When you think of great orators, Winston Churchill has to be near the top of the list. His speeches include
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. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.
I can’t imagine anyone finding them not stirring and inspirational even so far removed from the situation in which he spoke them.
This great orator’s impediment
It turns out, according to Wikipedia’s page on Churchill, that he stuttered growing up. He stuttered. Meaning he faced an impediment directly conflicting with what he later become one of the all-time greats in.
Many authors writing in the 1920s and 1930s, before sound recording became common, mentioned Churchill’s stutter in terms such as ‘severe’ or ‘agonising’ and Churchill described himself as having a “speech impediment” which he worked to overcome. His dentures were specially designed to aid his speech (Demosthenes’ pebbles). After many years of public speeches carefully prepared not only to inspire, but also to avoid hesitations, he could finally state, “My impediment is no hindrance“.
The page qualifies this point, saying some say he didn’t stutter, but still had a speech impediment: “the Churchill Centre, however, flatly denies the claim that Churchill stuttered, while confirming that he did have difficulty pronouncing the letter S and spoke with a lisp as did his father.”
Either way, he overcame what many would consider a non-starter for giving speeches to become one of history’s great orators, to say nothing of his other leadership skills.
What this means to you and me
How many of us don’t try for greatness or complacently decide we have limitations that prevent us from greatness or even meaningful potential?
Of course, only a few people per generation reach the potential of a Churchill, but just to improve our lives and skills to lead ourselves and others makes overcoming would-be impediments worth the effort. Having historical models who break our mental models enables us to surpass limitations we might otherwise accept.
Wikipedia turns out to have a page listing stutterers I stumbled on while writing this post. I know almost nothing about stuttering, but I know you wouldn’t associate it with great oration. Yet look at some of the people who achieved greatness specifically in areas related to voice:
- James Earl Jones
- Hugh Grant
- Samuel Jackson
- Harvey Keitel
- Marilyn Monroe
- Julia Roberts
- James Stewart
- Bruce Willis
- Joe Biden
- Jack Welch
The page lists many others, but these stand out to me for their area of success requiring great speaking ability.
What would-be impediments are you allowing to hold you back?