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Winston Churchill - His Struggle With Public Speaking

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By Kris Deichler, Associate Partner, Lighthouse International

“All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.”

- Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was a renowned speaker. His wartime broadcasts inspired a nation to keep their heads and hopes high while bombs landed on their cities and victory seemed far away. You might be surprised then that he battled with public speaking all his life, having grown up with a lisp. He recognised the importance of oratory so much however, that he spent hours planning and practicing his words. Writing his own speeches, he is said to have spent up to an hour perfecting every minute of what he would say, just to get it right… 

One of the most common fears today is public speaking. It’s terrifying for many and yet an important skill for success. Making an impact and inspiring others is the trait of any good leader, but it’s not a God-given talent, it’s something we can all learn to master, Churchill is proof of this, if we’re willing to work for it!

Here’s a snippet from “the Art of Manliness” on Churchill’s challenges...

Early in his political career, when he was 29 years old, Churchill was making a speech before the House of Commons in his usual manner. Up to that point, he had memorized each and every word of his speeches, and performed them without any notes. All had gone well, until this moment.

“And it rests with those who . . .” he begins to say. But he trails off, losing his train of thought.

“It rests with those who…” he repeats. Yet once more he fails at finishing the sentence, or pivoting to another.

For three long, agonizing minutes, Churchill gropes desperately for his next line and cannot for the life of him retrieve it. The House heckles him. His face turns red. Finally, he sits down, putting his head in his hands in utter dejection.

He would never make that mistake again. Henceforth, he wrote out his speeches word for word and had their text ever before him.

Improvising is an art, but so is admitting a weakness. Churchill had the humility to recognize that he didn’t have the knack for extemporaneous speaking. So he worked around it, so much so, that most listeners didn’t even realize that he was reading from notes.

It’s humbling to learn about the challenges legends have faced. It shows they are only human like you and I, the difference is that they focus and persist to overcome them. At the start of The Battle of Britain, facing a mighty German Air Force, Churchill gave one of his most famous speeches. You will probably detect the impediment in his voice now, yet you can also tell he’s using that and the words he chooses deliberately to make the impact he did.

For more on Churchill's challenges with public speaking, check out this article on “The Art of Manliness.”

Winston’s passion for words ended up winning him a Nobel Prize for Literature. How much would developing your ability in this area make an impact for you?

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Winston Churchill image courtesy of Wikimedia