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Rhetorically speaking…
Speechwriters Blog on Speechwriting

Text of Guardian podcast

Brown’s first and favourite technique is the alliterative pair. ‘Listen and learn. Challenge and change. Boom and bust.’

Alliterative pairs are designed to suggest causal connections. And it works. But you might need a ‘pile of paracetemol’ afterward…

Second. Brown argues from statistics. 500,000 businesses. 2 million jobs. 10 million lives.

The actual statistics are meaningless. People don’t remember them. Nor are they supposed to. They just assert the speaker’s authority.

Three. Brown uses Dead metaphors straight out of a business manual. ‘Opening doors. Raising ceilings. Strengthening floors.’

They’re pretty uninspiring. He sounds more like a Barartt Homes salesman than Prime Minister.

Fourth, Brown loves the old rhetorical device of contrast. So he talks about ‘opportunity for not just some, but all the people.’ The euro has to be right ‘not just in principle, but in practice.’ On public services he talks about ‘not just investment, but reform.’

Finally, we get the classic long and winding sentences. The endless clauses which go on and on and on and on and on and on. By the end, you feel ‘not just battered, but bruised’ - as Brown might put it.

Cameron’s style is very different.

One. He sets the scene with asyndeton. We get the famous Blairite verbless sentences. ‘Failing schools. Sink Estates. Broken homes.’ ‘Poverty, crime, addiction.’ The brevity isborne from emotion. It suggests he cares so much he’s almost hyperventilating with passion.

Secondly, the rule of three. ‘Family, community, country’ was the refrain in his conference speech – like Marc Antony’s ‘Friends Romans Countrymen.’ But he also talks about ‘character, temperament and judgement.’ ‘Pull together come together work together.’

The rule of three helps breaks down issues and suggests finality, appearing to shut off alternatives.

Third, like Brown, Cameron loves the rhetorical device of contrast. ‘The state is your servant never your master.’ ‘The longer we leave it, the worse it will be.‘ ‘We’ve got to stop treating children like adults and adults like children.’

This is a great way of making your arguments sound logical, when they’re actually not.

Fourth, Cameron explicitly rejects Brown’s metaphors of construction and machinering. Instead, he prefers the metaphor of personalisation. He talks about ‘the heart of the communities’, breathing ‘life into institutions’ and getting the country ‘back on its feet’.

The metaphor of personalisation makes him seem far more compassionate and less mechanical.

Fifth and finally, Cameron often concludes his arguments with a plain simple truth, often expressed in monosyllabic terms, eg ‘Time is short.’ ‘We get it.’ ‘You made it happen.’

It’s designed to show the common touch. And it does. Nice and easy. Just like that!

Posted by Simon Lancaster on February 11th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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Guardian podcast

I recorded a podcast for The Guardian yesterday, analysing the difference between Brown and Cameron’s rhetorical styles. You can hear it here Scroll forward to 11.45.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on February 11th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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New Statesman article

The New Statesman have published a terrific article on ‘The Art of Speechwriting,’ with a few quotes from me. I think that this is one of the most thoughtful and accurate articles on ‘our trade’ in years. Sophie Elmhirst is always a fabulous journalist and she’s certainly done a job here, which is great news for those of us who work as professional speechwriters.

My one regret is that some of the reflections are a bit gloomy, based upon the idea of some mythical golden age of oratory that didn’t actually exist. It makes for a compelling narrative, but it’s not accurate. Oratory, like life, goes through ups and downs according to the times, characters and events. The Thatcher/Kinnock decade was a high-point because these were fiery, confrontational times. The Smith/Major years were a low-point, because the characters were so dull. Brown and Cameron bring us back to a high - they’re both, in their different ways, passionate and angry.

But these are minor grumbles. A great piece. A welcome spotlight into the world of political speechwriting.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on February 11th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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Golden Brown

Crikey. There must be some new writers in Number Ten. Brown just punched out a couple of corkers in PMQs.

‘The more he talks, the less he says.’
‘The Tories inheritance tax policy was dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton.’

This is better than the usual, isn’t it?

Posted by Simon Lancaster on December 2nd, 2009 :: Filed under Random

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School elections

I was baffled by Nick Clegg’s comment that he had to ‘do his homework’ on the mansion tax. When his relative youth and inexperience must surely be the biggest barrier to his winning public acceptance, it seems extraordinary he uses a metaphor which pitches him as schoolboy. Normally politicians use metaphors which place their opponents as schoolchildren (’he needs to do his homework’) or younger still (’he’s throwing his toys out of the pram’).

Posted by Simon Lancaster on December 2nd, 2009 :: Filed under Random

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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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The Rocky Method

When Rocky is in training for his fight with Apollo Creed in the first movie, he sticks a photo of Creed in the corner of his mirror, so he remembers what he’s up against.

I’ve just tried the speechwriters equivalent - pasting a photo of the audience I’m writing for in the corner of my screen. Whenever I weigh up a new line of argument I look the audience in the eye(s) to see how it might play.

I’ve not had feedback on the speech yet, but it seems to me like a great reality check, and a brilliant way of ensuring audience focus.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on November 16th, 2009 :: Filed under Random

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The Rhetoric of the Nursery

Every now and then, I take my baby daughter to Rhyme Time at the local library. Her face fills with joy when she hears songs like ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and ‘Zoom! Zoom! Zoom! We’re going to the moon!’

Rhymes are magical. They make us feel that all is well with the world. And it is that illusion of simplicity that also makes them powerful rhetorical weapons.

Researchers at Lafayette College have proved that people are far more likely to believe a sentence which rhymes than one that doesn’t, even if the underlying proposition is false.

Rhymes can make fallacies appear to be facts. This has been proved many times in the past: in speeches (’if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit’), ad slogans (’a Mars a day helps you work, rest and play’) and even classroom sayings (’i before e except after c’).

Today, the press is reporting another fallacious rhyme: the argument that Cameron still hasn’t ’sealed the deal’ with the electorate. The rhyme makes it sound like a self-evident truth. And it’s been repeated so often it’s accepted as fact.

But what are the facts? That Labour has been scraping support of 23% for the last year. That the Tories are now consistently polling in the mid 40s? That Labour is doing worse now than either the Tories under Major in 97 or Labour under Foot in 83? That, it is now possible to get a whopping 14/1 on Labour winning the election (amazing odds in a two-horse race)?

Some might say Labour was ‘cruising for a bruising’.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on November 11th, 2009 :: Filed under Random

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Gordon is not a moron

My inbox has been buzzing this morning following the Guardian’s revelation that Number 10 paid the Washington-based speechwriting consultancy, West Wing Writers, £4,300 for advising on his speech to Congress.

In case it’s been forgotten, this speech represented one of Mr Brown’s few highs in a truly miserable year; a rare moment of real power.

Instead of being criticised for using expert speechwriters, Number 10 should be lauded for achieving incredible value-for-money.

Look at the phenomenal coverage and influence which this single speech won UK plc (not to mention GB, the man).

Then compare that pound for pound against the hundreds of thousands which can be spent on new websites, strategies or events.

Speeches might not be as sexy as viral marketing campaigns or other mass comms fads but, when it comes to value and impact, they win hands-down.

Speechwriting is a specialist art requiring specialist skills. Maybe the guys at Number 10 would have discovered the great uses of antithesis, anaphora and asyndeton which this speech demonstrates on their own, but maybe not.

Good on Brown for bringing in experts, good on West Wing Writers for winning the business and good on all of them for producing a blinding speech. Let’s see more like this!

Posted by Simon Lancaster on November 4th, 2009 :: Filed under Random

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Tarantino’s writing tricks

I ran a speechwriting course for a FTSE 100 company yesterday. Someone shared a brilliant writing technique from Quentin Tarantino.

Apparently, Tarantino writes all of his films on an old 1987 word processor using just the second finger of his right hand.

By making the process as difficult as possible, he ensures he creates the best dialogue possible.

As he says, ‘You write, write, write with a pen and you always overwrite. But when you have to translate it to just one finger, a really strong editing process takes over. Basically, if you don’t think this is the bomb, you’re not going to spend time typing the final draft with one finger. So you’re constantly correcting and you actually shrink it down.”

So, I’m thinking of getting rid of the IMac. Perhaps this soft, sleek keyboard isn’t such a good idea…

Posted by Simon Lancaster on October 30th, 2009 :: Filed under Random

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