The power of words
An inadvertent lesson from one of the greatest orators of all time: your tone should match the occasion
“Short words are the best, and the old words best of all”. So said possibly the greatest user of words and language in the modern era, Sir Winston Churchill.
As a filmmaker, I spend a lot of time thinking about words: the most appropriate words, the most effective words, the most powerful words. But I find it impossible to think about words without thinking about Churchill. Because of his use of words and approach to communications, Churchill delivered some of the most memorable speeches in history with incredible impact and emotional resonance. He did this by using, in his own words, a “rapid succession of waves of sound and vivid pictures”.
Churchill’s ability to inspire the listener and dominate the discourse changed the course of history. Although his speeches and use of rhetoric are well known – even to newer audiences today due to the hugely successful film ‘Darkest Hour’ – what is perhaps less known is his prolific writing and receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
His use of powerful stories and vivid descriptions as a narrative technique, his emphasis on shared and universal values, and the sheer effort that went into every word (on average, he thought, one hour per sentence in a speech) made him someone who understood that every one of those words – and every audience member – mattered.
That is not to say that he got the tone or the rhetoric right for every occasion. “He was renowned throughout his career for lavishing verbosity on issues that simply didn’t warrant it,” said Philip Collins, the author and former speechwriter for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whilst appearing on the Intelligence Squared panel, “Words that Changed the World”. You can hear echoes of Churchill’s great wartime speeches on earlier occasions when they would perhaps sound overblown or inappropriate to the subject. For example, in 1931 during a speech on India and dealing with the avowedly pacifist Gandhi, Churchill remarked, “Our fight is hard. It will also be long. We must not expect early success. The forces marshalled against us are too strong. But win or lose, we must do our duty.”
It has been argued that it was the context of wartime and the genuine and imminent peril which made Churchill’s words perfect for their time. The most eminent Churchill historian, Dr. Andrew Roberts, says the impact of Churchill's speeches cannot be underestimated. "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."
Churchill’s use of words has been a subject of much discussion and debate over the years. One of my favourite descriptions was by Boris Johnson, former UK Foreign Secretary. No stranger to using words creatively himself, Johnson has spoken of Churchill’s “long, orotund, bombastic circumlocutions” whilst also noting his words were very primal and occasionally “adorned with flowery, Latinate” phrases. Within the generally ordinary and simple words that Churchill used, he could convey incredible emotion and inspire the listener and the nation.
In an unpublished piece called ‘The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’, which he wrote in November 1897, he set out what he believed were the key rhetorical devices to be used in great speeches. The correctness of diction, rhythm, accumulation of argument and analogy are what Churchill saw as principle elements.
His speeches though were far from being just rhetoric. They provided context - told a detailed story of what happened, outlined the current situation, and considered options for the future and the path to victory. In what is often referred to as his ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech which Churchill delivered to the House of Commons on 4th June 1940, he spelled out in detail what occurred militarily in France and Belgium, which Regiments added to their glory through sacrifice, and how allies behaved and performed. This dramatic and considered storytelling framework served him well over the years.
When storytelling and truth converge in film, the result makes a deep impression with audiences, changes minds and attracts more viewers. Churchill may have needed to be economical with the truth on some operational matters whilst burdened with inspiring a nation, but he controlled the message and he controlled the medium.
We know this not just with the benefit of hindsight, or through some rose-tinted assessment, but from contemporary examinations of the impact, his radio broadcasts were having. The BBC carried out opinion polling in May 1940 following Churchill’s first radio broadcast and found 51% of the population listened to his first broadcast. This number rose to 60% by 18th June and climbed further after that. A poll conducted in October 1940 gave him an 89% approval rating as Prime Minister, despite the dark days of that period and the threat of invasion; as Churchill put it at the time, “The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.”
Churchill was a hero and showed great personal courage. It is little wonder he is often considered the greatest Briton of all time, but he was not infallible. He certainly made mistakes, as people inevitably do when forced to make decisions in difficult circumstances. His use of words did not always match the level of threat at hand – but when they were truly needed, they reshaped the world. As President Kennedy said, “he mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.” The legacy of his incredible and powerful words still inspires us today, makes us think, and shows us how victory can be achieved against all odds. As he once put it “never flinch, never weary, never despair.”