9 August 2010

If you can't remember Vince Cable's best lines, nor can he!

I'm grateful to Martin Shovel for drawing my attention to an interesting article about Vince Cable by Decca Aitkenhead in today's Guardian (via @MartinShovel on Twitter).

As it's only rarely (e.g. in this example from Ronald Millar) that we get to hear politicians and/or their speechwriters commenting on memorable lines from speeches, I was especially intrigued by the following part of the interview:

... I mention Cable's famous joke about Brown morphing from Stalin to Mr Bean, and ask if he knew it would be such a hit.

"No, and in fact I get a bit frustrated, because I'm actually quite good at one-liners, and I've had hundreds of them over the years, and they sink without trace, and I get very frustrated. Every party conference I really work on the speeches, and I always have two or three things I'm quite proud of, and no one ever remembers them. I can't even remember them myself. I think they're brilliant," he chuckles, "and no one else notices. So every week at PMQs I had a very good line, I thought. And yet that's the only one that anyone remembers."

In case you never saw it, here it is:

What made it so memorable?
As readers of my books (and various posts on this blog - see below) will know, contrasts are among the most important and powerful rhetorical techniques in the armoury of public speakers and, not surprisingly, feature in some of the most famous quotations of all time.

But this particular contrast between a notoriously authoritarian leader and a bumbling idiot had at least two added advantages - both of which, I've suggested in an earlier blogpost may be critical in making a line or a speech 'memorable': timing and context.

On timing, it came when Gordon Brown had come increasingly under attack for his alleged indecisiveness - and therefore touched an aptly topical nerve with the audience.

On context, the fact Mr Cable was a new (and temporarily 'acting') party leader who was addressing the contrast directly to Mr Brown across the floor of the House of Commons gave it a chirpy cheekiness - as if a schoolboy were poking fun at the headmaster in front of the whole school.

One of the problems in coming to any definitive conclusions about what makes some lines more memorable than others is that you always have to approach them with the wisdom of hindsight.

Take, for example, the most famous line from John F Kennedy's inaugural speech - "ask not what the country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." A powerful contrast it may have been, but it was hardly noticed by the media at the time (HERE).



TJ said...

Max, have loved your work since first discovering Our Masters' Voices in 1984. Keep up the good work!

Simon Bucknall said...

What a canny and insightful post. Somehow, Vince Cable managed to capture what millions of people 'sensed' at the time about GB but couldn't quite put into words. At least not with the same pith!

Faisal ... said...

It's simple, it's unpredictable an core! That's why people remember it. Lovely article.

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