Want to deliver memorable presentations? Take this master class with Winston Churchill on a simple yet powerful way to become a more exciting business speaker.
Famed as an orator and leader of wartime Great Britain in World War II, Churchill has much to teach us about the practical aspects of public speaking delivery. In fact, few speakers throughout history matched his skill in consciously using speech performance techniques to fascinate listeners.
Can you use his approach to mesmerize listeners in business presentations? Absolutely!
Are you as focused as Churchill was when you prepare and deliver a presentation? To be a speaker who commands attention, you need to be hitting on all cylinders, all the time! From physical stance to breath control to trusting silence, discover theater-based techniques to project total stage presence and confidence. Download my essential cheat sheet, "10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking."
Let's see how the great politician and orator made his speeches memorable events.
A Master Class in How to Give a Speech
In the second volume of his brilliant biography The Last Lion, William Manchester gives us a glimpse of the Churchill method of giving a speech. Although he was well recognized as an author, historian, and speech writer of distinction, Churchill had a “secret side” concerning how he went about delivering his speeches in Parliament. It’s a lesson all of us who speak in business should take to heart.
Let’s take a peek at Churchill the master craftsman at work:
Once Churchill has the final version of a speech, he has it typed on pieces of paper measuring around 4” x 8”. The text is now set in “broken lines to aid his delivery,” or what a British cabinet member calls “speech form.” Now he is speaking—and what his fellow politicians think are notes on his topic is actually a speech completely written out and delivered word for word. These are speeches with “an illusion of spontaneity and include stage directions (‘pause; grope for word’ and ‘stammer; correct self’), each . . . a dramatic, vibrant occasion.”
How to Speak with Presence and Charisma
Churchill’s unique method is a reminder that in speaking for leadership, you must go beyond organizing a speech well and enter the realm of dramatic performance. Think of it as how to command a stage for business presentations. However you characterize it, the system goes straight to the heart of achieving dynamism and credibility in an audience’s eyes.
Like all great speakers, Churchill grasped the difference between the literary world of preparing a speech or presentation, and the world of orality in which that speech is delivered. Your content can never live on its own, which is, of course, the reason you've been asked to deliver your speech at all. Your audience needs your stage presence to make your material come alive.
Want more on speaking for leadership in business? Read my article on the 7 leadership qualities you need as a speaker. And be sure to avoid these 7 bad public speaking habits that can undermine even a great speech!
All of this is to say that Churchill was focused on performing rather than merely delivering content. The lesson for your speeches and presentations? — Consciously think along these lines yourself.
In his book, Manchester quotes critic and philosopher William Hazlitt, who said that “Splendid prose . . . should be accompanied by vehemence and gesture, a dramatic tone, flashing eyes, and ‘conscious attitude’—a precise description of Churchillian delivery. [This] consummate performer,” as Manchester calls him, can serve as your model of a speaker who perfectly combines vital content with an exciting style of delivery.
The Power of Silence in Public Speaking
Clearly, Churchill knew how to avoid negative body language that can ruin a presentation. Far more than that, however, he considered his nonverbal deliery to be a critical aspect of his speaking effectiveness. That includes movement, gestures, voice . . . and even the hesitations he baked into his orations!
Perhaps one of the easiest lessons to take away from what I’m calling The Churchill Method is just that: his consummate ease in recognizing the power of silence in speeches. In fact, to see one of Churchill’s speeches transcribed as he actually spoke it, is to be struck by the fact that it looks more like poetry than prose.
In my group workshops in public speaking training, I include an exercise that demonstrates the value of using silence when you speak. Below are the two versions of the speech I use.
The speech is Churchill’s first address to the nation as prime minister, delivered over the radio or “wireless” on May 19, 1940. The first version is a portion of the speech as written. The second version shows how Churchill actually spoke the lines of the speech, using the method of transcription I described above. I ask for a volunteer to read aloud both versions, then solicit from the trainees the differences in what they hear.
CHURCHILL’S SPEECH AS WRITTEN
"In the air—often at serious odds, often at odds hitherto thought overwhelming—we have been clawing down three or four to one of our enemies; and the relative balance of the British and German Air Forces is now considerably more favorable to us than at the beginning of the battle. In cutting down the German bombers, we are fighting our own battle as well as that of France. My confidence in our ability to fight it out to the finish with the German Air Force has been strengthened by the fierce encounters which have taken place and are taking place. At the same time, our heavy bombers are striking nightly at the tap-root of German mechanized power, and have already inflicted serious damage upon the oil refineries on which the Nazi effort to dominate the world directly depends."
CHURCHILL’S SPEECH AS SPOKEN
"In the air,
often at serious odds,
often at odds hitherto thought overwhelming—
we have been clawing down three or four to one
of our enemies;
and the relative balance of the British and German Air Forces
is now considerably more favorable to us
than at the beginning of the battle.
In cutting down the German bombers,
we are fighting our own battle as well as that of France.
My confidence in our ability to fight it out to the finish
with the German Air Force
has been strengthened by the fierce encounters
which have taken place and are taking place.
At the same time,
our heavy bombers are striking nightly at the tap-root of German mechanized power,
and have already inflicted serious damage
upon the oil refineries
on which the Nazi effort
to dominate the world directly depends."
Hear the difference yourself. Say the speech and record it twice: once as the "prose" or literary version, and the second time as the "poetry" of the spoken rendition, with its built-in pauses. You may be amazed as you listen back to what you hear simply from Churchill's phraseology: how much more vividly the images arise in your mind's eye; how much more of the speech you retain; and how the ideas impress themselves upon you forcefully.
The story being told, the ideas, the vividness of the imagery—in short, the message and meaning of this speech—all come through far more powerfully because of Churchill’s method. It’s a concrete reminder that to be an exciting speaker, you must tend to the care and feeding of your performance as well as your content.
 William Manchester, The Last Lion: Alone 1932 – 1940 (New York: Delta/Dell, 1988), 33-34.
 Manchester, The Last Lion, 104.
This blog was originally published in 2015. It has been updated here.
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