4 March 2009

Unexpected poetry in Gordon Brown's speech to the US Congress


Readers of my books will know that they emphasise the importance of simple poetic elements, such as alliteration and imagery, in the tool-kit of effective public speakers. But such poetics have never been very evident in past speeches by Gordon Brown.

That’s why the most surprising thing about his speech to the US Congress earlier today was his use of at least 37 examples of alliteration and/or imagery (see below for more detail) – though his alliteration score was somewhat boosted by his repetitive use of the phrase in the first half of the alliterative title of the speech: With faith in the future, we can build tomorrow today.

For someone who has spent most of his life on the political platform, his sudden conversion to poetics raises the interesting question of whether there are new speechwriters at work in Downing Street – and, if so, who are they?

(P.S. Answer: Eight months later, I was fascinated to discover that there were indeed new speechwriters at work, but not in Downing Street. The PM apparently paid West Wing Writers, a Washington company run by former Democrat speechwriters, $7,000 to work on the speech - bringing the total paid to them since he became Chancellor of the Exchequer to more than $40,000).

Meanwhile, here are the examples spotted so far (alliteration in bold, imagery in italics):

GORDON BROWN:
F-f and b-b alliteration + imagery (building):
The very creation of America was a bold affirmation of faith in the future: a future you have not just believed in but built with your own hands.

Imagery (writing a book):
And on January 20th, you the American people began to write the latest chapter in the American story

B-b and s-s alliteration + topographical imagery (plains, streets, sands, beaches, bridges to denote battle fields in different wars):
And let me pay tribute to the soldiers, yours and ours, who again fight side by side in the plains of Afghanistan and the streets of Iraq, just as their forefathers fought side by side in the sands of Tunisia, on the beaches of Normandy and then on the bridges over the Rhine.

F-f alliteration:
And let it be said of our friendship - formed and forged over two tumultuous centuries, a friendship tested in war and strengthened in peace

F-f alliteration (echoing Churchill's use of same f-words):
And when banks have failed and markets have faltered …

P-p alliteration (+ contrast):
Not an alliance of convenience, but a partnership of purpose.

W-w, f-f and r-r alliteration (+contrast):
wealth must help more than the wealthy, good fortune must serve more than the fortunate and riches must enrich not just some of us but all.

W-w and d-d alliteration + imagery (contagion):
And we need to understand what went wrong in this crisis, that the very financial instruments that were designed to diversify risk across the banking system instead spread contagion across the globe.

C-c and f-f alliteration:
And this is not blind optimism or synthetic confidence to console people; it is the practical affirmation for our times of our faith in a better future.

F-f alliteration:
Every time we rebuild a school we demonstrate our faith in the future.

S-s and f-f alliteration:
.. every time we increase support to our scientists, we demonstrate our faith in the future.

F-f alliteration:
.. we conquer our fear of the future through our faith in the future.

M-m and p-p alliteration:
And I believe that you, the nation that had the vision to put a man on the moon, are also the nation with the vision to protect and preserve our planet earth.

Weather imagery + c-c-c-c alliteration:
An economic hurricane has swept the world, creating a crisis of credit and of confidence.

T-t alliteration:
We are summoned not just to manage our times but to transform them.

W-w and d-d alliteration + imagery (contagion, again):
And we need to understand what went wrong in this crisis, that the very financial instruments that were designed to diversify risk across the banking system instead spread contagion across the globe.

T-t and s-s alliteration:
And America and Britain will succeed and lead if we tap into the talents of our people, unleash the genius of our scientists and set free the drive of our entrepreneurs.

C-c and f-f- alliteration:
And this is not blind optimism or synthetic confidence to console people; it is the practical affirmation for our times of our faith in a better future.

S-s and f-f alliteration:
.. every time we increase support to our scientists, we demonstrate our faith in the future.

C-c and f-f alliteration:
And so I say to this Congress and this country, something that runs deep in your character and is woven in your history, we conquer our fear of the future through our faith in the future.

F-f and p-p alliteration:
And it is this faith in the future that means we must commit to protecting the planet for generations that will come long after us.

Imagery (sowing seeds):
As the Greek proverb says, why does anybody plant the seeds of a tree whose shade they will never see?

M-m and p-p alliteration:
And I believe that you, the nation that had the vision to put a man on the moon, are also the nation with the vision to protect and preserve our planet earth.

Imagery (water and rippling):
No matter where it starts, an economic crisis does not stop at the water's edge. It ripples across the world.

P-p, f-f and t-t alliteration: and 'building' image:
Let us restore prosperity and protect this planet and, with faith in the future, let us together build tomorrow today.

3 comments:

Charles Letterman said...

Interesting.

In this case it's probably best to concentrate on the alliteration and imagery rather than the content.

www.charlesletterman.com

Mr Carter said...

Max, impressed by your analysis of speeches by Brown and Obama... and I've done some analysis of my own.

I've looked at readability scores and the frequency of tricolons (three points used for rhythm or emphasis) in Obama's inaugural address and Brown's speech to US Congress.

http://www.onethreefour.co.uk/2009/03/06/magic-of-threes/

And on this analysis Brown doesn't do well. You may say -- reasonably -- that you can't apply text-readability scores to speeches. I agree that speech is speech and text is text, but do you think that Obama's crisper style tends to make him sound sharper and more confident?

Best
Simon

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