Posted 10 years ago
Winston Churchill – Communication Genius
Winston Churchill was hugely accomplished as a statesman, an historian, and a writer. But when people think of Churchill, it’s his speeches that are remembered. It’s the sound of his voice. That voice is still unforgettable today, even in scratchy old recordings. Try to imagine how it must have sounded over the radio in 1940, when Churchill and Britain were all that stood between Hitler and victory in the Second World War.
Winston didn’t fit easily into the standard educational system. From the first, it was obvious he had tremendous talent — his power of memory was rather amazing. But he was very stubborn. He learned what he wanted to learn, and resisted anything else. He didn’t care about learning other languages, for example. He wanted to learn English.
By the time Churchill was only twenty-six years old, he was about to enter Parliament, where his voice would be heard for the first time — and once Churchill’s voice was heard, it could never be forgotten.
In our schools today, not much attention is paid to speaking skills. There really isn’t a focus on the ability to express yourself effectively in front of a group of people — or even one person. The strange thing is this was a fundamental element of education throughout the history of Western civilization.
As a professional speaker myself, it’s amazing to discover the detail and care that was given to the spoken word. The Greeks and Romans considered speaking — which they called rhetoric — to be a branch of philosophy. It was an art that demanded talent and practice, and it was also a science that be studied carefully and systematically. Churchill certainly knew these principles backwards and forwards — and in order to model Churchill’s communication genius, you should know them also.
There were basically four general categories of communication — and a genius was someone who could excel in all these areas. The categories were invention, arrangement, style, and memory. They’re still very applicable today, and they’re understood explicitly or intuitively by every communication genius.
Invention really means having something to say. You can’t be a great communicator if you don’t have anything to communicate. In order to discover your genius as a communicator, ask yourself where you are on this spectrum. Are you someone who feels the need to talk for talking’s own sake — whether or not your given the opportunity? Or do you back away from communicating even when everyone would benefit from your doing so? Try to be ruthlessly honest about this. It’s not easy, because we’re often amazingly unaware of our true nature as communicators. It’s also something that other people are usually uncomfortable discussing with you.
The second principal of speaking was arrangement — which today we would call organization. This is just the tactics and tools of communication. The organization of a good speech comprised six parts: the introduction; the statement of facts; the discussion of facts; the proof of facts; the refutation of possible objections; and the conclusion. The trick, of course, was to blend these parts seamlessly together so that the whole thing seemed effortless and intuitive. It’s amazing, though, how good speaking can be broken down into parts to be approached logically and scientifically.
After organization, the third principle of communication was style. Organization is about what you’re saying — style is about how you say it. Today, this is probably more important than any other element of spoken communication, but it’s crucial to develop a style that fits you and fits your audience. Churchill was obviously a master of style. In my opinion, he was really the last great communicator in the classical tradition. Before him, here may have been many people who spoke like Churchill, going all the way back to Greece and Rome. But I don’t believe anyone since Churchill has successfully attempted that style. Martin Luther King was certainly a great communicator, and he could move his listeners just as deeply as Churchill. But his style of speaking came from the tradition of African American preaching rather than classical oratory.
We can learn a lot from Churchill and King concerning organization and inspiration — but the style of communication that is most effective today has a different lineage. I would call it an informal style, although it may actually be very carefully thought out and planned. It’s a style that was mastered by Lincoln in his famous debates with Senator Stephen Douglas, by Mark Twain in the literally thousands of lectures that he gave during the final decades of his life — and most recently by Ronald Reagan, who wasn’t called “the Great Communicator” for nothing.
The fourth principle of speaking was memory. Until relatively recently, it would have been unthinkable for a communicator to read a speech, much less use a TelePrompTer to make it seem like he knew it by heart. Memory was equated with intelligence. Today we think a person who can do science or math is at the highest level of intellectual power, but in the past it was how much you had memorized. For a modern man, Churchill was surely very accomplished in this regard. For example, he probably knew much of Shakespeare by heart. But in the old days, it was taken for granted that an educated person knew the Bible nearly word for word.
I’m not suggesting that to be an effective communicator you need to be a memory expert. But it is important to convey complete familiarity with your subject. If this isn’t the case, you’re going to be dependent on outside help, and that’s an uncomfortable position for a communicator.
For success in any field, three important components are pretty much universally recognized — we can call them theory, talent, and practice. In communication, theory refers to the ideas we discussed a moment ago, such as organization, style, and familiarity with your topic. Talent seems to be very important today, because we tend to believe that we’re pretty much born with the limits we can reach in any field. But more than anything, it took practice. Churchill had been a public communicator since he entered Parliament in his early twenties. And this brings us back to a point that was so perfectly expressed by Edison: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” The more you do something, the more you work at it, the more you experience it, the better you’ll get at it — until before you know it, everybody will be calling you a communication genius!]]>