Five Churchillian tips for writing like a leader

We’ve talked before about Winston Churchill’s gift for language. Here’s a great example of an inspiring speech written to get the country behind their leader:

The news from France is very bad, and I grieve for the gallant French people who have fallen into this terrible misfortune. Nothing will alter our feeling towards them or our faith that the genius of France will rise again.

What has happened in France makes no difference to British faith and purpose. We have become the sole champions now in arms to defend the world cause. We shall do our best to be worthy of that high honour.

We shall defend our island and, with the British Empire around us, we shall fight on unconquerable until the curse of Hitler is lifted from the brows of men. We are sure that in the end all will be well. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.

 

And here’s why it works:

 

1. He gets straight to the point

“The news from France is very bad”: imagine if every corporate writer bearing bad tidings were as upfront as Winston.

In the world of work, more typical is the CEO whose email announcing 1,400 redundancies began with this cheery bit of corpspeak:

Today we are announcing a multiyear programme that will enhance service excellence and innovation, help achieve greater operating efficiencies and position us for accelerated growth.

Lesson: If you’ve got to deliver some bad news, don’t start by warming to your theme – the wait only makes things more painful. Worse still, never try to make out the news is good.

 

2. He doesn’t flinch from the truth

Winston’s honesty extends to being direct about what lies ahead and the consequences of defeat:

The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.

A corporate writer would probably have fudged a scary message like that. It would have come out as:

There is a significant and meaningful risk that we will be adversely impacted by the dynamic competencies of our competitor.

Lesson: If you want to get people on board with your strategy, it pays to be honest.

 

3. He paints a picture

Take a closer look this part:

If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

It might not be particularly original to use light and dark imagery to contrast the good (“broad sunlit uplands”) with the bad (“the abyss of a new dark age”). But such visual imagery leaves us in no doubt about the consequences of giving in to Hitler.

What’s more, Winston then does something rather ingenious: he turns the visual metaphor on its head. That oxymoronic “lights of perverted science” is pure poetry.

Compare it with this bit of abstract, meh-eliciting biz-babble from the 2010 annual report of a now-defunct company that, ironically, was in the business of selling visual images – Kodak. Like Winston’s speech, it talks about the consequences of failure, but in a much more abstract way.

If we fail to identify and complete successfully transactions that further our strategic objectives, we may be required to expend resources to develop products and technology internally, we may be at a competitive disadvantage or we may be adversely affected by negative market perceptions, any of which may have an adverse effect on our revenue, gross margins and profitability.

Lesson: Be concrete, not abstract. Use metaphors to get your message across.

 

4. He uses short, simple words

We ran Winston’s speech through an online tool that calculates the Gunning Fog Index, which measures readability. It highlights in blue any words of three syllables or more. Here’s what it looks like:


Here’s what some abstract, meh-eliciting bit of biz-babble from Kodak looks like:

Incidentally, the tool also gives you a Gunning Fog Index number, which tells you the age at which someone would have had to have left full-time education to understand the text. Winston’s figure is 9.698. The figure for the Kodak text is 26.95.

Lesson: Run your own text through the Gunning Fog Index and replace as many long words as you can. Pitch your writing at the level of the primary school, not the PhD.

 

5. He makes his verbs do the work

Winston’s prose is peppered with simple but powerful verbs that convey an idea of intense struggle:

Grieve

Fall

Rise

Defend

Fight

Break

Stand up to

Fail

Sink

Brace

Bear

Notice how there’s not a single “drive”, “deliver” ,“achieve” or other overused, overly abstract verb from the corporate word hoard.

Lesson: Break out of the corporate language rut and ditch dead verbs.

Listen to the speech here.

Book your place on our one-day business writing course, Writing that gets results, in London on 4 July 2012.

10 Responses to “Five Churchillian tips for writing like a leader”

  1. Brad Shorr says:

    The Gunning Fog comparison is startling, Clare!

  2. This is great, Clare. I love your writing and always look forward to your posts. Good advice, cleverly delivered.

  3. Jen McGahan says:

    Great post, Doris and Bertie! Good writers collect those powerful, punchy words. (Think of what “the brows of men” means. It’s a colorful phrase that a 6th grader can understand.) If you can replace a long word with a one-syllable power word, people will look forward to your letters (or emails or reports). Good stuff.

  4. Paul Eveleigh says:

    You’re right, Clare. But Churchill lived in a different world. Today companies use jargon for one simple reason. Bullshit baffles brains.

  5. Pallavi Deshmukh says:

    Awesome article. I work with a PR agency and a part of the Knowledge building team to share insights – PR and Non-PR, and I plan to share this with my colleagues…

    looking forward to more such articles!

  6. Hi Clare, this is a great piece which i will share with my colleagues in Communications. Thanks for this and keep up the good work.

  7. Helen Walton says:

    Oh how right Paul is when he says that companies like jargon … But I would add that not only do they hope it will confuse and baffle others (not that it ever does), but they actually believe it makes them sound more professional. I recently wrote a press release for a company who rejected it because they thought it didn’t sound sufficiently ‘difficult’. I ran their version through the Gunning Fog machine and showed them the result. The problem is that this pleased them! ‘You have to be 26 to understand our press release? Great! That must mean we’re really clever!’

  8. […] I’ve recently become fond of Doris and Bertie’s suggestions for clear writing. I’ve been a fan of Winston Churchill’s command of English for years. Doris and Bertie wrote an article titled Five Churchillian tips for writing like a leader. […]

  9. Russ Bellew says:

    In item 4, you state that, “It highlights in blue any letters of three syllables or more.”

    I think that you meant to say “It highlights in blue any WORDS of three syllables or more.”

    Regards,
    Russ

  10. Clare Lynch says:

    THanks, Russ. Will fix.

Leave a Reply

Anti-Spam Quiz: