Interpreting Speech Notes

Why are records of speeches and speech notes useful primary sources?

Political speeches often announce plans or address problems that are of immediate concern for the country. Additionally, they give us a sense of a speaker’s position on important issues – often speeches are written far in advance and carefully edited, so we can usually assume that the words were chosen for a good reason. 

We can also learn a great deal about the person giving the speech. The way someone writes and speaks in public gives us a sense of their personality, and the kinds of persuasive devices and rhetoric that an orator employs can provide hints as to their motivations and strategies. We can get a sense of whether the speaker might come across as folksy or aloof, divisive or cooperative, inspiring or dull.

How to interpret speeches

Example

Source: CHAR 9/139A-B image 201

Description: Hansard report of speech, Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat (Winston Churchill’s first speech as PM)

Date: 13 May 1940



Method

1. Think about what this source is

This is a Hansard report (official report of what was said in Parliament) of a speech given by Winston Churchill. It was his first as Prime Minister, delivered just three days after he took office. 

2. Consider the background

When Churchill became Prime Minister, he became leader of a nation at war. Great Britain had declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, and he faced the challenge of leading the country through difficult years of danger and sacrifice. In this first address to Parliament, Churchill speaks to those challenges, and to the kind of courage and resolution that would be required to move solidly toward victory.

3. Consider what surface level information you can interpret from the speech record

Ask yourself:

  • What is the purpose of this speech?
  • Which offices has Churchill already filled?
  • What role will opposition political parties play in this government?
  • What challenges does Churchill allude to in the early part of his term as Prime Minister?
     

4. Consider what deeper level information you can interpret from the speech notes

Ask yourself:

  • What words or phrases stood out as particularly powerful in this speech?
  • Why do you think Churchill was so focused on unity?
  • What is your impression of Churchill as a leader based on this speech?  What five adjectives might you use to describe him?
  • What is the speech intending to achieve? Is it intended to criticize political opponents or designed to garner support for a new program or policy? Is it designed to raise awareness or bring the public together around a common concern?
  • From the speech do you get the impression that Churchill was confident that Britain could win the war? Do you think his real feelings were any different?

Need more help?

  • Because the UK has never had a written constitution there is no single defined way that a government should be formed. Usually, the process is relatively simple. The leader of the political party which has won most constituencies (which sent MPs to Parliament) is summoned by the monarch and asked to form a government. However, this arrangement is flexible, for example when one party does not win the majority of constituencies (usually referred to as seats because the MP sat in Parliament). Although the Conservative Party did have a majority in 1940, the circumstances were extraordinary. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned and the King asked Churchill to become Prime Minister. Churchill then created a National Government. This meant that he included politicians from opposing political parties to take charge of different roles in the government, and to be his ministers in the Cabinet, which Churchill called the War Cabinet. Read an overview of the UK system of government.
  • Some of Churchill's speech notes are typewritten with changes written in by hand, for example CHUR 5/36A/125-127. These are the final draft of the notes which Churchill would have used when actually making the speech. Churchill’s secretaries were trained to set out the words on the page as you can see in the example – like poetry or blank verse. They called this ‘psalm form’. If you try and read the words aloud, the layout on the page might help you get a sense of the pace and rhythm of the speech. However, the main reason for the layout was that it made it easy for Churchill to keep his place – perhaps he ran a finger down the page as he spoke and could glance down for a reminder of where he was in the speech.

How do I interpret other types of primary source?