Presentation skills: honing them the Winston Churchill way

I while ago, I saw Darkest Hour, which gave me the opportunity to witness Winston Churchill’s amazing ability to craft impactful messages.  A fascinating part of the film was seeing Churchill’s painstaking preparation process. It made me appreciate that brilliance doesn’t come easy – even to the brilliant.

When it comes to presentation skills, brilliance doesn't come easy - even to the brilliant. Share on X

If you want me to speak for two minutes, it will take me three weeks of preparation. If you want me to speak for thirty minutes, it will take me a week to prepare. If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready now. – Winston Churchill

So when it came to offering guidance to help you improve your brand messages, I thought I’d let Mr. Churchill take the podium.

Here are five tips for improving your presentation skills, the Churchill way*.

Start with a bang

From crafting commercials, I came to understand that you needed more than one punchline. In fact, leaving the impactful moment as a reveal in the final frames was a good way to lose viewers. My favourite line from one of my creative mentors – That was a long walk for a short drink.

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If you’re worried that starting with a bang will only lead to an anticlimax later, you haven’t thought through your ‘later’ hard enough. Start big, then show everyone that there’s plenty more to come. Start small, and your audience will mentally wander off, leaving you the unenviable task of herding them back.

If you're worried that starting your speech with a bang will lead to an anticlimax later, you haven't spent nearly enough time focusing on your 'later' Share on X

If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time-a tremendous whack. – Winston Churchill

Speaking of introductions, even personal introductions over LinkedIn can be tricky. Want the perfect LinkedIn cocktail intro? Check this out

Stick to one topic

In marketing communication, as in speeches preparing England for war, focus is essential. People are distracted enough by life – asking them to follow you on several tangents guarantees they won’t follow you at all.

Here, I’d like to point to a brilliant, yet completely miscommunicated product. TiVO.

Feel like you can give all your talking points equal time in the spotlight? Prepare for deep confusion. Just ask the folks who marketed TiVO. Share on X

TiVO was a game changer. It recorded TV content onto the device, making it available on-demand.

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It didn’t require a tape (like VHS machines) and it had advanced features such as recording-settings based on series, actors, or interests.  It could skip commercials and rewind live TV.

The problem? Consumers didn’t understand the one thing that TiVO did that filled a void in their lives. Too many themes and selling points. Too much confusion. TiVO was doomed to marginalization.

Paint a picture in people’s minds

Read the Churchill quote below. Then close your eyes. Can you feel the aching muscles? Can you hear the groaning effort? Can you taste the bitter tears? Can you smell the… well, never mind.

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. – Winston Churchill

When coaching speakers, I hammer home that people will be hard pressed to remember the message being conveyed. What they’ll remember is the journey the speaker took them on. And the best journeys are vivid, multi-sensory affairs.

People don't remember the message you're trying to convey. They remember the multi-sensory journey your story takes them on. Share on X

In advertising, we use the term multi-sensory marketing to describe persuasion that grabs all the senses. You don’t have to look far for examples.

Good real estate agents stage homes, so prospects can actually feel what it’s like to sit in the living room or lie down in the bedroom. Great real estate agents even bake bread in the oven prior to showings, giving an irresistible homey smell to the house.

Multi-sensory marketing can happen anywhere – even in the humble bus shelter poster.  If you don’t believe me, check out these awesome examples. My favourite is the poster that actually lets viewers ‘feel’ the tropical sun.

Use simple language

In this story, author Clare Page ran Churchill’s Finest Hour speech through an online tool that measures readability. The highlighted blue words are complex:

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Compare that to this piece of bafflegab created by Kodak:

Marc Stoiber Brand Strategy

Using a Gunning Fog Index to determine at which age someone would have to leave full-time education to understand the text, Churchill’s figure is 9.698, while the figure for Kodak is 26.95.

Keep it simple.

Finish with a bang

“We shall never surrender!”

If you saw Darkest Hour, you heard Churchill rally the government to a standing ovation with these closing words. As one parliamentarian in the film quipped “We’ve just seen the English language mobilized for battle.”

When it comes to marketing communication, the goal is similar, if less dramatic. You want to rouse your audience to action, challenging them to storm the castle. Or buy stuff, as it were.

In great marketing communication, there's a transfer of power - from you persuading, to the consumer using what you've taught them to act in their own best interest. Share on X

I believe this involves a transfer of power. Up to this point, it’s been your game – informing, persuading, educating. But at the key moment, you need to tell them that you’ve transferred all your wisdom to them, and now it’s their turn. No need to feel afraid or hesitate; the world is their oyster.

Done properly, the audience get a feeling of ‘Yes, we can!’

Want a client to use your power transfer to buy your product from your elevator pitch? Check this out.

Never stop improving your presentation skills

Now, a final thought.

Every message can be improved. As we saw in Darkest Hour, Churchill tweaked his talks incessantly, often fraying the nerves of his handlers.

It may cause stress, but rewrites aren’t a sign of weakness or ineptitude. Quite the contrary. They show you care enough to keep pushing it.

So let’s get to work, shall we?

If you want to accelerate your own presentation training, download my book Your Ultimate Presentation

Want help with your brand message? Then let’s have a chat. Just book a time in my calendar

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*Many thanks to Luke Sullivan and his book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. I first discovered Churchill’s five tips in ‘Whipple’.

This article was originally published on October 12, 2016, and has been updated.


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