Winston Churchill's guide to great communication

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few…” Winston Churchill, speech to the House of Commons, 20 August 1940.

Great communication doesn’t just happen – it requires effort, rehearsal and above all else the ability to understand the impact of your words on the assembled audience.

Whether you agree with everything he did, few would disagree that Winston Churchill’s speeches were an inspiration to the British people in the darkest days of the Second World War.

Unquestionably, Churchill was an outstanding communicator but the creation of his immortal tribute to the RAF pilots who fought and won the Battle of Britain is a salutary lesson in what makes great communicators.

It was 16 August 1940 and Churchill had just emerged from a bunker after visiting the No. 11 RAF operations group.   It is said that immediately after hopping into his car he asked his attendants for silence.  Deeply moved by what he’d witnessed he was thinking.  Pondering.  No doubt many words running through his head.  After several minutes silence he said: Never in the field of conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

A few days later he used those same words in a speech to the House of Commons – a speech made to a country gripped in dread with an invasion by the German army feared at any moment.

Biographies of Churchill highlight how much time and effort he would take in writing, re-writing and rehearsing his speeches.  Often they’d be dictated to his secretary as he sat in the bath – probably smoking a cigar.  There is a lesson here for all leaders – and all communicators:  Inspirational communication that cuts through, touches the hearts and minds of people and prompts people to action, doesn’t happen easily.  It requires work. 

I am impressed whenever I read stories about Churchill rehearsing his speeches – on occasions he apparently did so as he drove along in his car. (Presumably someone else was driving).  For him clearly poor communication was not an option.  In the same way soldiers are expected to rehearse the assembling and dis-assembling of their weapons until it is second nature, the warrior prime minister took it as a basic discipline to check, recheck and rehearse his speeches.  If it was good enough for a master communicator, it should be Rule #1 for everyone else.