the Soviet Union like a Sputnik satellite.

Stalin certainly didn’t get to be Premier of the Soviet Union by his oratory skills. In fact, he stayed out of the public eye as much as possible.

When he was in the limelight, Josef “Rupaul” Stalin wore platform shoes (that he made), because he fell on the shorter end, measuring 5-feet-4-inches-tall.

For context, that’s three inches shorter than Napoleon, which gave Stalin twice the complex.

He also had a voice actor read most of his speeches, but this is what Stalin actually sounded like when he gave a speech in person in 1941.

If you noticed that his voice is high-pitched, then you won’t be surprised to learn that Stalin used to sing as a tenor.

He also breaks up his sentences to speak in quick, terse, spurts. Does his voice surprise you, given his power?

Soviet Premier Josef Stalin circa 1937 and former President Theodore Roosevelt circa 1912 giving speeches
Left (Photo credit AFP via Getty Images): Josef Stalin giving a speech in 1937. Right (Bettman collection via Getty Images): Theodore Roosevelt giving a campaign speech in 1912. Notice his gesturing. Despite the fact that Stalin hated public speaking, and Roosevelt loved it, they were both really terrible at it.

But what’s in a voice?

Well, scientists say there’s a lot. The leading research shows that a voice that starts deep and then gets deeper is far more effective at persuading others than a high voice, like Stalin’s.

Therefore, he had to rely on his cunning, zeal, and intelligence to persuade people, which was rather similar to Theodore Roosevelt.

Walk softly, and carry a big stick (to hit me with when Teddy Roosevelt speaks)

Like Stalin, Roosevelt was a voracious reader, as it was rumored that he consumed a book every single day (Stalin read 500 pages a day).

Also drawing a parallel with Stalin, Roosevelt grew up with several health problems, but only Roosevelt had a speech impediment.

He certainly overcame these challenges, but in terms of his speech, he was about as effective as a band-aid on a bullet wound. Things didn’t improve for Roosevelt in college, as one of his classmates once stated,

At times [Theodore Roosevelt] could hardly get [words] out at all, and then he would rush on for a few sentences, as skaters redouble their pace over thin ice.”

This is what Theodore Roosevelt actually sounded like, giving a speech in early August 1912 during his campaign for president.

Again, his voice is not thunderous like that of Martin Luther King Jr. or pointed like John F. Kennedy, and is about exciting as a dental appointment. His voice is high, and in-person he gestured violently.

Roosevelt’s rhetoric professor at Harvard deplored emotions in speeches, which may have held Roosevelt public speaking progress back.

At the time, the most rousing speeches followed what Dr. James Rush called, “personal magnetism.”

We can hear Roosevelt trying to match that style, but consider the difference in William Jennings Bryan, Roosevelt’s chief rival for a time, in his Cross of Gold Speech in 1896. It’s almost gospel-like as if he’s delivering a sermon versus a political speech.

This was considered the greatest speech of the era, and Bryan would rise to the national spotlight because of it (not that it did him any good: He’s the only person to lose three presidential races. Ouch!).

But if you listened to him then it must remind you of another speaker, this time a far more effective orator: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).

FDR was the better Roosevelt (at public speaking)

FDR checked all the boxes – he had a deep voice and nailed personal magnetism – but even he struggled to be effective in his early days.

Consider the contrast between this speech by FDR in 1920 as a vice presidential candidate, versus this speech given on FDR’s first inauguration on March 4, 1933.

The first one showcases his deep voice, but the second exhibits what personal magnetism can do for a speech.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asking Congress for a declaration of war on December 8, 1941 and General George S. Patton
Left (Bettman collection via Getty Images): FDR asking Congress for a declaration of war on Dec. 8, 1941. He definitely effected personal magnetism, declaring, “December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy.” Right (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images): Lieutenant General George S. Patton giving a speech to his men in 1944.

What’s interesting is that, between these two addresses, FDR lost the use of his legs, making his mastery of speech all the more important with his physical faculties diminished.

To know that, and then hear him thunder, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” gives those listening goosebumps, and it galvanized a nation that was in one of its’ darkest abysses. 

General George S. Patton (‘S’ is for ‘shocking’ how high his voice is)

Another leader who helped guide the nation out troubles was the brash, outspoken General George S. Patton.

Not without controversy, the man is an absolute legend, having vanquished countless German armies, and only pausing his advance into Germany to pee in the Rhine River.

When we think of General Patton, we think of actor George C. Scott and his Academy Award Winning portrayal of the late General in the film Patton.

General Patton certainly had a way of riling up his men that Scott captured well. Scott’s version on the opening scene in Patton nailed his personal magnetism, but in real life, General Patton was eons away from that performance.

This is what Patton really sounded like (General Patton speaks at 1:06-2:30).

Recognize the voice of the narrator? That’s a man who mastered personal magnetism: future President Ronald Reagan, during a speech he gave in 1945.

Patton was actually considered a good presidential candidate for the next election but suddenly died in 1946. As you can see it wasn’t from having a deep voice, but he did master other elements of speech.

Perhaps you’ll note the long pauses, his short sentences, and then the unexpected vulgarity. One of his first orders upon being promoted to Major General was to have his men dig an amphitheater that later became known as the “Patton Bowl.”

It was there, giving his “blood and guts” speeches, that he perfected his style of quieting his voice to draw the audience in, then thunder something profane. His men absolutely loved it.

So, what’s in a voice? A lot of course, but as you can see that’s not the only way to persuade people.

There are little tricks of speech that can make a high voice more persuasive, and not to mention that in most cases it’s the message that really matters.

We barely scratched the surface of historical figures with funny voices, as only men were included in this discussion. Stay tuned to History 101 for a discussion of female historical figures.

A deeper dive: Related reading on the 101