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Words Like Loaded Pistols: Wartime Rhetoric

Rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, is an ancient topic that’s no less relevant today. We are in a golden age of information sharing, which means you are swimming in a pool of rhetoric every day, whether you realize it or not.

The book Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith is one tool to help navigate our choppy waters. Leith does an impressive job of unpacking rhetorical concepts while also providing all the knowledge and nuance required to be a powerful speaker.

The book is laid out beautifully, with sections entitled ‘Champions of Rhetoric,’ in which he dissects the work of some of the most famous orators. The chapter comparing Adolf Hitler to Winston Churchill is particularly interesting. 

Churchill

Churchill was a prolific speaker: Between 1900 and 1955 he averaged one speech a week. (That’s 2,860 speeches for those who like math). And they were not just speeches; They carried some of the most famous sayings produced in the twentieth century:

Among the phrases he minted were ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat,’ ‘their finest hour,’ ‘the few,’ ‘the end of the beginning,’ ‘business as usual,’ ‘iron curtain,’ ‘summit meeting,’ and ‘peaceful coexistence.’

While this impressive resume and history solidified his place on the throne of oratory excellence, it’s important to note that he wasn’t a “born speaker” — in fact he made many mistakes. And he learned. 

Like many of us, Churchill would even get nervous to the point of nausea before addressing the public. To counter this he engaged in deliberate practiceHe would rehearse his speeches in the mirror, modify them as needed, and scribble meticulous notes including pauses and stage direction. In other words, one of history’s great orators painfully engaged himself in a process of trial, error, and practice

To shape himself as an orator he learned by heart the speeches of Disraeli, Gladstone, Cromwell, Burke, and Pitt. Churchill combined their example with his father Randolph’s gift for invective. But he added something of his own – and it was this that helped tether his high style to something more conversational. He was a master of the sudden change of register – a joke, or a phrase of unexpected intimacy.

Stylistically, Churchill was known for building up to a great crescendo and then suddenly becoming gentle and quiet. Students of rhetoric recognize this as a device to keep your audience engaged, to surprise it. The joking and intimacy showed his prowess with another important rhetorical device, ethos.

Ethos is about establishing a connection with your audience. A joke can help with this because humor is often based on joint assumptions and beliefs; sharing a laugh with someone tends to make us feel closer to them. It’s human nature to gravitate towards those people who are like us (see the principles of influence). 

Yet, for all the aspects of the ethos appeal which Churchill got right, on more than one occasion he didn’t judge his audience well and was unable to persuade them.

When he was an MP in 1935, his colleague Herbert Samuel reported, ‘The House always crowds in to hear him. It listens and admires. It laughs when he would have it laugh, and it trembles when he would have it tremble… but it remains unconvinced, and in the end it votes against him.’

Much like today, in Churchill’s time parliament was designed for a type of call and response dialogue, not a grand soapbox type speech that he was so fond of.

Leith argues that if it wasn’t for the war, Churchill might have never found his audience and surely would have been remembered much differently, if at all.

The thing about Churchill was that, like the stopped clock that’s right twice a day, he occupied one position and waited for the world to come to him. He spend much of his political career predicting the imminent end of Western civilization — and it was only by the damnedest good luck that it happened to be on his watch that it suddenly appeared to be coming about. If not, he might have been remembered as a self-aggrandizing windbag with an old-fashioned speaking style and a love of the sound of his own voice.

But when the country really was under threat, Churchill’s fierce certainties were what an anxious audience wanted, while his style — steeped in the language of the previous centuries — seemed to encapsulate the very traditions that he was exhorting them to fight for. What at another time might have been faults became rhetorical strengths. That, you could say, is kairos writ large.

What does that last phrase “kairos” mean? It’s all about timing and fit:

As a rhetorical concept, decorum encompasses not only the more obvious features of style, but kairos, or the timeliness of a speech, the tone and physical comportment of the speaker, the commonplaces and topics of argument chosen, and so on. It is a giant umbrella concept meaning no more nor less than the fitting of a speech to the temper and expectations of its audience.

You could argue that the war needed Churchill and that Churchill needed the war. And unlike conflicts of the past, he also had access to the public like no other leader had before. You didn’t need to crowd into a square to hear Churchill speak, you needed to only turn on the radio.

One of the virtues of Churchill’s wartime rhetoric, however, was that whatever his peers in the House of Commons thought, he was able to speak — as politicians a generation before had not been able to — directly to the public through the wireless.

After delivering many of his key speeches in the Commons, Churchill read them out on the radio. Here, that presidential style — all that gruffness and avunicularity all those rumbling climaxes — was able to take full effect without being interrupted by rustling order papers and barracking Opposition MPs. He was pure voice.

Churchill indeed was pure of voice, but there was another loud voice in this conflict: Adolf Hitler. When it came to speaking, the two shared many things in common, but their differences were just as noticeable.

Hitler

Hitler understood the power of words: He saw them as a tool which he needed to master if he wanted to achieve his goals. He had a strong vision which he believed in passionately and he knew that he needed his people to share that passion if he was to succeed.

From Mein Kampf:

The power which has always started the greatest religious and political avalanches in history has been, from time immemorial, none but the magic power of the word, and that alone. Particularly the broad masses of the people can be moved only by the power of speech… Only a storm of hot passion can turn the destinies of peoples, and he alone can arouse passion who hears it within himself.

It would seem that Hitler associated passion with anger, his speeches were known to peak with shouting resembling rage. Even when writing his speeches he would work himself up into a frenzy.

Traudl Junge, the young secretary whose memoir of the last days in the Fuhrerbunker formed the basis for the film Downfall, recalled him composing the speech he gave to mark the tenth anniversary of his dictatorship. He started out mumbling almost inaudibly, and pacing up and down, but by the time his speech reached its crescendo he had his back to her and was yelling at the wall.

Like Churchill, Hitler would often practice in front of a mirror and choreograph the whole performance, but he would take it much further. With an eye for theatrics, he would pay close attention to the acoustics of the venue to accent both his booming voice and the martial music that would accompany him. He was particular about the visuals, with his dramatic lights and placement of flags.

Hitler also used pauses to his advantage. While Churchill would use them mid speech to maintain an audience’s attention or ‘reel them in’, Hitler would use them at the beginning.

It could go on for anything up to half a minute, which is (you’ll know if you’ve tried it) a very, very long time to stand on a stage without saying or doing anything. When he started – which he’d typically do while the applause was still fading out, causing the audience to prick up its ears the more — he would do so at a slow pace and in a deep voice. The ranting was something he built up to, taking the audience with him.

Hitler liked to control every aspect of his performance and paid close attention to those details that others dismissed, specifically the time of day that he gave his speeches (a lesson infomercials learned).

He preferred to speak in the evening, believing that ‘in the morning and during the day it seems that the power of the human will rebel with its strongest energy against any attempt to impose upon it the will or opinion of another. On the other hand, in the evening it easily succumbs to the domination of a stronger will.’

Hitler had a keen interest and insight into human nature. He knew what he needed from the German people and knew the psychological devices to use to sway the masses. He was even cognizant of how his attire would resonate with the population.

While other senior Nazis went about festooned with ribbons and medals, Hitler always dressed in a plain uniform, the only adornment being the Iron Cross First Class that he had won in 1914. That medal, let it be noted, is a token of bravery, not of rank.

This was a calculated move, an appeal to ethos: I am one of you. It was a tricky balance, because he needed to seem like one of the people but also to portray an air of exceptionality. Why else would people follow him if he wasn’t the only one who could do tend to Germany in its time of need?

As a wartime leader, you need to make yourself both of and above your audience. You need to stress the identify of their interests with yours, to create unity in a common purpose. You need, therefore, to cast yourself as the ideal exemplar of all that is best and most determined and most courageous in your people.

As expected, the same type of thing happens in modern politics, which is especially amplified during election time. Everyone is scrambling to seem like a leader of the people and to establish trust while still setting themselves apart from the crowd, convincing us that they are the only person fit for the job.

If you look closely, many of the rhetorical devices examined in Words Like Loaded Pistols are in high use today. Leith discusses a speechwriter for Reagan and one of his Champions of Rhetoric is Obama; these sections of the book are just as interesting as the piece on Churchill and Hitler.

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Still Interested? If you have a fascination with politics and/or Rhetoric (or just want someone to skillfully distill the considerable amounts of information from Ad Herennium and Aristotle’s Rhetoricthen we highly recommend you pick the book up.