16 November 2009

Rhetorical denial and the mysterious case of Tony Benn

About a year ago, I wrote a post on 'rhetorical denial' - a term I use to refer to the way in which outstanding orators don’t always like their technical ability being noticed or analysed by others - and will sometimes use a rhetorical device or two to deny that they're any good at public speaking.

The classic example comes from the forum speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, during which, having used pretty well every rhetorical device known to man in one of the most famous speeches in English literature, Mark Antony uses yet another contrast to tell us that he's not much good at speaking in public:

I am no orator as Brutus it, but just a plain simple man.

You can read a fuller discussion of this and other examples HERE, where I also had this to say about how one of the most accomplished political speakers of his day (25 years ago) had reacted to my book Our Master's Voices:

'(The book) 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 continued with the rather powerful simile that you'll hear in the clip below.

My point, and the point that people like Benn fail to grasp, is that less accomplished speakers (i.e. most of us) would have had to struggle to come up anything as neat as this off the top of our heads in an interview - though we can learn to get better at using such techniques once we know what they are.

Unfortunately, we weren't both in the same studio at the same time, so I never got the chance to debate the issue with him face to face.

I've just unearthed a clip of some of the relevant excerpts from Channel 4's The Talking Show(c. 1993) which includes part of Benn's rhetorical denial and my response to it - which I wouldn't want to change much if I had the chance to have another go at it today (other than the ravages of hair loss and other signs of old age that have set in during the past 16 years).

In the original post, my question was whether Barack Obama's brilliance at oratory would lead to any rhetorical denial from him or his aides(which it didn't).

The question in the months between now and the general election is whether we'll hear any rhetorical denial from the Cameron camp, given that he's the most technically proficient orator among the current crop of British political party leaders.


simon said...


Great post. Completely agree.

Funnily enough, I wrote an article for The House magazine last week, also analysing the forum speeches in Julius Caesar for rhetorical tips. I've posted the link here - http://bespokespeeches.com/house_magazine_article.pdf

In a further co-incidence, I understand that Tony Benn is giving a talk tonight at The Guardian's offices on political rhetoric. I wonder if he'll still be as vehement in his rhetorical denials!

Best wishes


Max Atkinson said...

Thanks for this, Simon.

I'd love to hear Benn talking about rhetoric, as I'm not convinced he has any clue what it is. Let us know of any links that might take us to further details of his talk at the Guardian.

Admin said...

thnxxx for the information...

public speaking

John Turner said...

Nice hair!
I suspect Benn will still be arguing in favour of dialectic rather than rhetoric. I think the "talk" was in fact a discussion.

Mark Antony managed to turn a hostile audience into a supportive one, without really offering much in the way of substance : he says Caesar was not ambitious, loved his countrymen, and left each of them 75 drachmas in his will. He spent a good while saying it in ways that elicited sympathy and demonstrated his and Caesar's good character and benevolence. You're right, there's every technique in the book at work.

Aristotle would have approved.

Tony Benn would, as many before, scorn its use. There's something in the notion that winning the by rhetorical technique alone has led to some disastrous outcomes in the world (what if Hitler had been a rubbish communicator?)

I can understand Benn's position - he's always intended to examine the merits of the issues rather than cloud matters with rhetoric. It's ironic that he can't avoid use of simile, contrasts, pregnant pauses etc. Especially on a platform in front of an audience that is sympathetic and looking for applause gaps to fill.

As an actor, I've left the stage many times with applause ringing in my ears - I was trained in signalling to an audience that a climax is upon us; working the room and bulding the energy as an exit line approaches. Some would think my audience were suckers, and prefer a delivery style that did nothing more than deliver bald content.

Having said that, I never once got an exit round that I hadn't earned by being truthful and emotionally connected with my character. Technique supports, nothing more.

Obama would I am sure take the line that he just speaks the truth, and leaves analysis to others.

pintosal said...

Some excellent examples of Tony Benn's rhetorical technique can be found at http://www.bennites.com/INTERVIEWWITHTONYBENN.html

Here is a fragment:
So how do you deal with it? Well you bring more and more pressure from the bottom on the guys in power and that's what happened in the 19th Century.
They didn't want to concede change but they had to to avoid
They didn't want to concede the vote but they had to to avoid trouble.
They didn't want women to have the vote but they had to.
So I think there is a re-run in a way of the 19th Century story and that's the reason you ask the question.