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The Winston Churchill Guide to Public Speaking

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3. Choose the Right Words

“Knowledge of a language is measured by the nice and exact appreciation of words. There is no more important element in the technique of rhetoric than the continual employment of the best possible word.” –WC

An average person’s vocabulary contains about 25,000 words.

Churchill’s has been estimated at 65,000.

Winston absorbed reams of words from his voracious appetite for books, which he had picked up as a young man. Though he struggled in most subjects in school, he found an interest, a gift, and a deep and abiding love in reading and writing the English language.

During his lifetime he would read over 5,000 books, ranging from literature and poetry to history and science fiction. His prodigious memory allowed him to remember whole passages from these texts, and recite them verbatim decades letter. His brain was like a fleshy version of Evernote — its folds containing endless notes on endless subjects. When he needed just the right anecdote, and just the right word to get his point across, he simply reached into a file and pulled out the needed pith.

He hardly viewed this mental warehouse as a dusty, musty card catalog either. Words thrilled him, fascinated him. He delighted in language’s musical, magical qualities; as Manchester writes, “Churchill’s feeling for the English tongue was sensual, almost erotic; when he coined a phrase he would suck it, rolling it around his palate to extract its full flavor.” Yet he also liked to use words with laser precision, and got great satisfaction from the feel of them “fitting and falling into their places like pennies in the slot.”

Churchill felt that most often, the right word for a given groove was the most simple and homespun one you could find, arguing:

“The unreflecting often imagine that the effects of oratory are produced by the use of long words. The error of this idea will appear from what has been written. The shorter words of a language are usually the more ancient. Their meaning is more ingrained in the national character and they appeal with greater force.”

Instead of saying “agreed to cooperate” he said “joined hands.” Instead of saying aeroplane and aerodrome (as was popular at the time), he said, “aircraft” and “airfield.” Others said “prefabricated,” he said “ready-made.” And when he first took office as prime minister, he changed the “Local Defense Volunteers” to the “Home Guard.”

Can you imagine “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” rendered as “hemoglobin, exertion, lamentation, and perspiration”?

Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

Churchill not only disliked unnecessarily long and flowery words, but bureaucratic jargon and toothless euphemisms as well. Where other politicians referred to “the lower income group,” he said “the poor”; where they said “accommodation units,” he said “homes.”

Though Churchill preferred shorter, punchier words, if such a one could not “fully express [his] thoughts and feelings” he didn’t hesitate to pull out a longer, meatier expression.

And if no existing word in the language properly fit his intended meaning, he wasn’t even opposed to coining a new one; “summit” (as a meeting), “Middle East,” and “iron curtain” all trace their etymologies to Churchill.

1. Write Down What Want to Say

Early in his political career, when he was 29 years old, Churchill was making a speech before the House of Commons in his usual manner. Up to that point, he had memorized each and every word of his speeches, and performed them without any notes. All had gone well, until this moment.

“And it rests with those who . . .” he begins to say. But he trails off, losing his train of thought.

“It rests with those who…” he repeats. Yet once more he fails at finishing the sentence, or pivoting to another.

For three long, agonizing minutes, Churchill gropes desperately for his next line and cannot for the life of him retrieve it. The House heckles him. His face turns red. Finally, he sits down, putting his head in his hands in utter dejection.

He would never make that mistake again. Henceforth, he wrote out his speeches word for word and had their text ever before him.

Improvising is truly a manly art, but so is admitting a weakness. Churchill had the humility to recognize that he didn’t have the knack for extemporaneous speaking. So he worked around it, so much so, that most listeners didn’t even realize that he was reading from notes.

Churchill created this seeming spontaneity by infusing his speeches with all the energy, dynamism, and natural quality of an impromptu address. He rehearsed his remarks beforehand, so he only had to glance at his script occasionally. And his biographer William Manchester describes a technique he employed so that even these glances were scarcely noticeable:

“A consummate performer, he would rise, when recognized by the Speaker, with two pairs of glasses in his waistcoat. Perching the long-range pair on the end of his nose at such an angle that he could read his notes while giving the impression that he was looking directly at the House, he gave every appearance of speaking extemporaneously. If the occasion called for quoting a document, he produced his second pair and altered his voice and manner so effectively that even those who knew better believed that everything he said when not quoting was spontaneous.”

To aid in the flow of delivery, he would set the text of his speeches in what his staff called “psalm form” — a practice that may have been inspired by his love of the Old Testament. To these haiku-esque blocks, he would add notes for their delivery: where to pause and where to expect an ovation; which words and letters to emphasize; even where to appear to stumble a bit, grope for a word, and “correct” himself. Churchill knew that a flawless, robotic recital would put people to sleep, and that the more naturalistic a speech seemed, the more tuned in his audience would be.

Through preparation and practice, Churchill never again acted like the kind of orator he detested, who “before they get up, do not know what they are going to say; when they are speaking, do not know what they are saying; and when they have sat down, do not know what they have said.”

8. Be sincere

While Churchill could go through the rhetorical motions on any given subject, and enjoyed seeing how well he could ace his delivery and rouse an audience, the problem was that he wasn’t always deeply invested in his message.

Regular political issues interested him, but at his essence, Churchill was a martial man, most inspired by the life-and-death stakes of battle. Thus, it would take an arena as epic as WWII for Winston to really hit his oratorical stride.

If there was anything Churchill could speak on with a depth of sincerity and true fervor, it was the heroism required of wartime. Its excitement and sorrow, danger and meaning, was not something he had to artificially force — he was moved by it at his core. In fact, when he dictated his speeches, his emotion was so raw and real, that sometimes he and his secretary would both be crying.

That last one is key. Authenticity makes a presentation great. 

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