80 years ago today, Winston Churchill delivered one of the most memorable speeches in history, first to parliament, and then that evening to the British people on the radio.
To this day, Their Finest Hour remains one of the most impactful speeches ever delivered and understandably it has been studied by speakers and thought leaders around the world. This was just one of many memorable speeches Churchill delivered that strengthened Britain's resolve during the darkest days of the second world war.
A Born Orator?
But by the time he became Prime Minister, he had come to value his lisp as a crucial weapon in the war effort, as he believed it gave him an authentic sound, particularly in his radio broadcasts. So much so that he had dentures specifically designed to preserve his lisp!
However public speaking didn’t come naturally to him. He had to overcome a lisp and at school he attempted to eradicate it by repeating over and over again; ‘The Spanish ships I cannot see for they are sheltered’.
Churchill understood the power of words from an early age. At just 22 he wrote cial weapon in the war effort, as he believed it gave him an authentic sound, particularly in his radio broadcasts. So much so that he had dentures specifically designed to preserve his lisp!
But by the time he became Prime Minister, he had come to value his lisp as a crucial weapon in the war effort, as he believed it gave him an authentic sound particularly in his radio broadcasts. So much so that he had dentures specifically designed to preserve his lisp!
Churchill spent an enormous amount of time preparing and practising his speeches, which he would do out loud, to help him overcome the nervousness he still had about public speaking since his childhood. He never employed speechwriters – every word was his own. He was famous for saying: “history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”.
In his role of Prime Minister, he was bound to tell parliament what was going on, so he spent most of the thirty-minute speech reporting on the recent events of the war. delivered this speech. He gave two other major speeches in those five weeks, including his first when he said “I have nothing to offer but blood toil, tears and sweat” and then on the 4th of June when he declared “We shall fight them on the beaches”. Two days before delivering the Finest Hour speech, France had sought an armistice, leaving Britain tottering on an abyss, being the only thing standing between Adolf Hitler and control of Europe.
When Churchill began speaking on the floor of the House of Commons on the 18th of June, MP’s were very aware that 125 years earlier to the day, British troops led by the Duke of Wellington had defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
In his role of Prime Minister, he was bound to tell parliament what was going on, so he spent most of the thirty minute speech reporting on the recent events of the war. However, as his leadership was still being questioned he wanted to use his speaking skills to solidify his support in the coalition government as well as the nation.
What Made The Speech So Powerful?
The structure of Churchill’s speeches was often complex using many tools that are regularly used by politicians and speechmakers to this day. He mastered the art of using anaphora and alliteration in his speeches and would often repeat the same sounding words for maximum impact. He frequently used antithesis and contrastive pairs to add drama as well as the power of three which is perfectly illustrated in this speech when he talks about the threats to the nation: “….Upon it depends our own British life……and the long continuity of our institutions …and our Empire”
Churchill was a master of emotive language using metaphors and powerful imagery. He understood how to use words that let the listener’s imagination take over. He delivered his speeches with such authority that they had the maximum impact and combined with his use of effective pauses and tricolon, there’s no doubt his rhetoric was a powerful tool in helping the nation’s morale throughout the war.
In1953, Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature and he spoke about how he wrote speeches like psalms, setting out his notes in a distinctive 'Psalm form'. He then took those notes phrased in this way to help him to maintain the just right inflection, rhythm and tone in his delivery.
How Was The Speech Received At The Time?
An estimated 60 percent of the British people listened to the radio broadcast. Despite having a cigar in his mouth throughout the speech causing some listeners to conclude he was drunk, a Home Office report on public opinion conducted the following day found that the speech was considered 'courageous and hopeful'. Churchill’s popularity grew from there with a Gallup poll conducted just a month later which gave him an 88% approval rating.
His rhetoric, may seem old-fashioned now but like all great orators Churchill understood his audience and this speech struck all the right notes.
The poet Simon Armitage said in the series Speeches That Shook The World shown on BBC Four; “I believe the vital role Churchill and his inspirational speeches played in helping win the war cannot be over-estimated. He inspired a people to fight on after their allies had fallen and he inspired the Empire to back Britain, which was vital”
Churchill had absolutely captured the nation’s heart and the fact we still hear his words so frequently eighty years later says it all.
Although we often only hear the last few minutes of the speech where Churchill talks about the Battle of Britain beginning, it’s well worth listening to the speech in full and really appreciate his remarkable ability.
His rhetoric may seem old-fashioned now but like all great orators Churchill understood his audience and this speech struck all the right notes.