The Single, Brilliant Idea: Great Oratory Is the Mark of a Great Leader. Sophie Elmhirst Asks Politicians, Historians and the Writers Who Worked for Clinton and Blair to Reveal the Secrets of the Perfect Speech

New Statesman (1996), February 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Single, Brilliant Idea: Great Oratory Is the Mark of a Great Leader. Sophie Elmhirst Asks Politicians, Historians and the Writers Who Worked for Clinton and Blair to Reveal the Secrets of the Perfect Speech


Around the oval table at the National Liberal Club, an old gentleman's club in Westminster, sits a group of men and women. In front of them, on a small television, perform an array of politicians. The films skate back through time: Blair, Thatcher, Churchill.

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We are here to learn about speeches--how to write them, how to give them. We have been guided through the verbal tricks that make a speech fly: contradictions (Blair: "September II 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"). We learn about surfing applause, about talking over the roar of adulation in order to fuel it: (quite literally, claptrap). We learn how to be funny, how to paint pictures with our words, the secret of the perfect anecdote. On a break mid-morning, our teacher Max Atkinson, a former speech writer to Paddy Ashdown, goes down to the garden next to the club for a cigarette. His students-professionals from FTSE-100 companies, quangos, communications teams in multinationals--discuss the morning's work over coffee. Atkinson has condensed the art of speechmaking into a day-long workshop, a 12-page handout ("Winning with words") and a stream of 32 films, snapshots of the speakers in action. But as we walk, he seems deflated about the reduction of his craft. "Rhetoric used to be part of the standard educational curriculum, but it has died out," he says.

For the ancient Greeks, rhetoric was one of the three central pillars of learning, along with grammar and logic, Aristotle established the three dimensions of rhetoric: ethos, the credibility of the speaker; pathos, their emotional connection; and logos, the logical argument. Rhetoric was an art, a complex expression of self. The historian Simon Schama, talking to me on the phone from Columbia University in New York, recalls the Roman orator Cicero: "It was thought by the great classical writers that in the formal set-piece rhetoric you discover not the mischief of the man, not the Machiavellian wiles, but the true, transparent integrity."

But today, says Schama, it is "highly allergic in our British culture to be extravagantly rhetorical". To turn a fine phrase suggests duplicity. Our suspicion dates back centuries--in 1664, the Royal Society set up a committee to improve the English language. One member, Thomas Sprat, regarded "fine speaking" as a disease, and argued that a proper style should "reject all amplifications, digressions and swellings of style" and instead adopt "a primitive purity and shortness". Other thinkers of that century shared Sprat's disdain for convolution--Thomas Hobbes and Francis Bacon both wrote on the subject, Bacon belittling those fixated with style over "the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument".

Today, the ultimate accusation you can hurl at your political opponent (Hillary Clinton did it to Barack Obama; Gordon Brown does it to David Cameron) is that of being insubstantial, preoccupied by the style and surface of politics, with no grasp of the "weight". A fine orator is nothing more than an untrustworthy magician. In consequence, Atkinson says, "the speech has become less important in British politics than it used to be". He believes it will hardly feature in the coming ("completely tedious") election campaign: stump speeches will be dropped in favour of TV debates and Twitter tactics. "If I were still active in advising a political leader," he says, "I'd be urging him to get back on the road. And I don't mean just walking around a few schools, hospitals and shopping centres. I mean holding proper rallies, making inspiring speeches, creating some excitement."

The idea

A great speech, says Jeff Shesol, a partner at the West Wing Writers speechwriting agency and a former speechwriter to Bill Clinton, is the "right kind of speech by the right speaker at the right moment".

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