One of the greatest communicators of the 20th century didn’t begin that way. Plagued by a stutter in his early life, Winston Churchill was determined to rise above his mother’s advice that he pick a career that didn’t involve public speaking.
He certainly achieved that. In an essay in the Harvard Business School collection Getting People on Board, John Baldoni, author of Great Communication Secrets of Great Leaders,writes that Britain’s wartime leader followed these few but decisive rules for winning over an audience.
- Get their attention: You can’t communicate with your listeners if they’re not listening. You must grab their attention powerfully.
- Repeat regularly: Churchill was known for having a few principles and tirelessly repeating them. There’s nothing like artful repetition to make sure a message gets across.
- Bring language to life: Churchill well understood the importance of variety in tone, speed, language and emphasis to hold an audience’s attention. In his speeches, he paid particular attention to verbs, knowing that they make language come alive.
- End powerfully: People remember the last thing you’ve said, so make it good. Save some of your best stuff for your close.
- Use simple gestures: A study of videos of Churchill’s speeches shows a man who stood squarely, usually with one hand grasping his lapel or resting firmly on his hip. His other arm occasionally came forward to make a strong vertical gesture to emphasis a point he was making. Churchill’s arms never “windmilled” around his body, which would have undercut his strength and dignity as a speaker.
- Use pauses to heighten the sense of drama: One of the longest pauses ever recorded in a political speech came in an address Churchill made to the Canadian Parliament in 1941. He told the MPs that when he had vowed the previous year that Britain would fight on even if France surrendered to the Germans, the French generals told their country’s cabinet that “in three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken. [Pause.] Some chicken. [Very long pause.] Some neck.” Churchill confidently waited for the laughter and applause to end during the pause before uttering the concluding phrase. It’s a classic moment of oratory.