Tag Archives: rhetoric

Political Rhetoric and Speechwriter ‘Tricks’

How the art of political rhetoric is regarded differently in Britain and America:

In the US, the act of speechwriting has gained an almost mythical status. As keepers of the president’s words, the speechwriters are at the centre of government and are objects of fascination. It is a little different in Westminster. There are no “speechwriting offices”. There is no official Downing Street speechwriting team. […] There is none of the collaboration and, as a result, little of the powerful effect. […]

Today, says [historian Simon Schama], it is “highly allergic in our British culture to be extravagantly rhetorical”. To turn a fine phrase suggests duplicity.

As the article later states, when it was discovered that Gordon Brown employed the services of speechwriters for an address to Congress in 2009:

The money – indeed, the very existence of such a service – appeared to come as a shock to us in Britain. It exposed the stark differences between the two countries’ oratorical cultures. In Washington, speechwriting is a professional undertaking; the speechwriter is a known quantity. Here, the idea that time or money has been spent crafting a politician’s presentation arouses suspicion. The realisation that the words are not his own only adds to the sense that they are false.

The article suggests there are three speeches worth remembering in contemporary British politics (Robin Cook’s 2003 Cabinet resignation on the eve of the Iraq war, Tony Blair’s 1999 speech on humanitarian intervention and David Cameron’s 2005 Conservative Party leadership pitch) and begins with some succinct speechwriting ‘tricks’:

Verbal tricks that make a speech fly: contradictions (Blair: “September 11 was not an isolated event, but a tragic prologue”), opposites (Napoleon: “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is for ever”), phrase reversals (Obama: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America”).

Story Types for Speeches (and TV)

Each and every time I begin to structure a speech or presentation I consider which ‘story type’ to use (if it is suitable at all).

Not being particularly well-versed in these, I recently came across a couple of useful resources.

First, Nick Morgan’s description of the five “basic stories that Western culture has to make your speeches stronger, ‘stickier’ and more instantly graspable”:

  • The Quest (A cut-down version of everyone’s favourite; The Monomyth/Hero’s Journey?)
  • Stranger in a Strange Land
  • The Love Story
  • Rags to Riches
  • Revenge

Next, a large collection of TV tropes (via xkcd, of all places). A trope? As the site says,

A catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction […] devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.

Update: This handbook of rhetorical devices will also come in handy, surely. Carl has also produced a nice seven-stage guide to the mythic adventure.

Teaching Children to Argue

With a primer on each of the “three basic tools of argument” (logos, ethos and pathos), Jay Heinrichs gives a cogent argument for why you should teach your children to argue.

I had long equated arguing with fighting, but in rhetoric they are very different things. An argument is good; a fight is not. Whereas the goal of a fight is to dominate your opponent, in an argument you succeed when you bring your audience over to your side.

[…] Why on earth would any parent want that? Because persuasion is powerful. Rhetoric originated in the lawsuits of ancient Greece, when citizens who weren’t good at persuading could lose their houses — or their lives. It was a staple of education until the early 1800s, teaching society’s elite how to debate, make public decisions, and reach consensus.