5 Lessons in Public Speaking from Winston Churchill

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By: Emilio Herce

Winston Churchill is undisputedly one of history’s greatest speakers. We remember him today not only for leading Great Britain during its darkest hours, but for his great oratory, specifically the immortal “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech, (“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”).

Speaking did not come naturally to Churchill though. He had to work hard at it. Here are some of the strategies he used, which you can use in your own life to become a great speaker.

1. DON’T BE AFRAID TO FAIL

The first time Winston Churchill spoke in front of a crowd, he fainted. It’s probably fair to say he wasn’t a hit at his next few speeches either. This did not deter him though. Churchill meticulously studied the works of great orators, memorizing them, and putting himself out there over and over again until he got past his fear.

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

2. DON’T BURY THE LEAD

While Churchill is known for his often dramatic prose, he knew the importance of getting to the point. His speeches were limited to a single, unifying theme, which he returned to over and over again.

“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.”

3. USE HUMOR

One of Churchill’s strengths was his penchant for pointed prose. His speeches are sharp, witty, and even biting at times. He wasn’t afraid to call out politicians, even ones in his own party. On Labor minister Stafford Cripps: “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”

“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”

4. TO BE A GREAT SPEAKER, WRITE

By all accounts, Winston Churchill should not have been an effective public speaker. He had a lifelong lisp and stutter, and neither the conversational flair of FDR, nor the bombastic stylings of the Axis leaders. What he did have though was a great facility with the written words, as skill he borrowed from heavily when preparing speeches. Churchill wrote over 40 books during his career, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

“We are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.”

5. BUT KEEP IT SIMPLE

While the themes covered in his speeches are often lofty, Churchill’s diction was plain and even conversational (“All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.”). He preferred subtlety to flowery language, as well action verbs, traits which helped form his defining cadence.

“Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.”

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