The principles of Speaking and Listening

James Humes is a former speech writer for US presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, and dozens of top business executives. Humes himself is a popular speaker, delivering more tan 100 talks a year.

Humes teaches The Sir Winston Method It is based on the speaking principles carefully laid out by the former British prime minister whom Humes calls the great public speaker of our age.

Most CEOs and senior executives violate all of the speaking canons of Churchill, he says. The result is expected. Most of their speeches are incredibly boring.

Churchill’s five basic principles of speaking according to Humes are:

Open with as bang: Too many speeches die before they begin. You still have executives opening up by telling the audience, what a pleasure it is to be with them. That’s an amenity reduced to an inanity. Humes says Churchill always got to his point fast. When he took over in 1940, here’s the way he opened: “I speak to you for the first time since I became prime minister, and I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil tears, and sweat”.

Focus on one theme: A speech may have three or four major points, but they should be wrapped up in a single theme such as Peace through Strength says Humes. Churchill suggested that you write the last part of your speech first, so that you know where you are heading. And write out the single most important thing you want to communicate.

Keep the language simple: Churchill hated stilted language, says Humes. Stuffy syntax and the use of self important words can rob power from a speech. Churchill he says used lots of dashes and dots in his speeches to be sure they were simple.

Use analogies and illustrations: Churchill was a painter so he tried to paint pictures when he spoke. Humes says, he knew that words such as depreciation, balanced budget and undercapitalization go straight into one ear and out through the other. A word like pollution doesn’t do much, but when you describe the feeling of taking a bloated trout out of a muddy river, the idea of pollution hits home. To help convey the meaning of the word tyranny, Churchill coined the term Iron Curtain.

Make the conclusion emotional or dramatic: CEOs have big trouble with endings, says Humes. They should see the ending as their last chance to stress the message. If you don’t hit your dominant theme strongly when you close, your audience may not grasp your real message. Humor should never be used at the end or beginning, but should be slipped into the middle. Humor must always be seen as a matter of surprise.

Humes does not buy the theory that speeches should be memorized. Churchill read all his major speeches and they were so powerful that they are credited with helping save a nation on the brink of defeat, he says. Good speakers read from notes. Great speakers read their speeches because memorable and quotable lines do not emanate for their brief notes. The lines have been carefully crafted.


Listening is giving attention to someone who is talking or to a sound that you can hear.

Most people, even under favorable conditions, are said to hear only about 25%; sometimes there is hardly 10% listening. The favorable conditions for listening are:

1) The listener liking the person talking
2) Some interest on the part of the listener in the subject
3) The speaker making it easy for the audience to listen to him.

People cannot give their interest and undivided attention for long periods. The attention span for most people is 5 minutes.

Assuming the speaker has done his job well, the responsibility is then upon the listener, although if he is a conscientious executive, he will always take the onus upon himself and listen carefully, even where it requires a real effort. He cannot afford not to listen.

To listen well to others, you begin by listening to yourself, as you talk you know what you are saying; how you are saying it; and in a short time it will transform itself into a habit of listening to others. It will begin to influence other people, for it may sometimes shock people to discover they are being listened to attentively.

The discipline of listening is very satisfying and brings quick, immediate rewards, and it is largely a matter of conscious effort and practice.


1) Hold a high standard for yourself in all your talking and listening. Try and say nothing less than your best.
2) Set yourself a regular program for your own improvement

Listen appreciatively, so that the other person knows you are listening and feels he is being helped.

Help all you can in a committee or conference of which you are a member by being conscientious, interested and co-operative.