Winston Churchill, standup comedian

“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”

For the record—no, Winston Churchill was not actually a standup comedian. He was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II and again in the 1950s. A great writer as well as a great leader, his stirring oratory helped insWinston Churchill, not a standup comedianpire his people to survive the darkest days of the war. Later, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In other words, Sir Winston Churchill knew his way around a sentence. I don’t know when he said the sentence at the beginning of this post—some sources suggest it’s a false attribution—but he died in 1965, so it’s at least half a century old.

Old Winnie probably got a big laugh when he compared a speech to a woman’s skirt. His listeners probably enjoyed the opportunity to think, even for a moment, about the delights of the “subject” a skirt covers.

Oh, those jolly Mad Men days. They didn’t have a monopoly on sexist behavior in the 1960s, but at least they had the decency to veil it in innuendo. Makes today’s political discourse seem like teatime at the convent. But I digress.

Winston Churchill in the 21st Century

Churchill’s quip came to my attention recently when someone I know wrote about it. She’d heard it delivered from the stage (without attribution) last week.

Do I need to add that this happened at a tech conference?

Or that the person writing about it was one of the very few women at the event?

Churchill’s audience probably had a similar composition. Back then, society hadn’t yet embraced the presence or the talents of its female members. (Although one of its female members became Queen during Churchill’s second stint as Prime Minister.) But today is different. Or should be different.

Yet when I Googled the quotation, I found that many editors and aggregators still think it’s relevant and useful. You can find it on a site called “” and in an article called “5 of the Smartest Things Ever Said About Public Speaking.” The author of that article? A woman!

[Shaking my head.]

[Nope, still shaking my head.]

Do I need to explain “humor” to you?

Humor remains an important element for any speech. But make sure it’s relevant to the topic. No one-liners. And do not insult, stereotype, or objectify anyone or any group. Ever. Whether or not you think your audience is 100% free of members of that group. Because speakers should lift people up, not pull them down.

During World War II, Churchill rallied his country not by trash-talking the Nazis, but by celebrating the great, courageous character of his people. That’s the kind of stuff that won him the Nobel Prize, folks—not his sexist “joke” about short skirts.

And one other thing: Speeches only need to be short if they’re boring. Write a good one, deliver it well, and you can keep your audience’s attention. Even without making them think about sex.

“I do not have the dog’s permission.”

How do you write a colorful story? Yes, it helps if you have a colorful subject. And to judge from Claire McNear’s wonderful article in The Ringer, baseball player Ichiro Suzuki is not just one of the few players to enter the 3,000-hit club; he’s also our generation’s Yogi Berra, if Yogi Berra had spoken only through a translator (it might have helped) except when cussing a blue streak.

The quote in the headline here comes from a 2001 press conference in which

…Ichiro said he could not reveal the name of his dog. (The dog must eventually have relented: His name was Ikky.) He also credited his dog with convincing him to stay in Seattle: “He said, ‘Woof, woof, woof,’ which meant, ‘Stay, stay, stay,’ Of course, I listened.”

Clearly Ikky speaks a different language than my Fenway. When Fenway says, “Woof, woof, woof” it generally means, “Dammit, ma! They’re walking that dog next door again.” Then again, she’s never been to Seattle. It’s nice there; I can see why Ikky likes it.

Cleveland, though. Let’s just say the Chamber of Commerce will not be hiring Ichiro anytime soon:

“To tell the truth, I’m not excited to go to Cleveland, but we have to. If I ever saw myself saying I’m excited going to Cleveland, I’d punch myself in the face, because I’m lying.” (2007)

Does baseball attract a larger proportion of colorful characters than other sports? It’s hard to imagine a golfer dissing a location—even Cleveland. And if a football player said his dog’s bark meant don’t accept a trade, he’d probably win a trip to the nearest MRI to check for head trauma.

Fenway Mets

Thanks to Claire McNear for giving me yet another reason to love this crazy game. Or, as Fenway says,


Who said?

“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

I always associated that line with someone in the entertainment business—P.T. Barnum or one of the old Hollywood studio heads. But before I threw it into my recent post about the questions Brian Grazer asks, I thought I’d better Google it. And the answer just knocked me off my feet.

The original source seems to be John Lydgate, a 15th century English monk whose day job involved writing poetry for Kings Henry IV through VI. Working at court, he undoubtedly led a cushier life than he would have in his Benedictine monastery. But it’s a tough gig when you think about it: What rhymes with “Henry”?

So Brother Lydgate coined the phrase but it have resonated most for Americans when someone who knew a thing or two about displeasing people put his own spin on it. No, not P.T. Barnum (well, maybe) or Mark Twain (also maybe, per the internet):

Abraham Lincoln:

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Sadly, he did not say this in a State of the Union address—or anything else we could consider a primary source. According to the interwebs, it appeared in a book called Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories: A Complete Collection of the Funny and Witty Anecdotes That Made Abraham Lincoln Famous as America’s Greatest Story Teller, written by his biographer, Alexander McClure.

I don’t usually trust those quotation compilations—especially if they’re intended to burnish a legend. But I would definitely use the Lincoln quotation for one of my clients, with the proper caveats.


[sic] ’em

The Universe has a perverse sense of humor. After vacationing my way through the Republican bloodbath convention, I returned home last night eager to grab my knitting and watch the Democrats make history. Sadly, I brought home a souvenir from California – a cold and fever.

I rallied last night long enough to write something about Hillary’s nomination. I posted it over at LinkedIn to bring it to the attention of my professional colleagues. But I’ll post it here too, so you can have something topical to read with your morning coffee.


Early in my career, I wanted to learn all about could about presidential speeches. In a world before TED, they were about as high-profile as a speechwriter could get. And the gig attracted the best writers, too. So I read a book called Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds done in words by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

The thing I remember most about this book, published 26 years ago, was its liberal use of “[sic].” We all know that’s Latin for “thus,” right? It’s a disclaimer writers use when we’re quoting something that’s got a mistake in it. Or, as Campbell and Jamieson deployed it, an implict assumption they did not share.

What did they [sic]? Every quotation that referred to presidents as “he.”

It struck me as being very forward-thinking. I mean, yes – in theory presidents did not necessarily have to be male. But for over 200 years they had been. Although I had already voted for a ticket that held out the possibility of a woman Vice President, in the early 1990s it seemed a stretch to imagine a woman running at the top of the ticket, much less winning. As much as I wanted to believe a woman could be elected president, deep inside I didn’t expect it to happen in my lifetime. Campbell and Jamieson clearly had their sights set on their book being read for many generations.

Today in Philadelphia, we got one step closer to electing a woman to the highest office in the nation. One step closer to writing [sic] into our history books.