Liberties of Britain (10 January 1910)
“The House of Lords regards all our liberties and political rights as enjoyed and enjoyable only so long as they choose to let us go on having them. “
An early speech by the legendary orator, this represented his more liberal mindset. But it was delivered at a time when the establishment frowned on criticism. Today we can appreciate that speeches can have real power to challenge authority. When someone has the courage to stand up to corruption and abuse – and to do so eloquently – the listener can be inspired and emboldened.
We cannot get away (16 November 1934)
Churchill delivered one of his famous short speeches into a radio microphone, warning that fascism was overrunning Europe.
“However much we might desire that, to turn our backs on Europe … I’ve come to the conclusion that we cannot get away.”
Churchill was displaying one of his greatest attributes, the ability to analyze key events. Seventy years on these sentiments remain hugely important. They remind us all that political extremism must always be confronted – and speech-making is a tremendous way of doing so. We learn that a key element of powerful speeches is the fact that well-chosen words unite individuals from diverse backgrounds, bringing people together.
Stand for freedom (5 October 1938)
Days after the previous Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had returned from Germany with Adolf Hitler’s notorious pledge to honor peace, Churchill was predicting the worst.
“This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless … we arise again and take our stand for freedom.”
Churchill was deploying rich and imaginative phrases to color a bleak situation. Today we can learn from this aspect: the language used will elevate speeches into truly getting their point across. The worst attributes any public speech can have are to be dry or dull – here we see how a master orator made every word count.
Blood Toil Tears and Sweat (13 May 1940)
Chamberlain had resigned, humiliated by Nazi Germany’s false promise not to go to war. Churchill’s maiden speech to the House as Prime Minister steadied the country’s resolve.
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”
The important message that carries to this day is that simplicity is an effective tool. Unlike longer texts, we learn how speeches are more like a series of headlines linked by relevant details – like verbal bullet points. These qualities teach us the importance of strong editing, with slogans hooking the imagination.
We’ll fight them on the beaches (4 June 1940)
Churchill made a keynote speech following the successful evacuation of allied troops from Dunkirk, with Hitler’s armies now poised for invasion.
“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches … we shall never surrender…”
This speech teaches us how important it can be to target the heart as much as the head. The words were a direct appeal to sentiment, finding common ground and then encouraging the audience to feel part of a collective will. The message that still resonates is how powerful propaganda can be.
Finest Hour (18 June 1940)
With Luftwaffe bombs showering London, Churchill managed a perfect balance between warning of the dire situation, while remaining robust and defiant.
“If we fail, then the whole world … will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age …. if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
The most obvious thing to learn about this speech is the power of the metaphor to deliver irresistible messages. ‘The abyss of a new dark age’ conjures such a vivid picture. ‘This was their finest hour’ is beautiful in its directness. This teaches us that clarity is all-important.
The Few (20 August 1940)
In the House of Commons, with the plucky but seriously outnumbered pilots of the R.A.F. losing the Battle of Britain, he made another stirring speech.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Churchill succeeded in elevating the plucky actions of a few beleaguered airmen, ensuring their bravery has become immortalized. Here we learn how a speech can create empathy with a few well-chosen words. We also see that there is no harm in injecting poetic license. Language like this transforms oratory into words that transcend the moment.
A plea for help (26 December 1941)
By 1941, Churchill’s beleaguered island had at least gained the support of the US, who had just entered the war after Pearl Harbor. Addressing the US Congress, he said:
“In the days to come the British and American peoples will for their own safety and for the good of all walk together side by side in majesty, injustice and in peace.”
The main thing we can learn is how well Churchill combined powerful imagery with a modest turn of phrase, appealing to heads while also tugging at heartstrings. We can see how the speech pointed towards the light at the end of the tunnel. A modern audience can appreciate how well these words strive to ally Britain and America, uniting individuals separated by a wide Ocean into a common cause.
The Iron Curtain (5 March 1946)
Following Germany’s defeat in 1945 the cordial relations between the US, British and French, and Soviets were to prove short-lived. Churchill made a speech where he issued a prophetic warning about the future.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. “
This was a classic example of injecting a powerful metaphor; indeed, of all his famous short speeches, this is one that became most widely quoted. This speech defined the Cold War with an image was so emotive that American President Truman distanced himself from it, troubled by its inflammatory strength. On the other hand, the so-called ‘special relationship’ that developed between their respective nations was instigated with this one speech.
Today we can learn that one metaphorical image – an iron curtain – that a few choice words can have a lasting impression of whoever hears them. Literary quotes may outlive an author, but we can learn so much more about the immortality of language from great speeches that have been broadcast the world over.
The Lion Heart (30 November 1954)
“I am very glad that Mr Attlee described my speeches in the war as expressing the will not only of Parliament but of the whole nation. Their will was … unconquerable.”
Despite having reached his milestone 80th birthday, Churchill proved his ability to deliver firebrand speeches remained as sharp as ever. We can appreciate that a vibrant mind can remain vigorous long after the speaker’s physical strength has waned. This teaches us how life-affirming great speeches can be. We learn how to chose words carefully, because in the right hands they can be weapons.