15 November 2008

Will there be any ‘rhetorical denial’ from the Obama camp?

Effective speakers don’t always like to see their technical ability being noticed and analysed by others.

I first became aware of this back in 1984, when I published a book on the rhetorical techniques used by politicians to trigger applause in speeches (Our Masters’ Voices: The Language and Body Language of Politics).

It included a chapter on charisma, part of which used the rhetorical ability of Tony Benn, then at the forefront of the Labour Party’s lurch towards the far left, as an example of how technical skill at oratory can get politicians into prominent positions. Apparently, he didn’t like this at all, and went around telling people that audiences didn’t applaud him because of how he said things but because they agreed so much with what he was saying.

Years later, both of us appeared on the same television programme, for which I had recorded a piece illustrating the main rhetorical techniques with video clips from political speeches. When asked what he thought of this, Mr Benn replied “Well, it’s rubbish” and went on to elaborate as follows:

“I suppose you can analyse great speeches, but it’s a bit like analysing a great painting in terms of the chemical composition of the pigments on the canvas.”

If I’d been given a chance to respond, I’d have said “Yes, and how many other people could have come up with such a powerful simile (with alliteration bringing the image to a close) to make their point?”

At the start of the 1987 general election in Britain, David Owen, who was leader of the SDP (which had broken away from the Labour Party largely because the Bennite tendency had taken it so far to the left), announced that “Reason, not rhetoric will win this campaign.” So here he was using an alliterative contrast, one of the most important of all rhetorical techniques, to tell us that there wouldn’t be any rhetoric from the SDP.

This tendency of good communicators who use rhetoric effectively to deny that they are using it at all goes back at least as far as Shakespeare. Having started his Forum speech in Julius Caesar with a memorable 3-part list with third item longest (Friends, Romans and countrymen) and two powerful contrasts (I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred within their bones), Mark Antony later uses another contrast to inform the audience that he, unlike Brutus, is no good at public speaking (I am no orator as Brutus it, but just a plain simple man), even though this is the most famous speech in one of the most famous plays in English literature.

Now that so many commentators, including me, are waxing lyrical about Mr Obama’s technical mastery of rhetoric, imagery and alliteration, it will be interesting to see if any of his aides start trying to tell us that his success in communicating with mass audiences has had more to do with what he says than how he says it.

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