To this day, Their Finest Hour remains one of the most impactful speeches in history. Discover why this is the case.
When the Germans ran over Europe with a seemingly unstoppable force, neighbouring countries quickly fell one by one. At one point, it looked like all hopes lay in the hands of the French and the British.
It was in this dark moment that Winston Churchill held the most powerful speech in the country’s history. A 36-minute speech that lifted the people’s spirits and reignited their hope in a better tomorrow.
Churchill’s rhetorical prowess gave not just the UK but the whole world one of the most famous war speeches of all time. So, what is so powerful about the speech?
Before we go into a thorough analysis of Churchill’s speech, it’s important to understand the setting.
After the fall of many European nations, France and the UK had to do everything in their power to prevent total capitulation. At one point, it looked as if they were on the right track. Uniting their armies and resources, the two countries had a big numerical advantage.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough. After circumventing the Maginot Line, the Germans managed to get into France and destroy thousands of British and French troops. After Paris fell, the UK decided to stand up to the German force by sending its army to the front line. However, their attempts failed miserably.
To say that the British faced catastrophic consequences would be an understatement. With scarce resources, they lived in the underground subway systems to survive the bombing of London.
In this moment of terror, the people needed to see something different or they would be ready to force the government into making a deal with Germany. It materialised in one man who managed to get into the people’s hearts and minds.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill held a number of memorable speeches during World War II and beyond. Perhaps none more influential than Their Finest Hour. Let’s go over the reasons why.
Churchill used various oratory techniques that made Their Finest Hour incredibly impactful. Logos is one of the most prevalent. Appealing to people’s logical thinking makes them see why a certain point makes sense. Take a look at the following sentence from the speech:
‘Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.’
Rather than just painting a picture, this part of the speech explains why fighting back is a logical choice. The fact that the British people now understand what Hitler needed to win the war gives them an advantage. This gives them a sense of empowerment necessary for survival.
In addition, Churchill presented some historical facts about the UK’s triumph over the Germans. He pointed out to the logistical issues standing in the way of a German ground invasion of Britain. All of this helped to rewire the people’s thinking patterns and give them a more optimistic approach.
Pathos is a cornerstone of every speech. It appeals to emotions that you want to evoke in people in order to move them in a certain way. For Churchill, there were two emotions that he targeted: fear and hope. This might seem contradictory, as you might think that fear is the last thing the British needed in this situation.
However, it’s exactly the opposite. Churchill knew how to evoke the right kind of fear. One that would move the people instead of paralysing them. Here’s a line that embodies this invocation of fear perfectly:
‘What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin’.
The fear triggered the fight-or-flight response in the listeners. This line, like many others, served the purpose of steering the nation in the direction of ‘fight’. It gave the people a reason to stand up to the Germans instead of waving the white flag.
In a similar fashion, Churchill built hope into their minds. This was especially apparent near the end of the speech, which we’ll get into further down.
When a speaker shows that they understand or share the audience’s ethos, it’s an appeal to credibility. This is something that you can incorporate in your speech. Since the people trusted Churchill, he had no trouble doing this. He used ethos to both give the people hope and let them see that he’d hold himself accountable for the actions under his control.
This is apparent in the part of the speech where Churchill talks about the British Navy:
‘Some people seem to forget that we have a Navy. We must remind them. For the last thirty years I have been concerned in discussions about the possibilities of oversea invasion, and I took the responsibility on behalf of the Admiralty, at the beginning of the last war, of allowing all regular troops to be sent out of the country.’
This gave the people more confidence in the outlook of the war and let them know they’re in good hands. Add to this Churchill’s already high credibility and you can see why the people took everything he said to heart.
Reminding the audience of past experiences that produced desired results is a good way to reinforce confidence. It supports your claims and makes everything you say more believable.
This is what Churchill did to further strengthen the hope that Britain would win the war. He reminded the British people of what happened in World War I when the Allied Powers managed to win the war against all odds.
He reinforced the similarity of the two. In World War I, the Allied Powers suffered loss after loss. This created an atmosphere of fear and despair, not unlike the current situation of the British. And yet, they emerged victorious.
In addition to logos, this serves the purpose of showing the people that victory isn’t wishful thinking. It is but a rational assumption that has the backing of evidence.
Churchill also uses strong contrasts that serve multiple purposes. First of all, there are many instances when he frames the war as ‘good vs evil’. This appeals to the happy ending found in many such stories. Consequently, it convinces the people to resist the enemy.
5. Complex Structure
Churchill’s speech was so much more than a pep talk. The emotional component is one of many that made the speech legendary. Moreover, it’s the blend of contrasting techniques that gave it such power.
If you hear the speech, you’ll notice that Churchill uses a very formal tone. Not many speakers are able to inject it with such a strong emotional charge. Churchill did it by embedding pathos and ethos in his points.
At the same time, he informed, encouraged, and moved the people to come out of hiding and fight. Through the use of metaphors and analogies, he managed to add strong emotion to every vital part of the speech.
6. Powerful Ending
The ending of a story or speech is crucial especially when the goal is to invite the audience to take action. If you don’t wrap up the key points of your story, you risk losing its entire appeal.
Take a look at the last sentence of Churchill’s speech:
‘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.’
The ‘finest hour’ phrase and its packed power give the speech its perfect final punch. After using various techniques to appeal to the people’s reason and emotion, Churchill gives one last call to action that exudes courage and strength.
It gave the people the things that they needed the most: encouragement and hope.
In the few last sentences of the speech, he makes a strong argument that the world will ‘sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age’ if they lose the war. Here we see one last exhibit of pathos before he uses it to make the people get up and fight for their future.
The Final Word
What entrenched Churchill’s speech in history is everything that happened afterwards. As he predicted, the Battle of Britain started three weeks after the speech, with the army spurred on by the power of his words. Thanks in part to the speech, the British people outlasted continuous German bombarding.
Five years later, the UK and its allies won the war, and Churchill’s promise of a free word came to life.
There are so many things that a speaker from Winston Churchill and his unparalleled rhetorical abilities. It’s always a good idea to go through his speeches to see what makes them so powerful.
Speakers Institute can help you create speeches that truly move the listeners. Here’s what you can do: