An inadvertent lesson from one of the greatest orators of all time: your tone should match the occasion

In 1899, a parliamentary candidate from Oldham stood to address a local church gathering. “Never before in the history of Oldham have so many people had so much to eat,” he declared. As a junior minister nine years later, the same politician stood beside an irrigation project in Africa and said, “Never before in the history of Africa has so much water been held up by so little masonry.”

Before he became the greatest orator in British history, before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Sir Winston Churchill gave speeches that surely generated some mirth. “He was renowned throughout his career for lavishing verbosity on issues that simply didn’t warrant it,” said Philip Collins, the author and speechwriter for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Appearing on an Intelligence Squared panel called “Words that Changed the World,” Mr. Collins argued that the perfect context for Mr. Churchill’s grave tone and tenor arose only when he was in his 60s, and serving as British Prime Minister amid the Nazi invasion of western Europe.

Of Mr. Churchill’s speeches in 1940, Mr. Collins said, “What gives them their real gravity is the fact that the peril is real.”

For me and for others who work with words and who love the Churchill legacy, Mr. Collins’ lesson is worth remembering. If we try to emulate the great orator on behalf of a brand or product, we could succeed – and sound as cartoonish as Mr. Churchill did at that Oldham event.

That isn’t to say Mr. Churchill isn’t worth studying for routine tips about words and writing. “Short words are the best, and the old words best of all,” he said.

In an unpublished 1897 piece called “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” Mr. Churchill identified what he thought were the principal elements of a great speech: correctness of diction, rhythm, accumulation of argument and analogy.

Deliberate writers will also take particular comfort in knowing that Churchill was slow. He estimated one hour of work for every minute of a speech.

Obviously, those traits alone don’t account for his brilliant flair with words and thankfully he offers other hints. As a film-maker, I’m especially interested in how he described his writing style as a “rapid succession of waves of sound and vivid pictures.”

One hopes that circumstances never arise to emulate Prime Minister Churchill in his moments of greatness. The most eminent Churchill historian, Dr. Andrew Roberts, says, “An awful lot of people thought that it was impossible to beat the Nazis, yet what Winston Churchill did, by constantly putting Britain’s peril in the greater historical context of other times that Britain had nearly been invaded, but had been ultimately successful, he managed to tell the British people that this could happen again.”

Or, as US President John F. Kennedy said of Mr. Churchill: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Churchill’s greatest legacy may be his assurance that victory can be achieved against all odds. As Churchill himself once put it, “Never flinch, never weary, never despair.”

Sonal R. Patel is an Executive Producer for MerchantCantos.

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