What Churchill taught us about storytelling

Churchill may not have had fancy modern technology to tell his tales, but he utterly mastered the basics, says Cirrus's Jenny Perkins.

by Jenny Perkins
Last Updated: 05 Mar 2018
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Down to business

Gary Oldman turns in an outstanding performance playing Churchill in The Darkest Hour. Watching Oldman deliver the famous ‘Fight them on the beaches’ speech to the House of Commons, I was struck by how much modern business leaders could learn from both the content and the delivery of this remarkable address.

Today we have a whole host of visual and digital tools to help bring our stories to life. Churchill, of course, had none of these. While MPs could see him in the Commons, most people listened to his speeches on a crackly wireless. Because he was a master storyteller, he could create pictures with carefully-chosen words, powerfully delivered. 

We hear a lot about the importance being bold, brave and authentic in business today. Churchill understood this. He was not afraid to be a voice of dissent and to stand his ground. Often described as fundamentally flawed, he made mistakes but remained true to his unwavering vision.

Many of us may feel we’re faced with tough decisions, but let’s face it – it doesn’t get much tougher than standing alone against Nazi Germany.

So next time you’re wondering how best to communicate some challenging news, think about the storytelling techniques Churchill used to engage a whole nation. Your message may not be of the same magnitude, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two from the great man.

Be honest

Authenticity is a highly-prized asset, and Churchill was open about the very real threat of Nazi invasion. It was by no means certain that Britain would overcome that threat, and Churchill urged people to prepare themselves for ‘every kind of brutal and treacherous manoeuvre’.

The lesson? When facing a threat, there really is no point in trying to pretend everything is going to be okay. People will respect you as a leader if you are upfront about the challenges ahead.

Be inspiring 

Churchill pulled off the tremendous feat of being truly inspirational in the face of a very real threat. He did not say that Britain would win, but he did say that Britain would never surrender, which stoked a great sense of national pride. 

The lesson? If you can communicate a clear sense of purpose and direction, you are more likely to take people with you, no matter what difficulties you face.

Be yourself

Although Churchill is regarded as a great orator, his delivery was often monotonous or mumbling, without the obvious passion of crowd-rousing leaders such as Martin Luther King. Often we assume that all great leaders need to be tremendously charismatic, but not all of us are, and not all of us need to be. Churchill did not try and be someone he wasn’t – he was resolutely himself at all times.

The lesson? By being yourself, even if that means being vulnerable at times, you will connect more powerfully with the people around you.

Be inclusive

Churchill spoke to everyone in the country when he said that Britain would fight in France, on the seas and oceans, in the air, in the fields and streets, in the hills, and, of course, on the beaches.  With each repetition of ‘we will fight them…’ he engaged different groups of people.

The lesson? Different ‘hooks’ will motivate different people. Think about who you’re talking to, and think about what’s important to them. As Churchill demonstrated, you can adapt the same message for different groups of people in one piece of communication. 

Although Churchill’s ‘beaches’ speech was delivered in 1940, the storytelling techniques he used to convey his message are highly relevant today. He captivated and motivated his audience, and ultimately succeeded in taking people with him on a very challenging journey, even though the destination was by no means assured. In today’s uncertain world, focusing on being honest, inspiring, authentic and inclusive will always be valued and respected by the people around you.

Jenny Perkins is head of engagement at Cirrus.

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