Great speeches have always been one of the mediums that disseminate information, provide guidance, and mark seminal moments in history. Histories of ancient cultures often provide speeches to help understand the issues in wars and other significant events. Think of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ most important description of Christian living, or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Winston Churchill was known for his stirring speeches that guided England through the dark days of WWII. The 2017 film, Darkest Hour, provides insight to Churchill and the dangers posed by Nazi Germany. With bulldog determination Churchill fights not only the coming threat of Germany but also his own government’s lack of nerve to stand up to Hitler’s designs of world conquest. In his own characteristic wit, he challenges those who wanted to negotiate with Hitler by saying, “You can’t negotiate with the lion with your head in his mouth.”
After WWII, though he lead his country through the horrors of the war, he was not elected to another term as prime minister. His friendship with America continued, however, and President Truman invited Churchill to Fulton, MO, a small town in the Midwest where Westminster College was located. He gave a speech reflecting on the bonds between England and the U.S.
Big Speech, Small Town
His speech in Fulton provided Churchill an opportunity to reflect on the circumstances facing both nations. More importantly, it gave the world an image that characterized a war of ideas over the next several decades. For those who give or write speeches, the outline of his speech doesn’t show signs of unique structure or verbal pyrotechnics. Like many great speeches in history, his words characterized the moment.
A rough outline of the speech looks something like this:
Introduction and praise for his friends in the U.S.
An illustration: “Overall Strategic Concept”
Propositions applying the illustration to war and tyranny
Proposals to address them
Proposition about tyranny in Europe: the Iron Curtain
A plea to pay attention to this threat (He illustrates with his own experience when early on people paid no attention to the threat posed by Hitler.)
The Power of the Right Word at the Right Time
Churchill introduced us to the tyranny of Communism with an apt phrase, “iron curtain.” The phrase stuck and became part of the vocabulary of the Cold War with communist countries. Its power came from imagery characterizing the oppression of tyranny. Coming at the right moment in the history in a speech, Churchill’s phrase created a unique way of thinking about societies controlled by godless Communism.
A speech can have lasting influence. Speeches are powerful mediums for disseminating the right ideas at just the right time, and they can influence for good or evil. Make no mistake, some of the most evil people were great orators. Public speaking is a powerful medium. We should look to the Lincoln’s, the Churchill’s, and to Jesus as the models of using it for the good of society.
© 2023, Robert T. Weber, Words Done Right LLC, WDR Blog