The Power of Persuasion

The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson was a Christmas present that I enjoyed much more than I’d expected. It’s a glowing homage to the great leader, orator and prolific writer by a man who is also a journalist, author and politician.

In amongst the fascinating chapters about Churchill’s family background, his influence on tank design, his heroic consumption of alcohol and so on, there is one gem of a chapter for us linguist-language-writer types: He Mobilised the English Language.

Here, Johnson studies the nuts and bolts of Churchill’s carefully crafted speeches and tries to explain why they were so compelling and successful. Decades later, say the name ‘Churchill’ and most people can manage a line or two about ‘never, never, never give up’ and ‘fight them on the beaches.’


Churchill will be remembered as much for leading Britain in the war as for the words he used to do it. He certainly needed extremely powerful words because he stood against another formidable orator of the age: Adolf Hitler.

The two could both move their audiences in very different ways. They were very different men, of course. Hitler was teetotal, vegetarian and fascist. Churchill was a bon viveur, cigar aficionado and appreciator of a fine wine. Both men were absolutely emblematic of what they were fighting for: total control versus liberal freedom.

Making speeches did not come naturally to Churchill. Like all great craftsmen, he had to work and work at it, until he became master of the form.

According to Johnson, Churchill arrived in parliament as a young MP who made a poor impression as a speaker. He bore no comparison to his father, Randolph, who had been the kind of speech-maker MPs roused themselves from the Commons bars and tearooms to hear.

Right up until the late 1930s, critics complained that Churchill used fancy phrases and literary turns, but never really articulated any passion or conviction when he spoke to the House or the nation. Here’s Lord Beaverbrook in 1936: ‘He lacks the proper note of sincerity for which the country listens.’

It wasn’t lack of knowledge that was holding Churchill back. Johnson points out how incredibly well-educated he was, with a mental hard drive stacked full of the Complete Works of Shakespeare – read in a deckchair while off duty on the Front in WW1 – classical speeches and historical writing. By this stage in his life, he’d already written many histories, works of fiction, non-fiction and a biography of the Duke of Marlborough.

But everything changes in 1940, when the war gives Churchill the reason, the passion and perhaps the cause he lacked before. As Johnson puts it: ‘He found in the war the words to speak directly to people’s hearts.’

In 1940, the fact that Churchill is an old-school, old (65) Englishman who stands for cricket, warm beer, and Queen and country, becomes important. He’s un-radical, nostalgic, old-fashioned – and this safe and fatherly figure is exactly who the country wants to listen to.

Breaking down his famous phrases, there are many devices Johnson finds which work so well, including sentences which swoop from high rhetoric down to the intimate and conversational:

‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.’

In rhetorical terms, this is a descending tricolon, with repetition of key words:

So much been owed by

So many to

So few

Churchill, who went to school in the 1890s, was taught Latin, Greek and, almost certainly, rhetoric. Things we might say or write because they sound or feel right, he would have known why they work and all the classical rules and techniques of writing and speaking to move hearts and minds.

Here’s an ascending tricolon:

‘Now this is not the end

It is not even the beginning of the end

But it is perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

It’s also with that swap of ‘beginning’ with ‘end’ in the last line, a chiasmus.

Churchill loved a bit of tub-thumping repetition:

‘You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs – victory in spite of all terror – victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.’


Of course, if you study Hitler’s speeches, you’ll find much of the same kind of stuff. Plenty of repetition there, plus the never-failing determination to go on:

‘As a National Socialist and as a German soldier I enter upon this struggle with a stout heart. My whole life has been nothing but one long struggle for my people, for its restoration, and for Germany. There was only one watchword for that struggle: faith in this people. One word I have never learned: that is, surrender.’

Churchill very carefully and deliberately used short words of ancient, Anglo-Saxon origin rather than the longer Latin, French or Greek-origin words. He wanted to appeal to ancient British spirit, apparently – our island-nation mentality.

Johnson references a speech where Churchill has crossed out ‘liberated’ (from the French word liberté) and inserted ‘freed’.

In his most famous speech about the beaches, it’s not just the repetition and the dogged determination, it’s the appeal to the simple pleasures and freedoms which he wants the British to defend: our beaches; our hills; our right to roam freely. A deep love of the country shines through, and I’d challenge anyone to get through these lines without feeling a prickle at the back of their eye:

‘We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.’

I love the sentiment, often quoted and referred to by Johnson, that when you listened to Hitler, he made you think he could do anything, but when you listened to Churchill, he made you think you could do anything.

What can any writer take away from the language of Sir Winston?

Always keep it short, always keep it snappy, never fight shy of the plain word, never worry about repetition if it’s to good effect. Put some heart, some welly and some real oomph into it. Try it all once again, but this time with feeling.

Carmen Reid

26 February 2015