5 Best Speech Practices from Sir Winston Churchill

This blog was originally published on Forbes as 5 Best Speech Practices From Sir Winston Churchill on Friday, April 6, 2018.

Gary Oldman won this year’s Academy Award for Best Actor because he had an unfair advantage: Sir Winston Churchill, the character he portrayed in Darkest Hour, was so much a larger-than-life character than those played by the other nominees. Sir Winston’s momentous achievements and actions gave Mr. Oldman many opportunities to display his theatrical skills, none more so than the film’s climactic scene in which Great Britain’s wartime Prime Minister rallied his nation in a dramatic speech to Parliament:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

By repeating “we shall” ten times as a mantra, Sir Winston was employing a rhetorical device that originated with the classical Greek orators and continues to be used to the present day. In a prior Forbes post, I wrote about how Emma Gonzalez, a teenage survivor of the Florida high school shooting, rocketed to media fame with a speech using the same technique.

Sir Winston’s oratorical skills were world famous, and he started developing them at an early age. When he was just 23, he wrote an unpublished paper called “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” in which he offered five “principal elements” to win over audiences. With all due respect to Sir Winston’s estimable writing skills, I’ve taken the liberty of extending his 1897 verbiage (bolded) into modern times:

  1. Correctness of diction.“Diction” is often used to refer to articulation, but its primary meaning is word choice—think of dictionary. Our digital culture of text messages, tweets, and email has impacted our spoken language, often reducing it to monosyllables, idioms, and clichés. This is not to say that you should use long or esoteric words. Aspire to precision and clarity when you speak.
  2. Rhythm. Another impact of digital culture is the speed of our communication, particularly in the rate at which we speak. Be sure to maintain a measured pace when you present. Your audiences need time to absorb the valuable words of your message.
  3. Accumulation of Argument. Today’s business presentations are defined as the slide deck. But the deck is more often than not shuffled like a pack of cards at a gaming table in Las Vegas—which results in fragmentation and, ultimately, disruption of the story. When you shuffle your deck (and you know you will) be sure to maintain the logic of your flow.
  4. Analogy. Winston Churchill’s original definition needs no updating: “An apt analogy connects or appears to connect…distant spheres.” Nor does his example, from the iconic speech William Jennings Bryan gave at the Democratic National Convention the year before Churchill wrote his paper:

You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

  1. The emotions of the speaker and the listeners are alike aroused. This recommendation addresses a requirement as frequently unmet today as it was in Churchill’s 19th century day and even before that: to align the speaker’s goals with those of the audience. A speech or a presentation is not a broadcast or podcast. The essential scaffold of rhetoric is a two-way street. It’s not just about you, it’s all about them.

This blog was originally published on Forbes as 5 Best Speech Practices From Sir Winston Churchill on Friday, April 6, 2018.

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