Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Churchill's backchannel: Looking at his speeches through an audience lens

Ever since audience members first started tweeting their reactions during speeches, I've been hearing from alarmed speakers--and reminding them that, long before Twitter, every speech has had a backchannel of commentary from its audience. You just didn't know what they were saying.

That's long been true with historic speeches. We're left with just a text or a recording, if we're lucky, so we focus on the beautiful language. Rarely do we try to hear and see what the audience was saying, an essential part of any speech. Take Winston Churchill, whose World War II speeches sparked plenty of reaction. Until historian Richard Toye did the yeoman's work of sifting through archival material to write The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill's World War II Speeches, that audience backchannel was presumed to be uniformly positive--thanks to wartime propaganda and the sometimes misty lens through which we like to view this famous speaker.

Turns out that Churchill's contemporary listeners were often less charitable than we are. We have, after all, the luxury of considering his speeches decades later, without the threat of war hanging over us. Like most citizens hearing political speeches, his listeners were skeptical, worried, depressed, angry and positive by turns. They made fun of him, wondered what he was leaving out, and worried about what was coming next, just as we do today. Toye has taken the speeches off their pedestals for a moment to add needed detail and context, the kind that can only come from looking at a wide variety of written accounts, including public opinion surveys, citizens' diaries and letters, and government summaries of public reactions to the speeches. It's all here, no expletives deleted.

The details make this book a joy to read for speakers and speechwriters alike. Toye considers the political context for each speech; how it was written and who contributed ideas or input; the delivery; and how it was received. You'll learn about Churchill's early speaking influences and tactics, from memorization and mistakes to working from a text, and how they affected his later great speeches. When I'm coaching speakers, I often tell them that no one--not even Winston Churchill--is a "born speaker," and the evidence is here, along with evidence of all the work he put into his speeches. The introduction, which details how the audience reaction was ignored in book after book about Churchill, is a telling look at how much context we miss when we just read historic speeches.

Some Churchill fans have decried the book as a slam against not just the great man, but Great Britain. Does suggesting that citizens had varied views make them seem less brave or united? Toye doesn't think so, and neither do I. If anything, those doubts, humorous observations and fearful thoughts seem appropriate, and make the book highly credible.

There's much a current speechwriter can learn here, too. Toye draws our attention past the stirring rhetoric to the real gems of Churchill's speeches: The content, sharing crucial information with citizens about what to expect and what was known at critical junctures; the historical context, never more important than in that moment; and well-reasoned arguments. Who knows what modern-day Churchills we could be hearing from if you'd focus on those three factors in preparing your own speeches? Content is still king in these speeches.

 I got a preview and the chance to get to know Toye better when he spoke at the European Speechwriter Network conference, which I chaired, in Brussels in September. Roar of the Lion is now available in the U.S., and is a smart addition to your speechwriting and public speaking bookshelf. Want to dive into archival material yourself? Check out the Churchill Archive, a major resource put to good use in this fine book.

(European Speechwriter Network photo)

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