Fresh Ideas: Language and leadership: Churchill’s language |

Fresh Ideas: Language and leadership: Churchill’s language

Ursula Carlson

Language is important because it’s a reflection of how we think — or not. If we find ourselves saying, “I know what I want to say, I just can’t put it in words,” what we’re really saying is, “My thinking is confused.” This is no crime. Like everything else in life, thinking clearly, that’s, logically, is learned. Ideally, whatever we say, or write, reflects the quality of our thought. Thinking and writing well is essentially invention.

For this reason, I believe certain people in life, such as leaders of countries, should be more skilled, rather than less, in the way they use language. One acknowledged master of language, as well an effective leader, was Winston Churchill.

Churchill was born with a speech impediment: a stammer and a lisp. To overcome it, he went to specialists as a young man and recited over and over again, “The Spanish ships I cannot see them, for they are not in sight.” He also memorized and practiced out loud speeches by the famous men of his father’s time: Cromwell, Burke, Disraeli, and Pitt.

One might have thought Churchill would automatically follow in his father’s footsteps and seek election to the House of Commons, but he was far more drawn to the glory of the battlefield. During World War I, his wish for a field command never materialized. He did write military reports for the British army and in 1899 while writing on the Boer War in South Africa was taken prisoner, dramatically escaped, and wrote a book about his experience. One could say he became a writer before he ever entered political life.

Churchill never gave a speech “off the cuff.” All his speeches were written beforehand, right down to side notes on vocal inflections and pauses. A perfectionist, he practiced in front of a mirror to get everything exactly right.

Many of his speeches became known for phrases that have since become part of our lexicon. His 1946 speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., when President Truman was in office, is a case in point. From “the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe.” This Iron Curtain became the metaphor for all the nations no longer free but held captive by the USSR (Soviet Russia).

A conscious stylist, here are five quotations from Churchill that illustrate his rhetorical techniques: Contrast: “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” Rhyme: “The more knowledge we possess of the opposite point of view, the less puzzling it is to know what to do.” Echo: “Where there is a great deal of free speech, there is always a certain amount of foolish speech.” Alliteration: “I am sure we do not want any fingers on the trigger. Least of all, we do not want a fumbling finger.” Metaphor: “A good knowledge of history is a quiver full of arrows in debates.”

In Churchill’s opinion, “Words are the only things which last forever.”

I think any person running for political office, but especially our president-elect Trump, might benefit from Churchill’s observation about power:

“The only power I had as Prime Minister was to marshal the English Language.”

Tweets aren’t going to cut it around the diplomatic conference table.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.