Winston Churchill and Public Speaking – “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle”
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Winston Churchill’s first public speech – to the Primrose League, 26 July 1897
Twenty-two years old and still a serving officer on leave from his regiment in India, Winston Churchill, desperate to be noticed, addressed his first public meeting, an “outing, fete or picnic” of the Primrose League (an organization dedicated to spreading Conservative principles) at the house of today’s American Museum at Claverton Manor, Bath, UK. The Bath Daily Chronicle, among details of the “bicycle race war” and other entertainments, reported that: “Mr. Winston Churchill ... was the principal speaker, this being his first attempt at public oratory”.His speech to the Conservative gathering was carefully constructed and delivered; it was obviously well-prepared, rehearsed and clearly memorized. Churchill began his speech by saying that if it was pardonable in any speaker to begin with the apology, “unaccustomed as I am to public speaking”, it would be pardonable in his case. He always regarded this as his first true ‘maiden’ speech.
Letter from Winston Churchill to his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, 16 May 1898
Churchill, even at this relatively young age, demonstrated great writing skill; he understood the way in which words could wield great power, create moods and stir passions. He was clearly aware, however, of a particular “mental flaw”; his tendency to allow the power of certain phrases to govern his principles, to use words that sounded good – with the power to win an audience – over those that reflected a genuine view or argument.With great self-awareness, he writes in this letter to his mother that “I am very much impressed with C. J. R. [Cecil Rhodes] having ... detected my mental flaw. I do not care so much for the principles I advocate as for the impression which my words produce and the reputation they win me ... I vy often yield to the temptation of adapting my facts to my phrases”. He adds, though, that “a keen sense of necessity or ... injustice would make me sincere”.
Draft typescript of 'The Scaffolding of Rhetoric', c1897 (unpublished)
In 1897, Churchill wrote ‘The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’ on the art of public speaking and the various techniques that can enhance the speaker’s art. He had only one public speech to his name at this point, but this unpublished essay illuminates his aspirations. Here he observes that "Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king”.
He refers to a technique in rhetoric that he would later use to great effect in his career – that of avoiding the use of long words – pointing out that “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 to simple understanding”. He also refers obliquely to his own speech difficulties: "Sometimes a slight and not unpleasing stammer or impediment has been of some assistance in securing the attention of the audience".
Cutting from Manchester Courier, on the Oldham election result and Winston Churchill’s defeat, July 1899
Churchill knew that mastering the art of speech-making and writing was very important in a political career; he also believed in his abilities as an orator, despite being relatively inexperienced. During the July 1899 Oldham by-election campaign, he writes to his mother Lady Randolph Churchill of his conviction that he would win the election: “My speech last night at the club produced great enthusiasm ... and there is no doubt that if anyone can win this seat I can”.In the event, although he did slightly better than his running-mate in the polls, he did not win, losing a previously held Conservative seat. He might have been defeated, but he was conscious that in this fight he had not been disgraced. According to the Manchester Courier, “he made a splendid impression on the constituency, but the time was too short”.
Card congratulating Churchill on his Maiden Speech to the House of Commons, 18 February 1901
As a twenty-six-year old, Churchill took his seat as a Conservative member in the new Parliament and four days later made his maiden speech. He spoke immediately following Lloyd George, ensuring the young politician a very full house. Churchill had, of course, prepared his speech very carefully and more or less learned it by heart. Although this isn’t unusual in a maiden speaker, Churchill – more unusually – continued this meticulous preparation throughout his career.
The speech was generally praised for its accomplished argument and delivery. The Daily Express wrote that “He held a crowded house spellbound”, the Manchester Guardian, of a “carefully turned speech, filled with antitheses of a literary flavor”. In this card, John Cumming Macdonald MP congratulates Churchill on his "brilliant speech", saying that his father's spirit seemed to hover over him; "you have inherited marvellous ability and aptitude". Others were not so sure: H. W. Massingham wrote in the Liberal Daily News: “Mr Churchill has many disadvantages ... [he] does not inherit his father’s voice – save for the slight lisp – or his father’s manner. Address, accent, appearance do not help him”.
Letter from Sir Felix Semon, speech specialist, to Winston Churchill, 11 May 1901
Churchill was clearly troubled by that “lisp” to which Massingham referred. All his life he had a speech impediment in which he had difficulty pronouncing the letter “s”. He consulted the noted speech specialist, Sir Felix Semon, in 1897 who at the time felt that “practice and perseverance are alone necessary”. Churchill consulted him again in 1901 for further advice and Sir Felix writes here that he was aware in 1897 “how keenly you felt the deficiency, and how seriously you were handicapped in your speaking in public by your constantly having to think of avoiding as much as possible words with “S””.
Churchill persevered and worked on his pronunciation diligently, rehearsing phrases such as “The Spanish ships I cannot see for they are not in sight”. He tried to avoid words beginning and ending with an ‘s’, but when he did, his pronunciation became a part of his intonation and oratory, later mispronouncing “Nazis” as “Narzees” to great effect and advantage.
Letter to Winston Churchill, following his speech to the House of Commons on 22 April 1904
Despite Churchill’s meticulous preparation for his speeches, he soon realized – following “a complete disaster” – that learning them by heart was not enough. In the spring of 1904, as he moved further and further away from his old Tory colleagues, his House of Commons experiences were tense and difficult. He became an increasingly isolated figure. On 22 April, making a speech in favour of improving trades union rights, he had been speaking for 45 minutes, without notes as usual, when he forgot his words. He struggled vainly for what he later called “the most embarrassing 3 minutes of my life”, trying to remember the rest of his speech, and then sat down in silence, distraught. Some believed him to be displaying early signs of the same mental decline from which his father Lord Randolph had suffered, and saw this as an appallingly public display of weakening mental faculties. His breakdown was met with jeers from some Tory members, but also with sympathy by others.
Here, a “stranger” writes to Churchill, commiserating with him on his memory lapse and offering "my most sincere sympathy in connection with your temporary break down yesterday and trust that you will not over-exert yourself in your unceasing devotion to the service of the country”.
After this confidence-shattering experience, Churchill nearly always prepared full notes – and had them to hand – to prevent this happening again. And thanks to this, the Churchill Archive contains a wealth of Churchill’s speech notes.
Letter from Winston Churchill to Clementine Churchill, 13 April 1935
His rhetorical technique continued to develop over the years. His elaborate, Victorian style of oratory seemed increasingly out of touch and irrelevant and he began to adopt a more spontaneous speaking style. Here Churchill writes to his wife Clementine, who was away on a 4-month cruise, in one of his charming 'Chartwell Bulletins' portraying life at Chartwell in her absence: “At sixty, I ... now talk to the House of Commons with garrulous unpremeditated flow ... [W]hat a mystery public speaking is! It all consists in ... selecting three or four absolutely sound arguments and putting these in the most conversational manner possible. There is apparently nothing in the literary effect I have sought for forty years!”.Although he later reverted to his usual more formal ‘literary’ style – the use of rhythm, argument, repetition of words and phrases, using archaic words to conjure up nostalgic references to the past – he also interspersed this with intimate and conversational asides, a combination which was to serve him well in later years.
“A total and unmitigated defeat”: Churchill’s speech on the Munich Pact, 5 October 1938 to the House of Commons
On 1 October 1938, Chamberlain returned to Britain following his meeting with Hitler, pledging that Britain and Germany would never again go to war, and was welcomed with unanimous congratulation, the “usual ... and invariable tributes”. Churchill, however, stood alone against him. This damning speech stands in stark contrast to the praise being heaped upon the Prime Minister. “I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget ... we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat ... All is over ... We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude”. Many people felt strongly that Churchill was wrong. Here Eric Long writes to Churchill after this speech about their differences: “You may rest assured that while I may disagree with the principle as to whether Germany would go to war or not, that appears to be over now and we have got to fight for all we are worth to see that no such situation arises again”. Churchill's speech notes are laid out in ‘psalm style’ to prevent him losing his place and to aid his delivery (his secretaries became skilled in setting out his speech notes in this way).
‘Their Finest Hour’: Typescript notes for Winston Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons, 18 June 1940
Churchill’s reputation as an orator is based principally on his speeches and broadcasts as Prime Minister during the summer of 1940, in particular those known usually as ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’ (13 May), ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’ (4 June) and ‘This was their Finest Hour’, which was delivered to the House of Commons on 18 June and broadcast by the BBC to the nation later that evening.
Churchill was, above all, a great writer. Words were his great strength. The peroration of this speech has justly become one of the most iconic passages of all Churchill’s speeches, clearly demonstrating his mastery of the English language: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years men will still say “This was their finest hour”.
Winston Churchill’s ‘Appeal to America’ broadcast, 9 February 1941
In this ‘Appeal to America’, cast as a speech to the British people but “addressed very largely to American ears” (to summon supplies needed for victory), Churchill demonstrates his skill in varying cadence, rhythm and hesitation. All this was part of his “stage craft” and a trick of oratory to increase emphasis and effect. The speech also shows off his ability to use simple, direct language to get a very clear message across: "We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job".
The action verbs, the rhythm of the words – the beat – and the staccato lines all reinforce his message. George W. Bush was to consciously echo this speech in his own State of the Union address in the days following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, 2001: “We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail”.
Telegram from the Prime Minister of Sweden on Churchill's Nobel Prize for Literature, 1953
In his later years, Winston Churchill devoted more and more time to reading the classics of literature and, in 1953, was spending many months reading Trollope, the Brontes, Hardy and Scott. Appropriately, he learned in October that he was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (he was disappointed that it was not the Peace Prize) in recognition of his life-long commitment to – and mastery of – the written and spoken word. Because he was in Washington in the US at the time of the ceremony, Clementine received it on his behalf. Here, Prime Minister of Sweden, Tage Erlander, sends his “most sincere felicitations” on the occasion of “this tribute”.
Notes for Winston Churchill’s speech at his 80th Birthday celebrations, Westminster Hall, 30 November 1954
On the occasion of Churchill’s 80th birthday, Parliament assembled in Westminster Hall to honour him and Churchill was presented with a Graham Sutherland portrait of himself (of which he later said “I think it is malignant”). Beginning his speech by saying the event was “the most memorable occasion of my life”, Churchill acknowledged the role that writing and speech-making had played in his life. He said: “Mr Attlee described my speeches in the war as expressing the will not only of Parliament but of the whole nation. Their will was resolute and remorseless and, as it proved, unconquerable. It fell to me to express it, and if I found the right words you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar”.
Cutting from the Wilkes-Barre Record, on Winston Churchill’s Honorary Citizenship of the United States, 3 April 1963
In 1963, when Churchill was 88 years old, he was made an Honorary Citizen of the United States. Not well enough to travel to Washington to receive this unique honour (he had not really recovered since a fall from his bed in late June 1962), Churchill sent his son, Randolph, who made his father’s final speech in his stead. Citing the American journalist Ed Murrow, President Kennedy said of Churchill that “he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle”.
The Wilkes-Barre Record, in offering their congratulations, felt the following words of Tennyson were “appropriate to the occasion”: “Glory of warrior; glory of orator ... the glory of going on and still to be”.