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Rhetorically speaking…
Speechwriters Blog on Speechwriting

Metaphors are masks (and what a great metaphor that is!)

No pressure – giving a speech to forty of Britain’s leading speechwriters, but last night Professor Jonathan Charteris-Black did just that when he addressed Bespoke’s Speechwriters Networking Evening in Westminster.

Jonathan is Professor of Linguistics at UWE and author of ‘Politicians and Rhetoric’. He is to the speechwriting community what Noam Chomsky is to the anti-globalisation movement. His specialist subject is metaphors. When I first read his book, ‘Politicians and Rhetoric’, four years ago, it was a revelation. Before then, I’d always thought of metaphors as devices to dramatise, illuminate or solidify situations or issues. Jonathan’s research took me far further. He exposed the persuasive power of metaphor: the way that a carefully selected metaphor could frame an issue, prime an audience and even elevate a speaker into a mythological figure. Jonathan showed how Churchill created a myth of Britain as heroic warrior, Thatcher activated the myth of Boadicea and Blair developed a conviction rhetoric which pitched him as a dynamic agent in a mythological struggle between good and evil.

Reading the book made me think far more consciously about metaphors. Suddenly, I realised how so many government metaphors actually undermine the message, rather than support it. In education, driving metaphors are common: people talk about ‘accelerating’ reforms, the ‘engine’ of the education system, ‘route-maps’ for the future – all of which suggests a Government in the driving seat and head-teachers as passengers – which is not at all the message the policy would suggest. Wouldn’t a freedom/slavery metaphor be better (after all, that’s the one teachers use habitually, e.g. opening doors and unlocking potential, for two cliched examples…) Health is even worse, with military metaphors often being used to talk about saving lives – e.g. ‘weapons in our arsenal’ and getting cash to the ‘frontline’… The army image is not at all appropriate for a workforce that is constantly being told it is empowered (isn’t the army the ultimate command and control structure?) Wouldn’t a family or nurturing metaphor be more appropriate?

Jonathan came out with more treats last night. He unpicked eight of the greatest metaphors since World War II, including the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, the Wind of Change, the Rivers of Blood, Tebbit’s Swamp, Bush’s Angel, the Axis of Evil and the Smoking Gun. He analysed each in great detail, looking at what the metaphor revealed and concealed about the speaker’s intent. In each case, it was staggering to find how devastatingly powerful the metaphor had been at an unconscious level, having bypassed our rational scrutiny. It was like finding out that the BBC had been putting subliminal advertising into EastEnders for the last twenty years. For instance, by using a nature metaphor to describe African nationalism (‘the wind of change’), Macmillan suggested an inevitability to the process, making listeners feel impotent. The same when Powell spoke of ‘rivers of blood.’

Jonathan also talked about how metaphors can be used to push forward each of Aristotle’s Big Three appeals – ethos, pathos and logos. I’d never really thought about metaphors in this way before. He said that light/darkness metaphors were very effective ways of establishing ethos, signifying to an audience at an unconscious level which were the people who had good and wicked intentions. This made me think instantly of screenwriting - don’t movie directors use exactly the same kind of lighting tricks to show us who are the good guys and bad guys (hence the darkness of the Bada Bing and the lightness of the family home in the Sopranos)?

It was a terrific talk, with a very lively Q and A session and everyone talking about how inspired and energised they felt afterwards. Thanks so much to Jonathan for his illuminating talk. Thanks so much to everyone for coming. And thanks to everyone who dug in their pockets and helped raise £108 for the NSPCC. A good night’s work all around.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on November 27th, 2009 :: Filed under Metaphor
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One Response to “Metaphors are masks (and what a great metaphor that is!)”

  1. 1liberals
    January 8th, 2022


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