The Queen's Speech: an exception that proves the ruler

This blog is from 22 years ago when the Queen opened parliament by reading a speech written for her by Gordon Brown's Labour government. 

I watched her reading the whole of today's specch prepared by Boris Johnson's Conservative government - not becase I'm particularly interested in their plans for the coming year but because I do like to inspect the standard of speechwriting (which was quite impressive this year) and, just as interesting, whether our 95 year-old Queen still has the ability to deliver a boring, neutral and uninspiring speech. 

On this morning's evidence, the answer to this is a resounding YES!

What follows is the blog I wrote 20+ years ago.

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At the State Opening of Parliament on 3rd December, the Queen, as she does every year, will be reading out her government's legislative plans for the months ahead. Most commentators will be listening to the Speech to find out what Gordon Brown is going to be putting on the statute book in 2009.

How not to speak inspiringly
 
But you can also listen to it as a model of how not to give an inspiring speech.

Public speaking at its best depends both on the language used to package the key messages and the way it is delivered. Using rhetoric, maintaining eye contact with the audience, pausing regularly and in particular places, stressing certain words and changing intonation are all essential ingredients in the cocktail for conveying passion and inspiring an audience. This is why it is so easy to ‘dehumanise’ the speech of Daleks and other talking robots by the simple device of stripping out any hint of intonational variation and have them speak in a flat, regular and monotonous tone of voice.

When it comes to sounding unenthusiastic and uninterested in inspiring an audience, the Queen’s Speech is an example with few serious competitors. She has no qualms about being seen to be wearing spectacles, which underline the fact that she is reading carefully from the script she holds so obviously in front of her. 
 
Nor is she in the least bit inhibited about fixing her eyes on the text rather than the audience. Then, as she enunciates the sentences, her tone is so disinterested as to make it abundantly clear that she is merely reciting words written by someone else and about which she has no personal feelings or opinions whatsoever.

This is, of course, how it has to be in a constitutional monarchy, where the head of state has to be publicly seen and heard as neutral about the policies of whatever political party happens to have ended up in power. The Queen knows, just as everyone else knows, that showing enthusiasm, or lack of it, about the law-making plans of her government would lead to a serious crisis that would be more than her job is worth. So, even when announcing plans to ban hunting with hounds, she managed not to convey the slightest hint of disappointment or irritation that a favorite pastime of her immediate family was about to be outlawed.

The Queen’s Speech is therefore an interesting exception to the normal rules of effective public speaking, and her whole approach is a fine example of how to deal with those rare occasions when you have to conceal what you really feel about the things you are talking about.

 

Shakespeare as speechwriter

In my continuously failing efforts to tidy up my study, I came across a programme for a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Julius Caesar at Stratford upon Avon in 1992 (below).

I'd forgotten that the RSC had asked me to write a thousand-word article for it, in exchange for which they gave me two free seats at an actual performance.

Reading it all these years later, it struck me as better than I expected - and at least good enough to put on my blog.

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SHAKESPEARE AS SPEECHWRITER

… so little has the language of persuasion changed in the last four hundred years that, were Shakespeare to return today, he would have no trouble in marketing his services to contemporary politicians …

 

When it comes to writing speeches to “stir men’s blood”, Shakespeare exhibits a mastery equal to that found in the classical Roman times about which he was writing. For someone living in an era when education was more or less synonymous with learning the classics, it was hardly surprising that he had a good understanding of rhetoric. Perhaps less obvious is the fact that the rhetorical techniques used by Mark Antony are much the same as those used by today’s politicians in their attempts to win our hearts and minds and votes.

 

Recent research, based on analyses of video-recorded political speeches has examined sequences where audiences applaud something said by a speaker. This makes it possible to identify forms of language and modes of delivery that literally “move” audiences to applaud what the speaker just said with a physical and audible display of approval.

 

One of the main findings is that about 75% of the bursts of applause during political speeches occurs after the use of seven rhetorical devices, most of which feature prominently in the Forum speech. For example, rhetorical questions come thick and fast. Even before his first one, Mark Antony opens with one

 there might be a case for giving praise where praise was due.

 

An equally dramatic difference in tone would have resulted had the second contrast had b of the simplest rhetorical devices, a list containing three items: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”. Famous examples from later centuries include political slogans like Liberté, egalité, fraternité” and “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer”

 

A more important device involves the use of various forms of contrast, such as Margaret Thatcher’s “You turn if you want to – the lady’s not for turning” and John F Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Mark Antony launches into his speech with two consecutive contrasts: “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” and “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”

 

This early use of powerfully formulated lines highlights the importance of both of striking an immediate chord with an audience and of establishing the mood and agenda of what’s to come. His opening is well crafted on each of these fronts and the structures reveal a recognition of the importance of details like the order in which the two parts of a contrast should be delivered. It is usually the second part with which the audience will wish to affiliate or will highlight a theme for further development – and this is exactly what happens here.

 

 

 

 

Think of the very different expectations that would have been established if Shakespeare had inverted the contrasts. Had the first one been “I come not to praise Caesar but to bury him” it would have implied that the speaker was glad to see the back of him and was about to tell us why, rather than hinting that een inverted too: “The good men do is oft interred with their bones; the evil that men do lives after them” would have suggested that we can forget about anything good Caesar might have done and that what matters now is to clear up the mess caused by his evil deeds.

 

Shakespeare therefore constructed the sequence in just the right order for the mood and direction the speech was to take. The way it develops then shows that contrasts are not only useful for organising material on a line-by-line basis but can also provide a single unifying theme for the overall structure of a speech. This is illustrated by the recurring contrast between Mark Antony’s view of Caesar and that of Brutus, summed up in the lines “I speak not to disprove that Brutus spoke, But here I am to speak what I do know.” It also provides the continuing leitmotif with his repeated references to what Brutus has said about Caesar.

 

As one would expect from an accomplished speechwriter, Shakespeare’s ability to combine different rhetorical devices would have assured much prime-time news coverage for a speaker using one of his scripts:

 

“I rather choose

“to wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you,

“than I will wrong such honourable men”

 

is an example of a contrast in which the first part involves a list of three. “you are not wood, you are not stones, but men” has a third item that contrasts with the first two in the list.

 

When it comes to content, research has shown that the surest way to stir an audience is either to attack your opponents or to praise your own side. On the evidence of the Forum speech, this too is something Shakespeare understood, a Mark Antony heaps increasingly praise on Caesar while using ironic praise of Brutus and his colleagues in an implicit and thinly veiled attack on the opposition.

 

Another point to emerge from research into contemporary speeches is that combining more than one rhetorical device in a single sequence often produces a more enthusiastic response than the use of a single device on its own. When that happens, such lines are very likely to attract the attention of journalists, who may select them as sound-bites for television news programmes.

 

When Mark Antony becomes self-deprecating about his own skill as an orator, we hear a contradiction that would have sounded amusing to those of Shakespeare’s contemporaries who were as well-versed in rhetoric:

 

“I am no orator as Brutus is;

“But as you know me all, a plain blunt man…

“For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth.

“Action nor utterance nor the power of speech

“To stir men’s blood.”

 

With a contrast, alliteration and two lists of three, he uses powerful rhetorical forms to deny his own rhetorical ability!

 

As a speechwriter, then, Shakespeare was a master of his craft. Indeed, so little has the language of persuasion changed over the past four hundred years that, were he to return today, he would certainly have no trouble in marketing his services to contemporary politicians.

 

Less certain is which of our current political parties would he help.

 Max Atkinson is author of Our Masters' Voices: the language and body language of politics, Methuen, 1984.

 


An audience with Dr Max Atkinson

 Birthday greetings or obituary?

On 3rd March, sixteen days before my birthday on the 19th, Brian Jenner (founder of the UK Speechwriters Guild & the European Speechwriters Network) chaired a Zoom meeting with the title of this blogpost.

With his usual ingenuity, Brian managed to get a remarkable group of people together who said such complimentary things about my work that I wasn't sure whether to be flattered or depressed by what could be heard as an obituary. This was because I remember being told years ago by someone doing research into obituaries in The Times that the routine starting point was what the deceased would be remembered for (i.e. how they'd ended up). The article was then carefully structured to explain how he or she got there.

A lot of people who didn't see the meeting have asked to see a video copy of it. Much of it can be seen at the start of my website at www.speaking.co.uk but you can see the whole thing here:

https://youtu.be/6x7Oi7wrWnI?t=1

If you rewind the clip to a few minutes after it starts, you can watch the whole session, except for a few clips (from Clark Judge, Senator Barrasso, Professor John Heritage and Belgian presentation trainer Carsten Wendt), for which see www.speaking.co.uk