At a moment of war when Britain stood alone without allies facing what appeared to be almost certain defeat, Winston Churchill delivered what is probably his most famous speech. He told the British House of Commons on 4 June 1940: “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…”
The phrase “we shall fight” was repeated no less than seven times, thereby creating an impression of incorrigible defiance, which, of course, is exactly the impression that Churchill intended. But the speech contains a sub-text which very few are now aware of, and which many may not have been fully grasped at the time. Its message was that Britain was probably defeated. For indeed, why would it be necessary to fight in the hills and in the streets other than in circumstances in which Britain had failed to repel a German invasion?
That his intention was to prepare for defeat is also clear from his remarks to his cabinet during the same week: “If at last the long history [of Britain] is to end, it were better that it should end, not through surrender, but only when we are rolling senseless on the ground.”
What people remember about the speech is the determination to fight and the indomitable spirit that animated it, not Churchill’s presumption that Britain was on the brink of what would have been one of the most catastrophic episodes of its history.(1)
Politicians often get into trouble when seeking to convey complex messages or to address more than one audience, but Churchill managed to rouse the martial spirits of the British people, while also preparing them for honourable defeat and, at the same time, warning Germany that an invasion would carry a high cost in blood and materiel.
Churchill undoubtedly belongs to the first rank of political orators, but he did not regard himself as a natural speechmaker. He spoke with a lisp, which in his later career he was to turn to good advantage.(2) But as a young MP he was not invariably an effective speaker. Indeed, addressing the House of Commons on one occasion, he completely lost the thread of his argument and dried up. He found this experience so humiliating that he subsequently vowed to always use a written text. Henceforth, he took the task of speechwriting very seriously. So should all those who are required to speak publicly. In the case of a politician a bad speech can destroy the speaker’s reputation, cause panic on the markets, or increase the prospect of war, but it is remarkable how casually some politicians take the task of preparing and delivering their speeches.
Today, few front rank politicians write their own speeches, although the best of them – Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, for example – were good judges of the texts prepared for them and were capable of improving them and also of resisting the efforts of colleagues or advisers who sought to blunt their message. Reagan also inserted his own jokes; Thatcher, by contrast, had to have her speechwriters explain the jokes which they had included in the drafts presented to her, an experience which they seldom found enjoyable and of which I have personal experience. Both were aware of the damage that ill-judged speech can do to reputation or national interest.
The two most important lessons for those giving speeches are obvious, but constantly overlooked. The first is that you should not make a speech unless you have something you want to say. This is so blindingly evident that it should not be necessary to state it. But public figures regularly make speeches without having a message which they wish to convey; they do so because they believe that is what is expected of them or perhaps for reasons of vainglory. The result is usually a boring speech, or still worse: a speech whose purpose is misconstrued.
The second lesson is that more important than what is said is what people hear, which is not necessarily the same thing: it is therefore necessary to understand the character and sensibilities of those you wish to inform or influence.
These truths are brilliantly and amusingly illustrated by Charles Crawford, a former British ambassador to Poland, in a book which is unlikely to be bettered as a guide to speechwriting, Speechwriting for Leaders: Creating a speech that leaves the audience wanting more.(3)
Barack Obama’s speeches come in for special scrutiny. In his victory speech of 2008, the repetition of a key phrase – the words “Yes we can” – worked for him as it did for Churchill, is probably his best. The judgement of history of Obama as President may well be “No, he couldn’t”, but this speech clearly merits a place in any anthology of notable modern speeches. It meets Crawford’s test of a great speech which is that everything must fit together like a jigsaw: words, emotional tone, audience, occasion and message.
Obama’s speeches as President, especially those dealing with foreign affairs have been very different in tone and also differ greatly from those of his predecessors; indeed such is their tone of aloof detachment that they do not sound like those of a US President at all. As Crawford writes: “No one else delivers a speech in President Obama’s powerful engaging style. Yet in all his hundreds of speeches since he took office, and particularly in his foreign policy speeches it’s hard to find a single memorable passage or phrase that has defined a successful policy agenda, or changed the way people think about issues. He projects didactic detachment: eloquent and informed, but not interesting or challenging or even engaged.”
The detached tone is part of Obama’s attempt to stress that America is no longer prepared to carry any burden or pay any price. Instead, it expects its allies to bear a greater share of the burden.
The problem is that while some of America’s allies may have taken the point – even if they have not so far shown any sign of wanting to share the burden – its enemies draw different conclusions. Obama has simply not understood what they are about. According to Crawford their response is likely to be as follows: “The mighty rivers of history are finally flowing our way. At long last, Washington is pulling back. Now is the time to advance. True, Obama may well hit us hard if we overdo it. But he gives the impression that he really doesn’t want to. And we plan to overdo it. We plan to keep on slaughtering American prisoners live on YouTube, to show him that we do not care what he does. Obama talks, more in sorrow than in anger. We act in anger – and we are sorrowful only when we don’t kill enough Americans.”
No one could accuse President Putin of being detached. As Crawford notes, his speeches are “full of ripe, chewy political meat”. Asked by a journalist about the heavy toll of casualties in Chechnya, he replied: “If you want to become a complete Islamic radical and are ready to undergo circumcision, then I invite you to Moscow. We are a multi-denominational country. We have specialists in this question as well. I will recommend that they carry out the operation in such a way that nothing else will grow back.”
The effect, says Crawford, was creepy but staggeringly powerful. Despite such repellent cynicism Putin’s speeches project confidence and power.
Of course, the difference between speeches of the Russian and American leaders is not merely of speech craft, but of leadership and the understanding of how to project power.
Obama’s foreign speeches fail not because he and his speechwriters lack the ability to craft the felicitous phrase, but because he does not understand the likely reactions of others or the aims of his adversaries. Such inadequacies led to the “reset” of relations with Russia, an attempt which was bound to be regarded with contempt in Moscow. Still more serious was the related failure to indicate that the US would strongly resist Moscow’s attempt to undo the post-Cold War settlement; the tragic consequences can be seen in the frozen conflict in Georgia and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine; there may be worse to come.
Crawford’s primary aim is to offer guidance on how to write speeches that achieve their objectives, whether the speaker happens to be the President of the United States or the President of the Milwaukee Guild of Chiropodists. But he is a former senior diplomat and his examples of good and bad speeches inevitably come mostly from the world of diplomacy and politics. Ex-diplomats are normally reticent about the mistakes of their former political masters. When describing the pitfalls to be avoided, Crawford, however, is refreshingly candid about the speechwriting flops of the former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Labour Foreign Secretary David Milliband, among others. Both would benefit from reading this book but this is not a volume which either man should be given as a Christmas present by those who wish to remain their friends. It would, however, make a most suitable gift for those US politicians currently seeking their party’s nomination as presidential candidates; not only will it enable them to craft and deliver effective speeches, but it will also help them grasp important if unpalatable truths about international order of which the US president remains blithely unaware.
1 Churchill’s cleverness in this regard is brilliantly described in Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth, Icon Books, 2013.
2 When relatively late in his career he ordered a new set of dentures he instructed that this should be designed in a way that it did not remove the lisp.
3 Diplomatic Courier, Medaurus Global, Washington, DC.