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Rhetorically speaking…
Speechwriters Blog on Speechwriting


Phenomenal speech by Cameron just now. Highly redolent of Blair in 96.

The most powerful line of the speech for me was ’stop treating children like adults and adults like children.’ A instant classic phrase reversal. Like JFK’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Or Mandy Rhys-Davies’ ‘He would, wouldn’t he!’

But the most powerful parts of the speech were for me the sections on character (or ethos, as Aristotle put it), particularly when he spoke about his son. This took enormous courage.

A very minor point, but did he really walk off the stage to a song by EMF, also known as Ecstasy Mother Fuckers?

Posted by Simon Lancaster on October 8th, 2009 :: Filed under Random
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Actively Passive

At this time of year, my time is usually filled up with helping FTSE companies prepare their interim statements. This year has been no different, but times are tougher than usual and this has thrown up some interesting linguistic dilemmas.

When I first became a Cabinet speechwriter ten years ago, I was told that I should always write in the active voice and never write in the passive - EVER.

This advice remains prevalent - but it is complete tosh. Yes, the active voice is appropriate when the speaker wants to clearly identify the main protagonist and what they have done… but such clarity is not always helpful, in business or politics.

Take Nixon’s, ‘Mistakes were made’. Or Bush’s, ‘Collateral damage has occurred.’ The expedient use of the passive voice neatly side-stepped the issue of culpability.

Likewise, in the recent interim results. The more abominable the results, the greater the use of the passive voice.

Hence, this morning we heard the following glorious passive statement from Michael Grade at ITV’s: ‘Our financial results for the half year reflect the impact of the unprecedented downturn in television advertising…’ It makes ITV sound helpless. A victim of events. ‘Not our fault, guv!’

Has it worked? Well, the share prices is up 3.5% on trading and still climbing… We should never under-estimate the power of the passive.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on August 6th, 2009 :: Filed under Random
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The value of values

I just watched the Prime Minister’s statement to the House of Commons. It wasn’t his finest hour. It reminded me of some of the theories set out in George Lakoff’s amazing 2004 book, “Don’t think of an elephant”.

Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, argued that the right wing’s dominance in US politics came from speaking in terms of visions and values whilst the left spent too much time talking about initiatives and programmes.

Brown’s speech today was stuffed to the brim with the usual mind-blowing investment figures, stretching targets and gargantuan forward work programmes, but was almost completely devoid of over-arching vision or underpinning values.

The problem is that voting is an emotional act: people need to be excited and motivated to vote; they need to be made to care. And initiatives simply don’t touch our emotions, they only get as far as the rational parts of our minds. It would be hard for anyone to get too weepy about market incentives to support carbon capture storage or reviews of the communications infrastructure, worthy and worthwhile as they may be.

Brown’s speech should have been framed within a compelling vision and rooted in deeply held values. It should have reached deep down into people’s hearts, wrenched them out of their current inertia and lifted them to the stars.

Labour will pillory Cameron for his response, describing it as flimsy and lacking substance. It is true that his response comprised little more than high level values statements. But, if Lakoff is right, it is precisely this approach which is needed to win elections.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on June 29th, 2009 :: Filed under Random

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The DoubleSpeaker

What a phenomenally bad speech by Michael Martin.

He hadn’t done his homework. He looked and sounded like a man out of his depth. And he had the chutzpah to insult his audience with a, “Look - it’s not me, it’s you” argument.

I find it incredible that someone under such vicious fire should respond with such a weak defence.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on May 19th, 2009 :: Filed under Argument, Politics

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Maxim-um power

Maxims have a strong ring of authority built in. When they are used in speeches they tend to be accepted without challenge, no matter how wrong or fallacious their reasoning. The fact that they are maxims means they must be true.

Today, everyone is repeating the old Heseltine maxim that “he who wields the knife never wears the crown“. But doesn’t history prove that’s rubbish? Wasn’t it Brown who finished off Blair in the coup of September 2006? Wasn’t it Menzies Campbell who assassinated Kennedy? And wasn’t it Margaret Thatcher who stuck a dagger in Ted Heath’s back?

Perhaps a more suitable maxim for wannabe assassins might be “The killer takes it all…

Posted by Simon Lancaster on May 5th, 2009 :: Filed under Argument, Metaphor, Politics

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The Hannan phenomenon

Dan Hannan’s speech to the European Parliament has now been watched by 1.7 million people and counting: by far the most successful British political speech ever to have been shown on YouTube.

So why did this get 1.7 million views when most Ministerial speeches struggle to get 170 views?

I think it comes down to four things.

  • It was counter-cultural and therefore in keeping with the web’s ethos, which is inherently anarchic, supporting the little guy against the big guy. What could be more counter cultural than a total nobody (or at least he was until last week) slamming the sitting Prime Minister to his face?
  • It was a short. Just three minutes, so perfect YouTube length. Web users rarely spend more than a couple of minutes on a video clip. People want instant gratification on the web.
  • It was signposted from hundreds of different sites, particularly US sites, with rave reviews, guaranteeing traffic.
  • It was a damn good speech, stuffed to the brim with rhetorical tricks.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on March 31st, 2009 :: Filed under Random

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You Tube if you want to. The video’s not for watching.

Obama’s election has sparked a new enthusiasm for social media. All across Whitehall, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are being declared the panacea  to political disillusionment.  The argument is that as Generation X watches YouTube, all politicians have to do is put their videos on YouTube and Generation X will see them.

But many are only getting a couple of dozen views. From the look of these glitzy productions, this can’t represent value.

Nor can it be claimed that they are a sincere effort at promoting engagement? In most cases the “comments” option has been disabled.

The most viewed political speech is Brown’s 2008 party conference speech, with 30,000 views. But 900,000 people have tuned in to watch Guido’s footage of Brown picking his nose.

Yes, Obama’s speeches on YouTube pull in 5 million views. But they’re great speeches. It’s the man and message that matters, not the medium. Or, as Bill Clinton might have said, “It’s the content, stupid”.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on March 18th, 2009 :: Filed under Persuasion

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Introducing the rule of four…?

Rhetoricians often rave about the magical rule of three, known as tricolon. This is when soundbites are built up on three individual parts, eg “Education Education Education” or “I came, I saw, I conquered.” or “This, that and the other.” The effect produced is one of completeness and finality. It appears to wrap up an argument and close off alternatives.

But, in his speech to Birmingham Chamber of Commerce last Friday, David Cameron seemed to be toying with a new “rule of four”. The main rhetorical flourishes at both ends of the speech were in fours.

At the beginning: ”Orders are down. Sales have slumped. Import costs are rising. Credit has dried up.

Ar the end: “We’ll get through: stronger, better, richer and fairer.”

The main argument of the speech was also a four: ”Tackling debt. Rebalancing our economy. Getting people back into work. Regulating our economy properly. If we do all these things, we can confront - and will overcome - the fundamental weaknesses of our economy.

Both of these sections sound a bit peculiar to me. Slightly off-beat: like Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”, the bar goes on just slightly longer than expected.

One of the cardinal rules of using rhetoric is not to be caught using rhetoric. And the rule of three can sometimes sound a little tired and obvious, it has been devalued and diminished through over-use. By spurning this old rule, Cameron may be reinforcing this idea that he is a new kind of politician with a new kind of political language.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on March 16th, 2009 :: Filed under Politics, Soundbites
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Metaphorically speaking

The pre-briefing suggests that Brown will use his speech to  the Joint Houses of Congress to compare today’s economic struggles with the fight against Nazi-ism in the 1940s.

War metaphors are handy devices for embattled leaders. They rally audiences, invoke evocative memories and reduce critics to traitors.

This is not the first time Congress has witnessed a politician use this strategy.

In 1964, Lyndon B Johnson declared a “war on poverty”. In 1971, Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs”. In 1974, Gerald Ford declared a “war on inflation”. Nixon’s hyperbole was staggering. He said inflation threatened to “destroy our country, our homes, our liberties, our property and our national pride, as surely as any well armed wartime enemy.

Of course, it’s not just an American thing. Here we have had our wars against illiteracy, waste and crime. In fact, the only Department which doesn’t like to declare war is the MoD.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on March 5th, 2009 :: Filed under Politics

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