Channeling Churchill

According to a definitive new biography about Winston Churchill, one of his many remarkable achievements was an insightful article about “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” which he wrote at the age of 23 (!!) and practiced diligently and with great success for the rest of his life.  Churchill identified five important elements of good oratory and written prose: (1) precision in the use of words (don’t settle for a good word; find one that excites the mind); (2) pay close attention to the sound and rhythm of the words (there should be a musical cadence and balance to your prose); (3) create an expectation for your conclusions at the outset and build your argument to a climax; (4) use analogies and metaphors for clarification and emphasis; (5) use hyperbole (carefully) to arouse your listeners’ or readers’ emotions.  Examples of these five elements can be found in any one of Churchill’s stirring World War Two speeches.

There are a number of other rhetorical techniques that Churchill and countless other writers have employed over the years as well.  They include:  Creating an expectancy and tension at the beginning of each sentence that is satisfied only at the very end; using alliterations for emphasis, and don’t stop at two if your point is an important one; using paradoxes, puns, contradictions, irony and other verbal firecrackers to help make your point and keep your audience awake; using humor, mockery, ridicule and perhaps even a joke to enliven your message, especially if you are being confrontational or communicating unwelcome information; using repetition to underscore your main take-home message; and, all-important, knowing your audience.

The art of boiling things down to a pithy saying is even more challenging, rather like the discipline of writing poetry instead of prose.  Here is a sampler, inspired by Churchill’s legacy:

On Donald Trump:

On liars and Lying:

  • A man who lies to himself is likely to be a fool; a man who lies to others is likely to be dangerous.
  • There’s an old saying, “a fool and his money are soon parted.”  It could also be said that a fool and the truth are soon parted.
  • If you use lies to guide your actions, reality is likely to punish you for it.
  • Lying is a tool that would-be dictators use to gain political power and, afterward, how they seek to maintain it.  But they are all mortal.  Posterity will remember -- and will have the last word.
  • It has been called “Foxlandia.” It’s a foreign country where the truth goes to die and where fake news multiplies like cancer cells.
  • Churchill famously observed that “In wartime, the truth is so precious she should always be protected by a bodyguard of lies.”  He would likely have added that, in peacetime, the truth must be protected by a bodyguard of laws.       

On Trump’s foul mouth:

  • There’s less to Trump than meets the eye, and much less than meets the ear.
  • Of Trump it can be said that his bite is worse than his bark.  Whenever he opens his mouth, you know there is much worse yet to come.
  • Trump’s verbal outbursts are so toxic that his tongue would serve him better if it were tied.

On old age:

On social media:

  • Whatever happened to that old saying, “If you don’t have something useful to say you should not say anything at all”?  If all those twitter twits would follow this advice, imagine how quiet and serene the Internet would be. 
  • Tweedle dum, tweedle tweet.  And please delete the re-tweet!  

Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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