Gary Oldman has won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and apparently has been inspiring standing ovations in cinemas on both sides of the Atlantic, after delivering some of Churchill's most famous lines. (The film had also been nominated for Best Picture.)

Source: Walter Stoneman. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

Is there a particular psychology to the inspiration of Churchill’s speeches which might explain the film’s success, as well as British victory in a war the country was primed to lose? If so, where does the psychological power of a great speech come from?

We all need inspiration at times of personal and national crisis. For example, how many of us are deeply bored by lifeless jobs and uninspiring bosses?

A tough pep talk to de-motivated employees is a centerpiece of the award-winning film Glengarry Glen Ross. Failing real-estate salesmen receive a motivational kick from Alec Baldwin in the infamous "Always Be Closing" speech: "Get mad, you son of a bitches, get mad. You want to know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes brass balls to sell real estate. Go and do likewise, gents. Money's out there. You pick it up, it's yours. You don't, I got no sympathy for you."

Did Michael Douglas win his Oscar for Best Actor in Wall Street partly because of his "Greed is Good" speech: "The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much."

Soldiers low in courage need a rousing talk from Generals, just like Russell Crowe’s call to arms in the movie Gladiator: "My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next."

Does the psychology of such an inspirational speech also explain why the film scooped Best Picture, Best Actor for Crowe and three other Oscars?

Athletes need encouraging, which is why the spurring speech from the coach is such a recurrent formula in sports films.

The famous “Inches Speech”, in the movie Any Given Sunday, by coach Al Pacino imploring his football players to sacrifice for one another, might move a cinema audience, but would it actually spur in real life?

This was tested scientifically in a recent psychology study entitled, "The Influence of a Simulated ‘Pep Talk’ on Athlete Inspiration, Situational Motivation, and Emotion," in which 151 college football players were randomly assigned to this inspirational four-minute half-time speech, or viewing a comparison clip from the same movie, but where mundane game instructions are issued by the same coach.

The study, by Stephen Gonzalez, Jonathan Metzler and Maria Newton, found those players who watched Al Pacino calling his players to come together and take the game “inch by inch”, were more inspired to perform and were imbued with greater emotional dominance.

The authors point out given the particular psychological characteristics of American college football, dominance might be key.

This research, published in the journal, International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, suggests we usually find ourselves being talked to, instead of being exalted or imbued with passion, as is the case in inspirational speeches.

Robert Steele, a psychologist at Wesleyan University, investigated the psychological impact of Churchill’s speeches and found that listening to an actor reading excerpts of just seven minutes from Winston Churchill's speech on Dunkirk produced significant psychological changes in participants.

The study published in the Journal of Personality and entitled, "Power motivation, activation, and inspirational speeches," found that listening to Churchill made people feel significantly more powerful with added desire to be active.

Source: British Wallpapers. Flickr

Robert Steele had previously investigated the psychological power of inspirational speeches, finding they even released significantly higher levels of adrenaline in the body.

Psychologists Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot found that how inspired you are plays a significant role in everyday well-being. For example, inspiration levels predict how absorbed you are at work, higher self-esteem and more optimism about your future.

Their study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests we may harbor a deep psychological need for inspiration, perhaps in particular at times of crisis. For example, the study entitled, "Inspiration as a Psychological Construct," cites evidence that cancer patients prefer contact with other patients who are doing better than they are.

It’s not enough to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk as well, and these cancer patients were inspiring because of what they had endured.

Andrew Bowman’s study entitled, "The Mantle of the Prophet: Churchill’s Embodiment of the Prophetic Ethos," points out that prophets have a particular grip on us in their journey from the wilderness, and given his political unpopularity before the war, Churchill’s career echoes that of the prophet who has to endure coming in from being outcast, as Churchill had been by his party.

Bowman’ study, published in the journal Young Scholars in Writing, points out that when Churchill became prime minister, there was no evidence that Britain could win a war with Germany. The German army had swept across Europe, and looked unbeatable.

It took the inspirational Churchill to confound expectations by announcing with certainty that Britain would defeat Germany, although he had no evidence to support his assertion other than the strong emotions he could reliably invoke in his listeners through charismatic speeches.

The most memorable and inspirational political speeches of the past century, including Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I have a dream” speech and Churchill's “Iron Curtain” speech, are built on metaphors.

Source: British Wallpapers. flickr.

This is the argument of a study entitled, "Presidential leadership and charisma: The effects of metaphor," measuring the incidence of metaphors in first-term inaugural addresses of 36 US presidents. Presidents found to be more charismatic used nearly twice as many metaphors than non-charismatic presidents.

The authors of the study, published in the journal The Leadership Quarterly, argue that metaphors are inspiring because they stir up emotional connections whilst also conveying the message of action.

Churchill may even have persuaded the USA to enter the war with his powerful metaphor of the UK needing rescuing as the two countries were "traveling companions."

Churchill’s speeches inspired victory because they transformed the way the US thought about Britain, and they way the British thought about their resilience, and their place in the world.

That’s the kind of inspiration we all need when we’re in crisis.


The Influence of a Simulated ‘Pep Talk’ on Athlete Inspiration, Situational Motivation, and Emotion. Stephen P. Gonzalez, Jonathan N. Metzler and Maria Newton. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching Volume 6 · Number 3, 2011

The Mantle of the Prophet: Churchill’s Embodiment of the Prophetic Ethos. Andrew Bowman. Young Scholars in Writing. 2015

Presidential leadership and charisma: The effects of metaphor. Jeffery Scott Mio, Ronald E.Riggio, Shana Levin, Renford Reese. The Leadership Quarterly. Volume 16, Issue 2, April 2005, Pages 287-294

Inspiration as a Psychological Construct. Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003, Vol. 84, No. 4, 871–889

Power motivation, activation, and inspirational speeches. Robert S. Steele. Journal of Personality. Volume 45, Issue 1, March 1977, Pages 53–64