5 September 2011

Curtain imagery from Winston Churchill and John Major

Looking through video clips for a conference presentation, I came across one that I've often quoted as an example of how effectively a simple metaphor can be used to get a point across.

On being defeated in the 1997 UK general election, John Major had no choice but to resign as Prime Minister, but he was under no obligation to resign as leader of the Conservative Party.

But he did both and began his statement with the words:

"When the curtain falls, its time to get off the stage and that is what I propose to do."


I'd be very surprised indeed if anyone watching this responded (then or now) by asking "What curtain, what stage?" - let alone "What on earth is he talking about?"

Nor have I ever heard a similar response to the much more famous 'curtain' metaphor used by another recently defeated Conservative Party leader more than half a century earlier.

Having lost the 1945 general election, Winston Churchill, like so many of the prime ministers who followed him (e.g. Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown) embarked on the US lecture circuit in pursuit of a few dollars. At Fulton, Missouri in 1946, he spoke of an "iron curtain" that had "descended across the continent" of Europe (for more on which, see also HERE & HERE) :


Far from prompting those who heard it to start saying things like "What curtain?" or "I haven't noticed any curtains made of iron", the metaphor quickly became part of the vocabulary in the language of the Cold War.

Recycled images
These examples are neat illustrations of two rather obvious, but nonetheless important and intriguing, facts about imagery:
  1. Whether you use a metaphor, simile, analogy or anecdote, it can be one of the most effective ways of getting your message across.
  2. The same image (e.g. a curtain falling) can be used to get quite different messages across to different audiences.
This is why my book Lend Me Your Ears includes a whole chapter on the subject (Chapter 7: 'Painting Pictures with Words') and why I invariably use examples like these when running courses.

A dictionary of reusable images?
Having heard (and/or been involved in preparing) hundreds of speeches and presentations on a vast range of different subjects, I know that a "curtain falling" is just one of many images that can be reused effectively by different speakers for different purposes on different occasions.

As my collection of these continues to grow as the years go by, I'm beginning to wonder whether there might be enough of a market for them to fill another book, working title: An Anthology of Adaptable Images.

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