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Rhetorically speaking…
Speechwriters Blog on Speechwriting

Political Language

Bespoke has just published a detailed study on the language of the two main parties, previewed in tomorrow’s Guardian

Key insights include

1. Average Labour sentence is 19 words. Average Conservative sentence is 14 words.

2. Labour use two and half times as many stats as Conservatives. Conservatives tell two and half times as many stories as Labour.

3. Labour use twice as many military metaphors as Conservatives. Conservatives use twice as many nature metaphors as Labour.

4. Labour buzz words are tough, new and guarantee. Conservative buzz words are modern, together and responsibility.

If anyone wants to find out more about this study or its implications, give me a call or drop me a line.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on April 21st, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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A picture is worth a thousand words

The location for yesterday’s launches will have been carefully pondered by party strategists. A well selected backdrop can send a powerful message and no backdrops could be more iconic or meaningful than those on show yesterday.

Brown chose Number 10, surrounded by his highly experienced Cabinet, chest puffed out like a gladiator. This sent the message, ‘I am powerful.’

Cameron chose Parliament as the backdrop, surrounded by supporters, and he reached out to them in a John Major soap box way. This sent the message, ‘The voters are powerful.’

Clegg chose Lib Dem HQ as his backdrop, surrounded by young interns, proudly wearing their staff passes. This sent the message, ‘I’m not powerful.’

Posted by Simon Lancaster on April 7th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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Election Fever

As I cycled in this morning, I saw the satellite vans outside Buck Palace and a throng of cameraman around the back of Downing Street. I then saw a very excited looking Minister who told me he was on his way to the Dissolution Cabinet (and feeling confident!). Now, the helicopters are buzzing above.

You can’t beat being in Westminster at election time. This is what it’s all about. Can’t wait to see how things unfold over the coming weeks.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on April 6th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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PM for PM ponders former PM

Tony Blair is supposed to have given a speech today backing Gordon Brown. However, having read the speech, that’s not quite the impression I’m getting.

The theme of the speech is exposed in the opening paragraph:

‘I’m optimistic about Britain - provided we take the right decisions, imbued with the right attitude of mind.

‘The right attitude of mind?’ Now THAT’s not something that’s said often about our Prime Minister. Perhaps it was a slip of the tongue? But then he develops the theme.

‘This is not just about policy, but mindset. Who gets the future? Who understands the way the world is changing and can be comfortable in it? Who sees the excitement where others see the fear?

Mindset? Brown?! ‘Comfortable?’ Brown? ‘Excited?’ Brown? ‘Getting the future?’ Brown? Shurely shome mishtake! This CAN’T be Gordon Brown. So, who on earth CAN he mean?And then, he puts us out of our misery…

The New Industries, New Jobs paper from Peter Mandelson, for me, correctly identifies the right judicious mix of Government and market. It represents a vision of how Britain can do well and how individuals and families can do better. It’s a platform for the hope of prosperity to come.’


And, as for that rousing call to vote Labour… well, the ’endorsement’ in the peroration could scarcely be less resounding.

‘This country faces big challenges in the future. I want this party to be the one able to meet those challenges. This country needs strong leadership. I want our leadership to be the one that gives it. There is still vast potential and promise in our nation. I want our government to the one that develops it. I want a future fair for all. I believe a 4th term Labour Government can deliver it.’

‘I want! I want! I want! I want!’

What do you want, Tony?

Posted by Simon Lancaster on March 30th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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Stormy waters

Nice use of metaphor by Brown today as he unveiled Whitehall’s worst-kept secret, that the Budget will be held on 24th March.

He’s run with a ’stormy waters’ metaphor.

‘Whilst we have come through the worst of this dreadful storm, the waters are still choppy. We have got through this storm together, but there are still substantial risks ahead. It’s about having the courage to set your mission and the courage to take tough decisions and stick to them without being blown off course. We are weathering the storm. Now is no time to turn back. We will hold to our course and we will complete this mission.’

This metaphor improves Brown’s positioning on two counts.

1. By suggesting that the economic downturn was a force of nature, he counters any suggestion that it might have been the consequence of Government action or inaction.

2. By pitching GB as the captain of a ship sailing stormy waters, it strengthens the case for him staying on, as we all know that to change captain mid-stream would be reckless.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on March 10th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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A Ministerial Speechwriter at the Department of Health spills the beans.

A wonderful story from a (short-lived) speechwriter at the Australian Department of Health.

Of course, Whitehall speechwriter inductions are much more thoughtfully organised…

Posted by Simon Lancaster on February 28th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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Everything Alright, Darling?

For the last thirteen years, Alastair Darling has tested to the limit Harold Wilson’s aphorism that, ‘The power to bore is one of the most powerful weapons in the politician’s arsenal.’

His speeches have ranked amongst Whitehall’s dullest - lacking stories, soundbites, imagery or argument. But this style enabled Darling to defuse some gargantuan political issues - from rural post office closures to the pensions crisis - sending even the most furious campaigner into a deep slumber.

So it is extraordinary that he has chosen this moment to come out with his first colourful phrase, telling Jeff Randall  that Brown unleashed the ‘forces of hell’ against him.

It’s extraordinary on at least four counts.

1.  Choice of Metaphor. He has used the heaven and hell metaphor, traditionally only used at times of war (for other egs, see Pope Urban II in the Crusades, Ronald Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ speech and George W Bush’s second inaugural.

2.   Turn of phrase. Instead of running the metaphor to excess, he’s kept it at just three awesome words - just enough to create a powerful image but short enough to stick.

3.   Timing. He’s unleashed this just weeks before the General Election will be called.

4.   Aim. He’s fired it at the man that will lead his party into that election - his neighbour, political ally and ‘friend,’ Gordon Brown.

It’s an extraordinary thing for the normally careful and cautious Darling to say. At another time, this could have been a Geoffrey Howe moment. But it seems that no-one can even be bothered to respond. Labour’s 1983 defeat was blamed on the longest suicide note in history. I wonder if the 2010 election will go down as the largest suicide pact in history?

Posted by Simon Lancaster on February 24th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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Radio Five Live feature on Speechwriting

Up early this morning for an interview with the wonderful Kate Silverton on Five Live. Scroll forward to 1:19:00.

It was a good discussion with an informed panel. I first met George Jones around ten years ago at TUC when he was reporting on an Alan Johnson speech. I also crossed paths vaguely with Kate last year when we were both working on the BBC programme, The Speaker (she was one of the mentors; I was a consultant).

It was also great to meet Jeremy Kourdi. He kindly gave me a copy of his book, which has now leap-frogged to the top of my reading list. It looks like a brilliant book.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on February 21st, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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Another pitiful performance

A reader emailed to remind me of another famous ‘appeal to pity’ which backfired - Charles Kennedy. Absolutely right, with his first appeal to stay on as Lib Dem leader after his drink problem was exposed.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on February 18th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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A pitiful performance

One of the big questions speechwriters have to consider is what emotion they want to unleash in their audience, e.g. hope or fear, pride or shame, passion or anger. Usually, this is worked out by weighing up the audience’s emotions, the speaker’s character and the nature of the argument.

The answer is usually pretty obvious, e.g. a CEO speaking to staff would play to pride, a militant campaigner speaking on Iraq would play to anger and politicians usually base their appeals on one of four emotions: hope (Obama’s ‘new dawn’), fear (Blair’s ‘45 minutes’), shame (Cameron’s ‘Broken Britain’) or patriotism (Thatcher’s ‘Britain awake!’).

I’m therefore surprised that Gordon Brown seems to have made a big plunge into pity. I simply cannot remember a single political leader, victor or not, who has launched such an appeal in history.

My first reaction on watching last night’s Morgan interview was that this could be a game-changer. But that was an emotional response - it was hard not to be moved. But, on more rational reflection, I actually think it’s bound to backfire.

A. The British people don’t do pity. The stiff upper lip is our single most defining national characteristic. Rather than feeling sorry for the pitiful, we tend to want to kick them when they’re down. The only two public figures I can remember who have made appeals to pity in recent years were (i) Cherie Booth over the Aussie con-man and (ii) Princess Diana, junking in her charity work to spend more time at the gym. Both went disastrously wrong and unleashed the last emotion either expected: namely, anger.

B. No-one wants to be led by someone pitiful. Some will have urged Brown to show his human side. But he should have kept it hidden. The truth is we actually want our leaders to be super-human, and always have - from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar from Mandela to Obama. Murray Edelman wrote about this in his fab book ‘Creating the Political Spectacle’. As soon as we discover our politicans are frail and human like the rest of us, it tends to be game over.

C.  For many people, this will reinforce their view that Brown does not have the strength of character for PM.

Will the British people feel sorry for him? Probably, yes. Will it make us more likely to vote for him? Probably not.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on February 15th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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