Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln: 21 Powerful Secrets of History’s Greatest Speakers by James Humes

Reading Time: 6 minutes


Author and speaker James Humes wrote speeches for five U.S. presidents. Leveraging personal experience, historical anecdotes, and humor, he shares a supremely practical and actionable list of time-tested tips and tricks for becoming a better public speaker. Whether you’re looking to improve your public speaking skills at work or impress audiences on the big stage, this book will help take your speaking to the next level.

Buy this book on Amazon (Highly recommend)

Access My Searchable Collection of 100+ Book Notes

Key Takeaways


“A deliberate pause before you talk adds weight and wisdom to both your actual answer and your audience’s perception of it.”

Instead of jumping right into your talk, let anticipation and tension build as the audience awaits your first words. A powerful pause at the beginning of your talk or at an important inflection can add significant weight to what you have to say.

Opening words

“The prime time of any talk or presentation you give is during your opening words. Everyone in the audience is waiting to see what you look and sound like. Do not waste that psychological edge with trite blather! Go for the Power Opener.”

You have everyone’s full attention at the beginning of your talk. Don’t waste that attention on thank you’s or bland remarks. Say something meaningful from the start.

Time your praise

“Churchill once explained that praise in the beginning of a talk sounds like flattery, whereas the same praise wedged into the middle of the speech comes off as sincerity. He called this delayed appreciation parenthetical praise.”

People expect praise at the beginning of a talk, but by shifting it to the middle of your talk, you can add additional weight and sincerity to your praise.

Dress the part

“Clothes make a statement. The selection of garment should not be casual or by chance.”

Your audience is evaluating both your words and your appearance. So depending on how you want the audience to perceive your message and you, don’t discount the importance of wearing the right clothing. Clothing can make a statement, and it will either work for you or against you.

What’s your message?

“You ought to be able to put your bottom-line message on the inside of a matchbook—before you ever start at your typewriter.”

“The great orator Cato, when asked the secret of his powerful talks in the Roman Senate, said: Find the message first and the words will follow.”

“So before you speak, ask yourself this question: What is my purpose in this power breakfast with a potential investor? This pep talk to the sales force? This talk to the chamber of commerce? Make figuring out your “bottom-line purpose” your first priority. Then meditate, formulate, and dictate to yourself that Power Point.”

Have one central message for your talk. What’s the one thing you want the audience to take away? When you clarify the message, the content will follow. You also will avoid the trap of trying to communicate too many lessons.

Less is more

“Less is more” is an adage that has been identified with architecture and fashion. It’s also a speaking technique that presidents as well as preachers exploit as they build a foundation with words.”

“Terse is far better than tedious! Being short-winded comes off far better than being long-winded.”

Don’t ramble forever. What’s the clearest and most concise way that you can deliver your single message? It may be hard to get to this level of precision, but it’s well worth the effort. Don’t feel the need to fill the time you have. Shorter is often better.

Power brief

“What is a Power Brief? It is the short statement that can be used to replace a speech. Such an abbreviated message is memorable. In fact, brevity is brilliant! And it works whether you are standing before a lectern or sitting at a conference table.”

Determine the one line that sums up your talk. Make sure it’s engaging and powerful.

Using quotes

“This is the first rule in Power Quotes: Don’t refer to any author with whom you are unfamiliar or uncomfortable quoting.”

“The second rule, which I call the ‘General Rule’ is this: The name should be recognizable and the quotations brief.”

If you use a quote in your talk, make sure that you are familiar with the person and that the person is recognizable to your audience. Otherwise, your quote will lose its weight.

Also, feel free to dramatize your quote. Slowly pull out of a piece of paper from your pocket, and read the quote. Make your reading like a performance.

Relate your stat to the audience

“The eighty-year-old white-maned Pound would stride to the lectern. He then would pause as he looked his class over. “Will each of you turn to look at the student to your right?” When they had done so, he would then say, “Now will each of you turn to the student on your left?” After they had all looked, Pound would intone, “One of those students you just looked at will not be returning to Harvard next year.”

Instead of simply reciting an impressive or shocking statistic, find a way to relate that statistic to the audience. In doing so, you can make your audience feel what you are trying to communicate. In doing so, the statistic and its importance will endure in their minds.


“The rule is this: If you have to spend a lot of time explaining the slide or exhibit, don’t use it in your talk or presentation. Most visual aids, unless simple and used sparingly, will kill a speech and deaden the attention of the audience.”

Make your slides incredibly simple. Don’t clutter the slide with too many ideas or complex charts. If you don’t follow these rules, you risk boring and losing your audience.


“Aristotle once wrote, “The essence of humor is surprise.” If that is so, why attempt to be funny when everyone is expecting it? Instead, sneak an amusing story into the middle of the talk, when it is sure to provide some sort of comic relief.”

Humor can add a lot to a presentation. Instead of adding it at the beginning of a talk, plant the humor in the middle of a story that people aren’t expecting. The unexpected timing will create the surprise that it at the heart of humor.

Find stories in your experience

“Look back on your own experiences. Everyone’s life is a storehouse of stories.”

Starting with your teenage years, begin writing down all of the good, bad, and interesting events of your life. What did you learn from those experiences? How did those experiences shape your thoughts, actions, and behaviors? What were the most transformative moments in your life?

When you have a bank of stories to pull from, you’ll be able to draw from your experience to convey your message in a more inspiring and engaging way.

Power of gestures

“At the tavern, Washington did not shake hands. Instead, he stopped by each officer, engaged the man’s eyes, and then nodded. Then he passed on to the next. Some officers recorded in their diaries that it was the most meaningful moment in their life.”

When relevant, use a gesture to convey something in a unique and powerful way. For example, consider looking every audience member in the eye before beginning your talk.

Body language matters

“Bill Clinton survived and prevailed because of his superb skills of projecting sincerity and commitment. He did this not with what he said but with how he said it.”

Study the art of body language. Identify strengths in your natural body language, and double down on them. If you have a great smile, use it. If you have a deep gaze that people get lost in, use it. People look to your physical cues more than you might expect.

Don’t speak with your eyes down

“The first rule of effective speaking, Cockrane told both Churchill and Roosevelt, is this: Never, never, never let words come out of your mouth when your eyes are looking down.”

Never look down. It conveys a lack of confidence and takes away from your message.

Lay out your speech like poetry

“When you come to a comma, cut the line off! If your subject is followed by its predicate, don’t separate them. When a preposition is succeeded by its object, don’t dissect the two! Never end a line with “a” or “the.” When you see a period, make sure to call a halt.”

Even if you first write your talk in prose, reformat it so that it reads like a poem once you’re done. When you do this, you’ll find a more compelling rhythm for your talk.

Avoid passive voice

“Passives rob a talk of life and action. They turn the vibrant words of punchy conversation into the pale gray of “governmentese.”

“The active voice provides force to your speech, whereas the passive voice sounds spineless and deadens your delivery.”

The passive voice strips your talk of life and action. The active voice enhances the force of your talk and delivery. Whenever possible, choose the active over the passive voice.

Practice until excited

“You must practice your presentation until your excitement comes through.”

When you first rehearse a talk, you often sound dry and unexcited. Your cognitive energy is expended on trying to remember the main points and to communicate without messing up. But once you practice enough, find ways to bring life back to your talk. When you’re excited, your audience will be excited.

Creating a strong ending

“For such a strong ending, said Churchill, you have to appeal to the emotions—pride, hope, love, and, occasionally, fear. Pride—pride in the company, pride in the community, pride in one’s profession or occupation Hope—a vision for the future, hope for tomorrow, new opportunities, expanded horizons Love—love of family, love of country, love of God Fear—the disaster that might happen if steps are not taken immediately.”

Appeal to qualities or a vision that people want to experience at the end of your talk.

“No matter if your speech is a bit banal and blah, you can still close in a blaze of glory. The last impression is the one most indelibly etched in memory. A dull speech that ends in a dazzle gets more applause than a forceful speech that ends on a flat note.”

Your close matters. It’s what people will remember, and it can help save an otherwise mediocre talk.

Be bold

“Be bold. Act audaciously. Dare to be different.”

How many times will you get the opportunity to speak on stage? How many moments do you have to make a positive dent in this world? Don’t let fear hold you back. Be bold in your words and your actions.

If you want to discover more great books...

If you want the latest book notes in your inbox...