Five things Winston Churchill can teach writers

Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) English: Winst...

Although Winston Churchill made mistakes his communication skills were second to none

A great post from Clare Lynch on Ragan’s PR Daily looks at the speech Winston Churchill made after the fall of France during the Second World War.

This was one of the lowest points for Britain during the war and Churchill doesn’t sugar coat the pill.

Lynch wisely uses the speech as a lesson for managers and executives steering them away from the corporate double-speak which inspires no-one and leaves everyone confused.

Churchill was a great communicator. If you need help polishing your writing or speeches, get in touch with me. I can help.

5 writing tips from Winston Churchill

My next step overcoming public speaking fear

Speaking to huge audiences on the radio was an important step to overcoming my fear of public speaking.

It is one thing to speak to a microphone and one or two others in a studio. Standing in front of a crowd or on a stage is something else entirely.

I cracked it by starting out small:

  • a small crowd,
  • a short talk
  • and an easy topic.

My first official public speaking engagement was for a local computer company in Wellington, New Zealand. The company had regular evening events with food and drink for its customers and would invite speakers.

The company’s managing director asked me to talk for about 20 minutes on my work as a technology journalist. I can talk on this subject about for hours.

Thankfully, the audience was unintimidating, maybe 25 or so people and the mood was friendly.

When I finished a discussion started which went on for almost another hour – I didn’t realise until afterwards that I chaired the discussion keeping things moving along when it flagged. I just did what came naturally.

Over the next few months I had a few similar speaking engagements, the audiences remained small, but the session length and topics would be quite different. After around five or six events I was comfortable enough to tackle a larger crowd.

Plantronics Savor M1100 bluetooth headset

Crossposted on intensified

Plantronics Savor M1100

Plantronics Savor M1100

Weighing in at just 9g, the NZ$149 Plantronics Savor M1100 is the lightest Bluetooth headset I’ve seen. It is also the most comfortable. The headset is so light there are times when you can forget you are wearing it.

Savor M1100 is small enough to carry in your pocket when it isn’t in use and its elegant triangular design doesn’t make you feel like a prat if you’re seen in public with it stuck on your ear.

Plantronics has done a great job with the audio quality. I’ve not used a better sounding headset.

Crisp and clear sound

Although the three built-in microphones are a long way from your mouth, the sound quality at the other end is crisp and clear. When asked, people I spoke to heard me better than when I use my phone’s microphone. Plantronics says the three microphones provide better noise reduction, although there’s no active noise reduction circuitry.

Listening to music from a smartphone on the headset is possible – in mono. I found the quality is good enough for, say, a short bus ride. The headset comes packaged with a charger and its own USB cable.

Connecting to a smartphone is straightforward – a robot voice tells you when you are connected. There is a limited set of voice activated controls, you click a button and have ten minutes to utter a command. There’s also a volume control and an on-off button.

Vocalyst software

Plantronics has packaged its Bluetooth headset with a cloud-like service called Vocalyst. The basic service is free for two years, while a pro version costs money from the outset.

Vocalyst allows you to connect to information services like news or weather reports and have information read out to you. Each time you contact a service you make a phone call.

Plantronics’ sales pitch is that you’ll have plenty of call minutes on your mobile phone plan. This may apply overseas. Here in New Zealand where we pay through the nose for mobile calls that is not a great argument, especially when you can get the same information via mobile data at a fraction of the cost.

Vocalyst is an innovative and interesting idea. It just doesn’t cut the mustard at the moment. Still it is early days and this is just the first iteration.


Putting the Vocalyst service aside, this is the best Bluetooth headset I’ve seen. I recommend it.

When journalists quote

In journalism quotes tell readers information isn’t made up by a reporter, but is someone’s account or opinion.

Not all quotes are equal. The best come directly from an interviewee’s speech and faithfully reproduced. In electronic media these are obvious – you see or hear the person in question saying their own words.

With written media, quotes are either direct or indirect. Direct quotes are shown inside speech marks and are more or less exactly the interviewee’s words.

I say “more or less exactly” because many journalists, myself included, tidy up, taking out the hesitations, the ums and the ahs. This is perfectly OK. What isn’t acceptable is putting words in someone’s mouth – words they didn’t use.

We edit – often the reader only sees part of an interview. It wouldn’t be practical to include every word.

Journalists use indirect quotes to simplify and summarise an interviewee’s words, they improve readability.

Most quotes you see in written media come from interviews. Some come from prepared statements.

Organisations use prepared statements to control their message rather than answering pesky questions from nosey journalists whose job is to extract the truth not parrot propaganda.

Prepared statements don’t read like human speech. For some reason people think robotic English makes them sound more sincere or knowledgeable. Often the reverse is true.

Journalists don’t always make it clear when they repeat prepared statements. This isn’t dishonesty. It happens because constantly telling readers where information comes from quickly gets boring.

On the other hand, journalists shouldn’t pull the wool over reader’s eyes.

I tell my readers when a quote is from a statement when I’m writing a news story or feature, but not if I’m writing a two paragraph snippet. Most of the time I also tell readers if a quote is from an emailed response – which may have been written by committee.

There’s a fine line between full disclosure and boring readers. But if the story is controversial or important, take the risk and be candid.

What to do when an interviewee talks like a robot

Interviews are the best way to quickly collect information for any kind of writing.

As a freelance journalist I interview people every day.

Interviews work because other people’s words are livelier and more interesting than long passages of descriptive prose.

Most interviews go well. The best interviewees know their stuff and express ideas clearly. They sound human. That is, they talk like real people using everyday language.

Some interview subjects are anything but human. They sound like automatons.

Nervous interviewees hide behind jargon and officialese because they feel safer or because they, wrongly, think it makes them sound smarter. They may not be confident using their own words.

Another reason is media training. Some interviewees learn or prepare ‘canned’ statements designed to stay “on message”. In some cases a communications professional is standing in the wings.

They sound like they are reading from a prepared document. Sometimes they are.

I’ve three techniques for helping interviewees sound human:

  1. Let them get the canned statements off their chest first. Take notes – this could be all you get. Then ask them questions which get them to say the same things again. They are more likely to speak like humans second-time around. If this doesn’t work, I’ve found even Daleks run out of resistance when you go back for a third try.
  2. Play dumb, get them to explain jargon. Some interviewers fear this because they worry it makes them look stupid. Don’t worry; you can look smart when your copy appears explaining difficult ideas in understandable English. If it really bothers you, say something like: “I understand what it means, but my readers aren’t familiar with the term”.
  3. Put them at ease. Often interview subjects are tense before the interview. Once they think they have delivered the key message in their corporate language they often relax. When this happens chat about their words, go over points casually– but keep your eyes and ears open. If you use a microphone leave it running.
    Once the show is over, interview subjects drop back into human form. I’ve had interviews where the best words came travelling down in the lift or even while unlocking my car to drive home.