Two of the greatest orators of the last century were enemies. One wanted to create a Reich to last a thousand years. The other, to lift his people facing defeat. Both held surprisingly similar views on the power of oratory, of the spoken word.
Hitler in his autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf, wrote :
“I know that men are won over less by the written than by the spoken word, that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great orators and not to great writers.”
Churchill, in his novel, Savrola, (the central character is a self-portrait) writes:
“Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world.”
Not surprisingly both spent years of their lives studying, preparing, and rehearsing oratory to ‘win’ over their very different audiences. The Germans to suspend all doubt, to follow the Fuhrer; the British to ‘never surrender.’
Hitler, unlike Churchill, was a natural orator, initially rousing fervour in the small beer halls of Munich. However, to fulfil his dream of converting mass audiences who would respond to his personal charisma, he would need to perform in huge arenas. This called for a different level of practice and rehearsal.
He studied Wagnerian opera stars, to emulate their command of a stage, and their dramatic gestures. He understood his body language, his naked emotion, and sense of raw power was key to capturing his audience, more than his words. Every facial expression was practiced with the help of a photographer, taking hundreds of thousand shots to identify the strongest, the most compelling gestures, the optimal body movements. He would then rehearse these endlessly to a mirror.
He wrote the speeches himself, often rewriting five times, working through the night. He would practice them out loud, as secretaries edited changes, from the always quiet opening to the screaming crescendo of (apparent or real?) rage. He practiced the silences, the pauses, keeping the crowd waiting in suspense. He was ‘a rhetorical genius of not talking.’ Above all, he kept the messages simple.
He was a showman, and like today’s superstars on tour, his speeches were rehearsed and choreographed to extract maximum audience response. Audiences in their thousands, searchlight displays, dramatic stage entrances , heroic choreography, “I gradually transformed myself into a speaker for mass meetings [and] I became practiced in the pathos and the gestures which a great hall, with its thousands of people, demands.”
Did this rehearsal pay off? With 5000 speeches in ten years, Hitler turned a party with a mere 3% of the vote into the Government party. In the words of Dr Joseph Goebbels “He rouses the tired and lazy, fires up the indifferent and the doubting, turns cowards into men and weaklings into heroes.”
Winston Churchill was not a natural orator, but he made a lifelong study of rhetoric and the art of public speaking. He read widely ranging across the ancient Greek classics to Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, William Gladstone, and Oliver Cromwell. He often saw his father, leader of the House of Commons and a renowned orator, in action.
Aged just 23 he wrote, but never published, a paper titled The Scaffolding of Rhetoric. It’s five principles still hold good. In summary: Correct diction. Use “the best possible word . . . short, homely words . . . so long as such words can fully express the speaker’s thoughts and feelings.” Rhythm. ‘Create a rhythmic flow of sounds with long, rolling, sonorous sentences and balanced phrases.’ Accumulation of argument, ‘leading the audience convincingly to the climax by a rapid succession of waves of sound and vivid pictures”. Analogy. “Apt analogies are among the most formidable weapons of the rhetorician.” Extravagance of language. “Some expression must be found that will represent all they are feeling.”
Putting these principles into practice was a challenge for Churchill. He suffered speech impediments of both a stammer and a lisp. A throat specialist advised that only practice and perseverance would help. He practised diligently, rehearsing aloud “The Spanish ships I cannot see since they are not in sight” to stop stumbling over words starting with ‘s’. He spoke as often as possible, and even though the lisp persisted, he overcame his nervousness and inhibition.
He wrote all his own speeches, some 3000 of them in 55 years. Typically, he would do several handwritten drafts, before having them typed up in a manner that helped delivery, with breaks in sentences to indicate the deliberate pauses, or the changes in tempo and emphasis. He rehearsed aloud, often in front of a mirror, practising every aspect of delivery, from tone and pace to body language and expression. As he practiced, he was always seeking ways to project his unique personality, his character and sense of purpose to best engage with his audience. In his words:
‘His ideas began to take the form of words, to group themselves into sentences; he murmured to himself, the rhythm of his own language swayed him; instinctively he alliterated. . . That was a point; could not tautology accentuate it? The sound would please their ears, the sense improve and stimulate their minds.’
Did his rehearsal pay off? He was awarded a Nobel Prize for his writings and ‘brilliant oratory.’ We did not surrender.