When examples of great writing are sought, one man’s words are often cited. The words for which he is best remembered were, however, not designed to be read, but to be heard. They were delivered by their author from the floor of the House of Commons during one of Britain’s darkest periods. The man was Winston Churchill and the time was one of world war. Two decades later, when John F. Kennedy was proposing to confer Honorary American Citizenship on Churchill, he summed up the achievements of this consummate writer:
In the dark days and darker nights when Britain stood alone—and most men save Englishmen despaired of England’s life—he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.
Churchill’s style was deliberately stirring. He set out to rouse, and as Kennedy put it, to mobilize. Churchill made many speeches throughout a long and varied political career, and was a prolific author. Indeed, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 ‘for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.’
But, why do we regard these words as examples of great writing? What sets them apart as memorable, and how can we emulate them? To answer these questions we need to look at some of Churchill’s best remembered speeches.
On May 13, 1940 Churchill made his first speech as Prime Minister to the House of Commons where he pledged,
I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.
After the evacuation of Dunkirk, Churchill once again rose to the dispatch box of the House on June 4, 1940 and laid out the simple but relentless strategy for war without surrender,
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Two weeks later, Churchill roused the country with his almost Shakespearean rhetoric,
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
With the Battle of Britain won in the air, Churchill voiced the gratitude of the nation in the House of Commons on August 20, 1940.
The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
At the height of the war, while visiting his old school on October 29, 1941, Churchill addressed the boys and reminded them of his mantra,
…never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
On November 10, 1942 Churchill delivered his Mansion House Speech and with Field Marshall Rommel’s recent defeat at the Battle of El Alamein, was able to strike a more hopeful chord,
Now, however, we have a new experience. We have victory—a remarkable and definite victory. The bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers and warmed and cheered all our hearts.
But, even then counselled caution,
Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
These speeches were targeted at the British people and were designed to demonstrate leadership at a time of turmoil and provide reassurance that despite the storms ahead we, the British people, would prevail. The language used is not complex, with many of the words consisting of a single syllable and the majority in common use. He uses many standard rhetorical ploys, such as threesomes of examples, e.g. ‘in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world’, contrasting pairs, e.g. ‘the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old’ and building rhythms with repetition, e.g. ‘never give in, never give in, never’ and ‘We have victory—a remarkable and definite victory.’
One of the important features of Churchill’s speech writing in contrast to some of his predecessors was the length of his sentences. His average word count per sentence was 24.2, in contrast to Benjamin Disraeli’s 42.8 and Francis Bacon’s 72.2. As Jeff Toney recently noted this means Churchill could have tweeted while Bacon could not.
Since the average word has about 5 characters, Francis Bacon’s sentence length needed at least 360 characters – too long for a Tweet. In contrast, Winston Churchill’s average sentence can fit at about 120 characters – room to spare for Twitter’s limit of 140.
This of course raises a fascinating ‘what if?’ What would Churchill’s tweets have looked like? Perhaps we don’t have to wonder for they are all there before us — sound bites embedded in his most famous speeches.
Blood, toil, tears and sweat @PM
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields #Nazis #Hitler
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few #Few #RAF
We have victory—a remarkable and definite victory 🙂 #El Alamein
Not the #end – not even beginning of the #end. But perhaps end of the beginning. #warhope
© Allan Gaw 2017
If you would like to read more about how to write well…