20 December 2010

What made Brian Hanrahan's famous contrast so memorable?

Listen!

"I counted them all out and I counted them all back."
There's hardly a media report today on death of distinguished BBC journalist Brian Hanrahan that doesn't refer to his famous line from the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes during the Falkland's war in 1982 (37 seconds into the above).

Not only did he use repetition and contrast, but he followed it up with a list of three adjectives to describe the mood of the pilots, who were "unhurt, cheerful and jubilant."

Where did the line come from?
There's interesting report in today's Guardian, which includes the following:

'He used that form of words to get round military censorship of media reports – and it became the title of his book about the conflict, co-written with fellow correspondent Robert Fox...

'He was on the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes during the Falklands war when the first air strikes started taking place on Port Stanley in May 1982. Naval officials placed severe restrictions on what he could report, particularly in respect of the numbers of sorties flown by the Harrier jets.

Fox told the BBC today that in order to get round the restrictions, Hanrahan colluded with the "raffish Old Etonian intelligence officer" Rupert Nichol, who told him that they had both seen the same number of planes going in and coming back, and "that was the way he should go". Hanrahan turned the idea into the line he used on his broadcast.'


Why so memorable?
Hanrahan's contrast had already become memorable by the time I was writing a chapter on the way in which rhetorically formatted statements are likely to get noticed and quoted (Ch. 5: 'Quotability') for my book Our Masters' Voices, which came out two years later.

And the question of what makes a particular speech, or a particular line from a speech, memorable is one that has fascinated me ever since. In a post a couple of years ago (HERE), I ventured the suggestion that it helps if it strikes the right chord with the right audience in the right place at the right time - all of which are arguably true of this line from Hanrahan.

In another post, I noted that memorable lines, such as the most famous one from John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech, aren't always recognised as 'memorable' straight away (HERE).

Indirectness v. Directness
I still think, however, that part of the answer to why rhetorically formatted lines are so effective at grabbing the attention audiences is that they tend to be less direct ways of saying things that, if said directly, would hardly have been noticed.

Consider, for example, whether Hanrahan's line have been so widely reported and remembered if he'd selected a more direct way of reporting the same thing, such as "All the planes returned safely"?

I very much doubt it, just as I doubt whether anyone would have noticed if Margaret Thatcher had said "No one is going to make me change my economic policies" rather than her most memorable contrast "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."

The idea that indirectness works better than directness is consistent with other research into conversation, which suggests that, in many and perhaps most contexts, there is a preference for saying things indirectly rather than directly.

As I said of these examples from Hanrahan and Thatcher in Our Masters' Voices (pp. 162.163): 'these more direct modes of communication leave nothing whatsoever to the imagination and little or no effort is required to be able to see the point' - and of the less direct options '.. to identify and appreciate the point being made, people have to put their brains to work. The increased mental effort involved in decoding interlocking contrasts and lists may increase the chances that particular message will remain in listeners' minds..'

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