The Five Elements of Great Oratory Skill: Winston Churchill’s Approach to Persuasive Speech

“Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable…A meeting of grave citizens, protected by all the cynicism of these prosaic days, is unable to resist its influence. From unresponsive silence they advance to grudging approval and thence to complete agreement with the speaker. The cheers become louder and more frequent; the enthusiasm momentarily increases; until they are convulsed by emotions they are unable to control and shaken by passions of which they have resigned the directions…it appears there are certain features common to all the finest speeches in the English language…rhetorical power is neither wholly bestowed nor wholly acquired, but cultivated. The peculiar temperament and talents of the orator must be his by nature, their development is encouraged by practice. The orator is real. The rhetoric is partly artificial…The orator is the embodiment of the passions of the multitude…Before he can draw their tears, his own must flow. To convince them he must himself believe. He may be often inconsistent. He is never consciously insincere.”[1]

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, the British Prime Minister during the Second World War, was one of the world’s greatest orators, perhaps the greatest since Pericles. Churchill wrote numerous pieces on history, the English language, and how to develop the skills required to master the art of rhetoric. So gifted was Churchill that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for ‘mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.’[2]

Churchill was a lifelong student of rhetoric and the art of public speaking. His speech, “The Sinews of Peace,” where he portrayed the imagery of the ‘Iron Curtain’ describing Eastern Europe’s descent into communism in the aftermath of the war, demonstrates his gifted ability to capture the imagination of the audience. Before Churchill was Prime Minister, prior to his entry into politics and the commencement of the war, Churchill wrote about five principle elements of effective persuasive speaking. They were collected in his unpublished essay: “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric” in 1897.[3] Churchill pulled these elements from his studies of classical Greek works, Shakespeare, and other orators such as Lincoln. These five elements remain as true today as they were when he first wrote them:

  1. Precision. The ‘exact appreciation of words’ which includes ‘the continual employment of the best possible word.’ Churchill’s advice was to use ‘short, homely words of common usage.’ These words needed to be understandable, but the sentences didn’t need to be short. Ideally, they would have an ‘internal rhythm.’

Selection of language is of paramount importance. When speaking, or writing, make sure each word is carefully selected to convey your exact meaning. Churchill outlined that flowery and verbose language distracts the listener and fails to persuade. Don’t use complicated prose when a simple, more direct word will do.

  1. Tempo and rhythm. The ‘influence of sound on the human brain’ Churchill believed, was most impactful when ‘the sentences of the orator… become long, rolling and sonorous’. Great orators are able to express their words in blank verse[4]— as opposed to regular prose. Shakespeare was his life-long influence when emulating this type of blank verse.

Effective public speaking has a tempo all its own. Any famous text or quote that you know by heart likely has its own unique rhythm. Lyricism in language seems to be a lost art in modern writing and speaking, but it can be very effective. Take time to listen to great speeches and try to focus on the speakers using rhythm and repetition to their advantage. Listen to the way they use pauses, for example, to add drama and suspense. The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and former US President Barack Obama have both perfected the art of the dramatic pause.

  1. Accumulation of argument. In Churchill’s words, ‘a series of facts is brought forward all pointing in a common direction… the crowd anticipate the conclusion and the last words fall amid a thunder of assent.’

The climax of oratory is reached by a rapid succession of sound and vivid pictures. The audience is delighted by the changing scenes presented to their imagination. Their ear is tickled by the rhythm of the language. The enthusiasm rises. The end appears in view before it is reached.

Speakers must have a clear line of argument. They must know where they are going— and bring the audience along with them. Effective communication builds like a crescendo; constantly growing and building upon itself until climax.

  1. Analogy. An apt analogy connects or appears to connect distant spheres of abstract thought. It appeals to the everyday knowledge of the listener and invites them to imagine. Churchill asserts that analogies ‘translate an established truth into simple language’.

The most effective communicators are masters of analogy. A good analogy makes the foreign, familiar and the clouded, clear. A well-tuned analogy may win over a more technically sound argument. Michael Howard cautions against the use of analogy in his masterful piece ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’[5]. However, orators are forgiven (by Churchill) for using this tool to spark the imagination of their listeners.

Help people develop connections to established realities via their imaginations. A well-developed analogy, the ‘Iron Curtain’ for example, can be more powerful than a tedious description of facts.

  1. Wild Extravagance. My personal favorite. Churchill said that‘the emotions of the speaker and listeners are alike aroused and some expression must be found that will represent all they are feeling’.

Make an impact. Extending the power of analogies to appeal to an audience’s emotions, helps establish a genuine connection with them. Churchill notes that such an appeal is best completed with a flourish of over-the-top imagery and outrageous symbolism. Although Churchill was always carefully prepared, his delivery never lacked spontaneity. He put feeling into his words. He made them breathe with life through his exhilarating and forceful personality.

Churchill’s unsurpassed ability to connect with the audience using the key elements above, contributed to his success as a statesman and politician. Too often these days, junior leaders fail to realise that their ability to speak confidently and persuade others is a central pillar of their success. Being woefully underprepared for a speech, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, is a good way to undermine your own legitimacy and credibility. Next time you’re in a position to speak publicly, I urge you to think deeply about Churchill’s advice and above all practice, practice, and practice some more.


[1] Roberts, A. (2018). Churchill: Walking with Destiny. Penguin.

[2] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1953/summary/

[3] Churchill, Winston (1987). ‘The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’. https://winstonchurchill.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/THE_SCAFFOLDING_OF_RHETORIC.pdf

[4] Blank verse is a literary device defined as un-rhyming verse written in iambic pentameter. In poetry and prose, it has a consistent meter with 10 syllables in each line; where, unstressed syllables are followed by stressed ones, five of which are stressed but do not rhyme.

[5] Howard, Michael. “The use and abuse of military history.” Royal United Services Institution. Journal 107, no. 625 (1962): 4-10.

5 thoughts on “The Five Elements of Great Oratory Skill: Winston Churchill’s Approach to Persuasive Speech

  1. Great piece. Never made the connection between Shakespeare and Churchill before, but it makes sense that one of the best practitioners of speech in the English speaking world would have extensively studied one of the greatest writers of that language. Thanks for this.

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  2. Useful article on an important skill that we don’t pay enough attention to developing.
    There’s an unfortunate typo in the paragraph on the importance of precise word choice (detract/distract) that you may want to fix up.

    Like

  3. Great information which I’ll be using in my own business and personal life. Thanks.

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