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Monday, May 21, 2012

5 Writing Tips from Winston Churchill

By Clare Lynch

I’ve talked before about Winston Churchill’s gift for language. Here’s a great example of an inspiring speech he gave to get Great Britain behind its 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 honor.
“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.”
Here’s why it works:

1. He gets straight to the point.

“The news from France is very bad.” Imagine if every corporate writer with bad tidings was as upfront as Churchill.

More typical is the CEO whose email announces 1,400 redundancies and begins with this cheery bit of corporate speak:
“Today we announce a multi-year program that will enhance service excellence and innovation, help achieve greater operating efficiencies and position us for accelerated growth.”
Lesson: If you have to deliver bad news, don’t warm up to your theme. The wait only makes things more painful. Worse, never try to make the news seem good.

2. He doesn’t flinch from the truth.
 
Churchill is 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 fudge a scary message like that. He or she might say:
“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 offers no doubt about the consequences of giving in to Hitler.

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

Compare it with this bit of abstract biz-babble from the 2010 annual report of a now-defunct company that, ironically, sold visual images—Kodak. Like Churchill’s speech, it talks about the consequences of failure, but in a much more abstract way.
“If we fail to identify and complete successful 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.
 
I ran Winston’s speech through an online tool that measures readability. It highlights any words with three syllables or more in blue. Here’s what it looks like: 



Here’s what the abstract 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 to leave full-time education to understand the text. Churchill’s figure is 9.698. The figure for Kodak is 26.95.

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

5. He makes his verbs do the work.
 
Churchill peppered his prose with simple, yet powerful, verbs that convey an 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 world.

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


 
Clare Lynch is chief business writer and trainer at Doris and Bertie, a U.K. communications agency that helps businesspeople ditch corporate-speak and talk like human beings. Follow her on Twitter @goodcopybadcopy.
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