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 inspire 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 female 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 “coolfunnyquotes.com” 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.