Content-free sermon by Alan Bennett

A couple of years after the release of The Best of Sellers (see previous entry) came the revue Beyond the Fringe, which launched the careers of Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller.

One of the many high spots in the show was Alan Bennett's sermon preached from the text "My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man" - a nice contrast, followed up by some fine examples of repetition, rhetorical questions, similes and anecdotes - but more or less completely devoid of content.

When I was at school, a group of us persuaded the chaplain, or padré, as Bennett would have called him, to listen to it. Perhaps predictably, he didn't seem to think it was at all funny and couldn't see any connection between it and the sermons he and visiting preachers were inflicting on us at the compulsory services we had to attend every Sunday.

See if it reminds you of any sermons you've heard - and, if you want to see the full text and other gems from the show, click the title above to access details of the book on Amazon.

50 years since Peter Sellers recorded his memorable political speech

After mentioning a content-free political speech by the late Peter Sellers in an earlier blog entry, I’ve just discovered that you can listen to the original track from The Best of Sellers (1958) on YouTube - which you can access by clicking HERE or on the title above.

Rhetorical questions and audience involvement

It may seem fairly obvious that, if you say something that gets an audience wondering or anticipating what’s coming next, you’re likely to increase their attentiveness and involvement. But it’s not always quite so easy to find an example that provides a clear demonstration of how posing a puzzle or a rhetorical question actually works.

Sometimes, television editors come to the rescue, as happened in the following clip from the speech by Tory leader David Cameron at his party conference in 2006.

As he pauses at the end of his rhetorical question, the camera cuts away to the audience, where you can see a woman on the left of the screen nodding in agreement with his anticipated answer. And you don’t have to be particularly good at lip reading to see that she is also saying “yes” – about two seconds before Cameron’s own “yes” triggers the more generalised display of agreement (applause).

As a footnote, it’s also worth observing that there are people like this woman, who respond more visibly than others, in most audiences – and very encouraging they are too, whatever type of speech or presentation you happen to be making. They are one of the reasons why maintaining eye contact is so important for speakers, because, once you’ve identified who these people are, you have a very useful and continuing barometer of how well (or badly) you’re doing.

Talking the economy up

As newspaper sketch-writers have noticed, Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not the world's most inspiring speaker.

Here's an example from the Daily Telegraph's Andrew Grimson in February of this year:

"Mr Darling used the tactic which has stood him in such good stead whenever he has faced a difficulty in his ministerial career. He tried to bore us into submission."

And here's The Guardian's Simon Hoggart in similar vein after Mr Darling's budget speech in March:

"Is Alistair Darling the most boring chancellor ever? Put it this way: he sent Geoffrey Howe to sleep ... The former chancellor, now Lord Howe, was the proud holder of that ancient title, the ultimate mega-snooze ... a man whose first throat-clearing could empty a packed room.

"Yesterday he took his place in the gallery across from the whipper-snapper bidding to depose him. Mr Darling had barely started chuntering in his soft Scottish monotone about 'stability', 'challenges of the future', 'flexibility and resilience', when Lord Howe's head slumped dramatically forward. For almost the entire speech he slept in peace."

On the evidence of Mr Darling's pre-budget report to the House of Commons earlier this afternoon, his style of speaking may be just the thing to reassure and inspire confidence the markets. By the time he'd finished, the FTSE 100 index of leading shares recorded its biggest ever percentage day's rise of 9.84%.

What the Chancellor said may, of course, have been as important as how he said it. Either way, Gordon Brown will no doubt be delighted and hoping that it will also prompt the biggest ever percentage rise in his opinion poll ratings.

Talking the economy down

Television news programmes these days give the impression that camera crews are being sent around the country with a brief to film anything they can, so long as it shows the economy in as negative a light as possible.

The most misleading and dishonest example I’ve seen so far was film of a shopping centre on the BBC Ten o’clock News. “There are plenty of shoppers here ..” the commentary told us authoritatively and with a hint of optimism that only lasted as far as the but clause in the same sentence “but not many of them are carrying carrier bags.”

The question is: did the reporter have any evidence about how many shoppers were there and what percentage of them were carrying new purchases around with them in carrier bags at the same time on the same day in the same shopping centre a year ago, when there weren’t any worries about the economy?

If so, he didn't bother to mention it – but why let matters of fact and truth get in the way of making up a story to meet the mood of the times (not to mention the demands of your editor)?

Why lists of three: mystery, magic or reason?

The fact that the three-part list is such a commonly used rhetorical technique often raises the question of what it is about the number 3 that’s so special. It’s sometimes suggested that there must be something magical or mystical about it. But there is, I think, a much more rational explanation.

Its most likely source is the commonest form of human communication, namely everyday conversation. In the research literature of conversation analysis, there is the idea of there being an implicit or tacit ‘economy rule’ that works along the lines of “say things as briefly as you can unless you have a good reason for doing otherwise”.

So when we complain that someone is ‘long-winded’, ‘likes the sound of his own voice’ or ‘is always hogging the conversation’, we are in effect noticing and complaining that he’s breaking the economy rule. And the fact that there are actually words in the English language, and probably in other languages too, for referring to such rule-breaking behaviour (e.g. ‘verbose’ and ‘garrulous’) means that it’s something that happens (and is complained about) quite often.

We also know something about how three-part lists work in everyday conversation, thanks to a fascinating paper by one of the pioneers of conversation analysis, the late Gail Jefferson. Among other things, her detailed empirical studies showed how frequently they occur in conversation and how they are often treated by others as indicating that the person who produced the three-part list has finished and that someone else can now start speaking without fear of being accused of interrupting.*

As for why so many lists come in threes, the most likely explanation is that 3 conforms to the economy rule, because the arrival of a third item is the first point at which a possible connection implied by the first two is confirmed, and has the effect of turning a ‘possible list’ into a ‘definite' or 'complete enough' list’ of similar things.

For example, if my first two words are ‘Rose’ and ‘Lily’, I could be starting a list of flowers' names or a list of women’s names – but you won’t know for sure which of these it is until I add a third one.

If my third word is ‘Joanna', it becomes a list women’s names; if it’s ‘foxglove’, it becomes a list of flowers' names (and, if it had been ‘Botham’, cricket fans will hear it as a list of cricketer’s names - Lily and Lillie, the famous Australian fast bowler, may be spelt differently, but they sound exactly the same).

The arrival of the third item in a list is therefore the first and earliest point at which a possible list can become an unequivocal and unambiguous list of similar items, and you don’t need a fourth, fifth or sixth word to establish this. So, if you’re following the economy rule, you wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) add any more after the third one.

This is not to say, of course, that we can never use longer lists in conversation without risking complaints. Sometimes we want to convey a sense of ‘muchness’, as when we want to emphasise that something was much better or much worse than normal. “He went on and on and on” may be a fairly common way of complaining that someone was being ‘long-winded’, but “He went on and on and on and on and on” is to make a more serious criticism by depicting the violation of the economy rule as having been far more extreme than usual.

*Gail Jefferson (1990) 'List-construction as a task and a resource'. In: George Psathas, eds. Interaction Competence. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America: 63-92,

Tom Peters: High on rhetoric but low on content?

Although I’ve never seen Tom Peters in action, I’ve heard from people who have that he’s a pretty impressive performer. I also know something about the speaking techniques of ‘management gurus’ from an interesting book called Management Speak: The Live Oratory of Management Gurus (London, Routledge, 2005) by David Greatbatch and Timothy Clark.

But until I came across this short video on YouTube (below), I hadn’t realised just how much and how frequently Mr Peters uses the main rhetorical techniques of contrast, three-part list and puzzle-solution (a device that gets the audience wondering what the solution is going to be, or poses a question before revealing the answer).

How much can you use these techniques?
As you'll see from the transcript below the video, he packages almost everything he says by using one or other of these devices.

It also bears on two intriguing questions that I’m often asked, but to which I have no definitive answer. One is how much of a speech or presentation can be constructed using these devices? On the evidence of this clip, taken on its own, it looks as though the answer is ‘pretty well all of it’.

Content-free presentations?
The second question is whether it's possible, by over-using them, to could produce an 'effective presentation' that's completely lacking in content. One of the best examples I ever heard of anupme coming close to this was the late Peter Sellers, who delivered a parody of a political speech that ended with the immortal line “.. and in conclusion, let me say just this.”

Another was Alan Bennett's sermon on the text "My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man from Beyond the Fringe.

I’ve now watched this clip several times and have to admit that, however impressive his mastery of rhetoric and citation of rhetorically constructed quotations might be, I’m still not sure what exactly it is that Mr Peters is trying to tell us. Maybe one of the other 54,252 who have so far seen it on YouTube could enlighten me.

Starts by posing a puzzle that will turn out to be the first one in a sequence of three puzzle-solution fomats in a row:

[P]→ The number one problem with enterprises small or large is: [PAUSE]

The Solution to the puzzle then comes in the form of a somple contrast:

[A]→ too much talk.
[B]→ too little do.

Second (double) puzzle (‘what could this ‘remarkable institution’ and ‘ultimate oxymoron be’?):

[P]→ Now as you know we have this one remarkable institution in the United States, the ultimate oxymoron.

And the solutions (the ‘oxymoron’ is a profitable airline and the institution is South West):

[S]→ A profitable airline. It’s called South West.

Third puzzle (‘what are these words of hers going to be?’):

[P]→ Herb Kelleher the chief executive officer of South West and I agree on the essence of a strategic plan and I love these words of hers:

The solution quotes a puzzle-solution from her (‘what could the strategic plan be?’), solution - ‘doing things’:

[S]→ [P]→ “We have a ‘strategic’ plan.
[S]→ It’s called doing things.”

Then a contrast to underline how important he thinks it is:

[A]→ And literally, as I said, it was number one on my reading list twenty two years ago.
[B]→ It’s number one on my list today.

Followed by an alliterative three-part list (though it’s not very clear how it relates to what went before and what’s coming next):

[1]→ Fail.
[2]→ Forward.
[3]→ Fast.

Then another three part list:

[1]→ No screw-ups
[2]→ No learning.
[3]→ It’s as simple as that.

And two contrasts:

[A]→ No fast screw-ups
[B]→ No fast learning

[A]→ No big screw-ups
[B]→ No big learning

Three sentences set up a puzzle (what could the one favorite slide be out of so many be?):

[P]→ [1]→ Now in my major slide deck at my website there are some twelve hundred slides.
[2]→ By definition one has got to be my favorite.
[3]→ And this next one is my favorite of the twelve hundred, even though I’m using it relatively early in the presentation.

And, to keep the suspense up a bit longer, he extends the puzzle before revealing the solution:

[P]→ Comes from a Sydney Australia exec., and an extremely successful one at that, who said that he owed most of his business success to a simple six word philosophy:

The solution is a contrast, in which each of the three words in the first part contrasts with each of the three words in the second part (reward/punish – excellent/mediocre – failures/successes):

[S]→ [A]→ Reward excellent failures.
[B]→ Punish mediocre successes.

Hardly surprising that he thinks that a contrast with each of the three consecutive words in the first part are followed by three directly opposite words in the second part is a ‘great quote’. And to make the point, his assessment is the first part of another contrast, the second part of which is the first part of yet another contrast:

[A]→ Now I think this is a great quote

[B]→ [A]→ But my goal relative to you is not to have you say “nice quote, Tom”,

[B]→ but to take it literally seriously.

Bobby Kennedy nearly got it right about Obama

The other day, I came across a video on YouTube (see below for the main point, or click on the title for a fuller version of the TV program) claiming that Bobby Kennedy had made an accurate prophesy about how long it would be before an African American became President.

The presenter was, perhaps, a little over eager in trying to make it sound as though Kennedy was right on the button when he said that “a Negro could be President in 40 years”, as the date on the Washington Post story is actually 1961, which was 48 years before 20th January 2009 when Mr Obama actually becomes President.

Extraordinary though Kennedy’s words must have sounded at the time, he has to be admired both for his optimism in a period of such turbulence in the struggle for civil rights and for the near-accuracy of his prediction.

Younger readers should not, by the way, read anything sinister into Kennedy's use of the word ‘Negro’, because it was also used during the same era and without any qualms by Martin Luther King Jr. and more or less everyone else.

‘African American’ may be the ‘politically correct’ description at the moment, but it is only the latest in a series of attempts to eliminate the word ‘Negro’ from everyday usage in the American version of the English language, earlier attempts at which include ‘black’ and ‘persons of colour’.

‘Reliable sources' on where Obama’s 'Yes we can' came from?

On 8th November, the following appeared in the Guardian by Allegra Stratton, who had phoned me the previous day:

Strangest of all, there is a British political scientist who claims he has proof that the actual inspiration for the slogan is Bob the Builder (theme tune: "Can We Fix It?" Answer: "Yes We Can"). Max Atkinson, expert on political rhetoric and author of Lend Me Your Ears, said: "What's so mad about that? I have it on the authority of two very reliable sources."

Er, no. What I actually said when Ms Stratton phoned me about Yes we can and Bob the Builder was that I’d come across two other people who'd made the same connection and that, if true, it wasn’t too difficult to imagine how Mr Obama might have come across it or why he might have had a good reason to use it.

But word must have got around the Guardian offices, because my two allegedly "reliable sources" reappeard on 12th November in another article in the same paper by Alice Wignall:

At least one expert in political rhetoric is convinced: at the weekend, British speechwriter Max Atkinson said that "two very reliable sources" had confirmed that Bob inspired the slogan.

And at least one journalist working for the Sunday Sun in Newcastle must be a Guardian reader, as the same story was recycled again in today's edition:

Max Atkinson, former speech writer for Paddy Ashdown, said that “two very reliable sources” had confirmed to him that Bob was the inspiration for the slogan.

So, to put the record straight, I never said that I had either "proof" or "two reliable sources who had "confirmed" the possible link they were so obsessed with.

To the journalists, who turned this molehill of a comment (“two other people who’d made the same connection”) into a bit of a mountain (“two very reliable sources" and/or "proof"), and anyone else who might have read their misleading articles, all I would say is that I'm not particularly interested in where Mr Obama got the line from.

Much more interesting is the way he used it to prompt audience responses in some of his speeches and how both it and the responses are significantly different from the choruses that regularly peppered the speeches of Martin Luther-King.

And, if you want to keep an eye on what others might be writing about you, I'd recommend signing up with Google Alerts - without which none of these rather annoying articles would have come to my attention.

Will there be any ‘rhetorical denial’ from the Obama camp?

Effective speakers don’t always like to see their technical ability being noticed and analysed by others.

I first became aware of this back in 1984, when I published a book on the rhetorical techniques used by politicians to trigger applause in speeches (Our Masters’ Voices: The Language and Body Language of Politics).

It 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 went on to elaborate as follows:

“I suppose you can analyse great speeches, but it’s a bit like analysing a great painting in terms of the chemical composition of the pigments on the canvas.”

If I’d been given a chance to respond, I’d have said “Yes, and how many other people could have come up with such a powerful simile (with alliteration bringing the image to a close) to make their point?”

At the start of the 1987 general election in Britain, David Owen, who was leader of the SDP (which had broken away from the Labour Party largely because the Bennite tendency had taken it so far to the left), announced that “Reason, not rhetoric will win this campaign.” So here he was using an alliterative contrast, one of the most important of all rhetorical techniques, to tell us that there wouldn’t be any rhetoric from the SDP.

This tendency of good communicators who use rhetoric effectively to deny that they are using it at all goes back at least as far as Shakespeare. Having started his Forum speech in Julius Caesar with a memorable 3-part list with third item longest (Friends, Romans and countrymen) and two powerful contrasts (I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred within their bones), Mark Antony later uses another contrast to inform the audience that he, unlike Brutus, is no good at public speaking (I am no orator as Brutus it, but just a plain simple man), even though this is the most famous speech in one of the most famous plays in English literature.

Now that so many commentators, including me, are waxing lyrical about Mr Obama’s technical mastery of rhetoric, imagery and alliteration, it will be interesting to see if any of his aides start trying to tell us that his success in communicating with mass audiences has had more to do with what he says than how he says it.

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

Here's something at the other end of the scale from previous blogs about Barack Obama's brilliance at oratory.

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 obsessively 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 to 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. Another master of this was Mr McGregor, an official spokesman for the foreign office during the Falklands war, who made regular appearances of on television reading out progress reports in a flat, deadpan monotone – presumably because a vital part of his job was to give nothing away that might have encouraged or discouraged viewers, whether British or Argentinian, about how things were going in the South Atlantic.

How to prevent a civil war
A much more surprising case was Nelson Mandela’s first speech after being released from prison in 1990. Here was a highly effective communicator, whose words at his trial 27 years earlier are to be found in most books of great speeches, and who had had the best part of three decades to prepare an inspiring and memorable text. But it was not to be. As if modeling his performance on the Queen’s Speech, he buried his head in the script and spoke in a flat measured tone that came across as completely lacking in the kind of passion everyone was expecting from someone who had suffered so much and was held in such high regard by his audience.

Having waited for years for this historic event, anticipating something on a par with Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, I remember being disappointed and surprised by what I saw and heard from the balcony of City Hall in Cape Town. It was only later that it dawned on me that this was another case where rousing rhetoric would have been completely counter-productive. The political situation in South Africa was poised on a knife-edge and his release from prison had only happened at all because the apartheid regime was crumbling. It was a moment when anything more inspiring from Mandela might have come across as a call to arms and could easily have prompted an immediate uprising or civil war. But the political understanding with the minority white government was that the African National Congress would keep the lid on things for long enough to enable a settlement to be negotiated. As when the Queen opens parliament, Mr Mandela knew exactly what he was doing, how to do it and that he could not have done otherwise.

Displaying neutrality
So as well as listening to the content of the Queen’s Speech on 3rd December, it is also worth close inspection as an object lesson on how to address an audience if you’re ever in a position of having to convey complete neutrality and detachment. Or, if you’d rather rise to the much more usual challenge of trying to inspire your audience, pay close attention to the way she delivers it -- and then do exactly the opposite.

(Click here or on title to see her in action at the State Opening of Parliament in 2006).

Max Atkinson is author of Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy: Seven Essential Steps to Success ( 2008), and Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations (2004) and was a speechwriter and coach to Paddy Ashdown (website:

Rhetoric & imagery in Obama's victory speech

The Independent on Sunday asked me to annotate Barack Obama’s victory speech last week, the results of which were published on 9th November. It hasn't been posted on their website, probably because the layout with red circles around lines from the speech linked to the notes caused problems in creating a readable web page.

The newspaper’s introduction to the piece is reprinted below, followed by the full text of the speech with my notes in italics between paragraphs (which are slightly fuller than those in the published version).


Barack Obama’s speech in Chicago following his victory in the US election was a fine example of the rhetorical brilliance that helped him defeat Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

Although he has a team of three speechweriters. Led by the 27-year old wunderkind Jon Favreau, Obama likes to write the bulk of his speeches himself.

It’s commonly thought that effective orators are blessed with a mysterious gift, but all successful speakers use the same simple techniques, and have been doing so at least since they were first taught by the ancient Greeks. What makes outstanding speakers stand out is the frequency with which they use them. At its simplest, the more use made of these techniques, the more impressed audiences will be.

The main rhetorical techniques include: Contrasts: e.g. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him (Mark Antony), three-part lists: e.g. Education, education and education. (Tony Blair) and
combinations of contrasts and lists: e.g by contrasting a third item with the first two: We shall negotiate for it, sacrifice for it but never surrender for it. (Ronald Reagan).

Add to these devices like alliteration, repetition, imagery and anecdotes, and you have the basic building blocks of the language of public speaking.

“It’s not often that a single speech launches a politician from obscurity on to the national stage,” says public-speaking expert Dr Max Atkinson, “Ronald Reagan achieved it when he spoke in support of Barry Goldwater at the Republican Convention in 1964, and Obama achieved it with his keynote address to the Democratic Convention four years ago. Already he ranks highly in the league of all-time greats like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. He is particularly fond of contrasts, three-part lists and various combinations of the two. He also knows how to use imagery both to increase impact and to make his points evoke associations with great communicators of the past like Lincoln, King and Reagan. But one of the most interesting things about all this is that, even when you can see that Mr Obama is using the same simple techniques that every other inspiring speaker uses, the power and impact of his language remain undiminished."

(P.S. A question I'm often asked by people attending my courses and/or who've read one of my books is: "how frequently can you can get away with using rhetorical techniques and imagery?" This speech in an impressive example of how they can be used to get across almost every single point you want to make -- and, in this case, had the effect of moving many who heard it, both live in Chicago and around the world, to tears).


If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

Kicks off by evoking the American Dream, implicitly linking to Martin Luther King’s 'I have a dream speech – by addressing 3 groups of people out there.

It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voices could be that difference.

This is the first of 3 groups of people for whom “it’s the answer”. High turnout depicted by images of voters in queues, etc.

It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, (first groups depicted by series of contrasts) Hispanic, Asian, Native American (group of 3), gay, straight, disabled and not disabled (two more contrasting groups) - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America .

3rd item contrasts with the first two; and this ‘not red states-not blue states-but United States’ line harks back to Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, that first brought him to wider public notice, where he used it to introduce the ‘politics of hope’ theme that has become one of his trademarks.

It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

‘Hope’ theme again, plus image of bending an arc towards a better future.

It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

Contrast between ‘what’s been coming’ and ‘what’s now come’ – and it’s come at 3 moments (‘this day’, ‘this election’, ‘this moment’).

A little bit earlier this evening I received an extraordinarily gracious call from Senator McCain. He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he's fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine. We are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader.

McCain has done 3 worthy things (‘fought a campaign’, ‘fought for the country’, ‘endured sacrifices’).

I congratulate him, I congratulate Governor Palin, for all they have achieved, and I look forward to working with them to renew this nation's promise in the months ahead.

I want to thank my partner in this journey, a man who campaigned from his heart and spoke for the men and women he grew up with on the streets of Scranton and rode with on that train home to Delaware, the vice-president-elect of the United States, Joe Biden.

Biden has also done 3 things (‘campaigned’, ‘spoken’, ‘ridden on a train’). The train imagery personalises his praise for Biden, who started commuting daily from Delaware to Washington in 1972, after his two young sons had survived a road crash in which his wife and their daughter died.

And I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last 16 years, the rock of our family, the love of my life, the nation's next first lady, Michelle Obama. Sasha and Malia, I love you both more than you can imagine, and you have earned the new puppy that's coming with us to the White House.

Note that the invitations to the audience to applaud Biden and Michelle are perfectly executed – the person is identified, praised and finally named. Naming the person earlier tends to confuse audiences as to when and if they are supposed to applaud. Mention of the puppy for the children depicts him as a thoroughly ‘normal’, kindly father and family man.

And while she's no longer with us, I know my grandmother is watching, along with the family that made me who I am. I miss them tonight, and know that my debt to them is beyond measure. To my sister Maya, my sister Auma, all my other brothers and sisters - thank you so much for all the support you have given me. I am grateful to them.

This sentence can be heard as an implicit reminder that he’s a practising Christian who believes in life after death, followed by more ‘I’m a family man’ references.

To my campaign manager David Plouffe, the unsung hero of this campaign, who built the best political campaign in the history of the United States of America. My chief strategist David Axelrod, who has been a partner with me every step of the way, and to the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics - you made this happen, and I am forever grateful for what you've sacrificed to get it done.

But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to - it belongs to you.


I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn't start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington - it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

This is the first of 3 points about his campaign (‘started modestly’, ‘built by working men’, ‘grew strength from young people’). Then this first point uses a combined contrast and 3 part list, in which Washington is contrasted with 3 ordinary provincial cities. Adding to the impact of this contrast between Washington and the 3 other places are simple images that contrast the corridors of power in one (‘halls of Washington’) with everyday places in the others (‘backyards', 'living rooms' and 'front porches’).

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause.

Second point about campaign is that it was built by 3 types of drains on personal cash.

It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation's apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; it grew strength from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organised, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from the Earth.

Third point is that it grew strength from 3 groups of people (‘the young’, ‘not-so-young people’, and ‘millions of Americans’). Sacrifice depicted by images of young people leaving homes and supporters braving contrasting climatic conditions -- summed up as a proof that Abraham Lincoln’s most famous line, also a 3 part list, still applies. He could have said it hasn’t disappeared, vanished or died, but ‘perished’ has the advantage of adding another alliterative word.

This is your victory.

I know you didn't do this just to win an election and I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.

Two reasons ‘why you didn’t do it’ are contrasted with third reason ‘why you did’.

For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.

3 challenges ahead, and the third one is longer than the first two. This is a feature of some of the most famous 3 part lists of all time, such as ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ and ‘father, son and holy ghost’. ‘Tomorrow’ obviously doesn’t mean ‘Thursday’ and is a simple metaphor for the future. Hazards to the planet can be described in many different ways, but ‘peril’ has the ‘poetic’ advantage of alliteration.

Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us.

‘Deserts’ and ‘mountains’ imagery to highlight the tough conditions American soldiers are facing.

There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor's bills, or save enough for their child's college education. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

Contrast between brave Americans waking up to face difficulties in foreign places and American parents unable to sleep because of difficulties at home – of which there happen to be 3 (paying ‘mortgages’, ‘medical expenses’ and ‘college fees’).

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep.

This simple image of the long road and steep climb was quite widely featured in the media as the main soundbite from the speech. It is also the first of 3 challenges that lie ahead (‘it’s going to take time’, ‘there’ll be opposition’ and ‘we need to remake the nation’).

We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there

The mountain-climbing imagery, followed by “we as a people will get there” evokes the last speech made by Martin Luther King on the night before he was assassinated: “I’ve been up to the mountain, I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as president, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.

And above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it's been done in America for 221 years - block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

3 alliterative building images, involving repetition of words, to characterize how this has always been done. It’s also another example where the third one is the longest of the three.

What began 21 months ago in the depths of winter cannot end on this autumn night.

Contrast between winter and autumn.

This victory alone is not the change we seek - it is only the chance for us to make that change.

Alliterative contrast between the victory not being the ‘change’ but the ‘chance to make the change’.

And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.

3 reasons why it can’t happen, and alliteration with four words beginning with ‘S’ (and more ‘S-’ words at the start of the next sentence).

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers - in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.

Contrast between ‘ourselves’ and ‘each other’, followed by contrast between Wall Street and Main Street, where street names are simple metaphors depicting the worlds of high finance and ordinary everyday shopping.

Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.

Lets not fall back into 3 errors (‘partisanship’, ‘pettiness’ and ‘immaturity’). He could just as well said ‘harmed’ or ‘damaged’ politics, but ‘poisoned’ has the advantage of alliteration with other ‘P’ words close by.

Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House - a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity.

The Republican Party had 3 founding values, and Lincoln surfaces again, with a reminder that he, like Obama, started out in Illinois state politics.

Those are values that we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours: "We are not enemies, but friends… though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection."

Another quote from Lincoln, which starts with a contrast between ‘enemies’ and ‘friends’.

And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn - I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too.

Combination in which the second part of the contrast is a 3 part list (‘you may not have voted for me’, ‘but 3 things link us together’).

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces (alliteration) to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared (contrast), and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

Addressed to 3 groups of people (‘foreigners’, ‘political leaders’ and the ‘developing world'), with alliteration and image of people in ‘huddled in corners’. The mood and imagery here is reminiscent of the way Kennedy addressed different parts of the world in his inaugural address in 1960: “To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe …” The image of a 'new dawn of American leadership' also has echoes of another line in Kennedy's inaugural: "The torch has passed to a new generation of Americans .."

To those who would tear the world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you.

And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

Alliterative image of a ‘beacon burning’ echoes one of the first few lines of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech: “This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.” Then we have another contrast in which the third one, ‘power of our ideals’, contrasts with the first two. The first three of these are commonly cited a American ideals, but ‘hope’ resurfaces again, having been a central theme for Obama since he published his book ‘the Audacity of Hope’.

For that is the true genius of America - that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

Genius of America has 3 components, ‘hope’ again and ‘tomorrow’ again used as metaphor for the future.

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing - Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

Starts an extended anecdote to highlight a century of change, setting it up by contrasting this one with the many other stories that could be told. This woman just happens to come from the same place as Martin Luther King (Atlanta). And the fact that she’s 106 enables him to talk about events from the past century, as MLK did at the start of ‘I have a dream’. His reference point was the emancipation proclamation, in relation to which he produced a series of sentences starting with “One hundred years later..” (“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination…etc.”).

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the colour of her skin.

Transport imagery to highlight technological change, and it now turns out that she is black as well as female and very old – which sets it up for him to say more about Martin Luther King’s central themes of emancipation and discrimination.

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes, we can.

His thoughts about her are expressed in 3 contrasts (‘heartache and hope’, ‘struggle and progress’, we can’t versus we can). The repetitive sequence of ‘Yes we can’ that eventually results in the audience joining in as a chorus, harks back to Obama’s speech after losing the New Hampshire primary, where he did exactly the same thing. The audience participation can be heard as a secular version of the regular crowd interjections (“Yeah Lord”, “Holy, Holy Holy”, “Amen”, etc in Martin Luther King’s speeches. “Yes we can” has no religious connotations and carries no risk of making Jews and members of other religions feel excluded.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes, we can.

First two negative things in the history of women's emancipation that she saw contrasted with a victory in which they achieved 3 things.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes, we can.

Alliterative image referring to how a previous bad time in economic history was overcome by 3 new things.

When the bombs fell on our harbour and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes, we can.

Two nasty things about war contrasted with 'salvation'

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "we shall overcome". Yes, we can.

3 negative images of racial discrimination contrasted with a positive reference to Martin Luther King (again).

A man touched down on the Moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes, we can.

3 images of advances she witnessed, followed by her being able to use modern technology to vote and a contrast between ‘best of times’ and ‘darkest of hours’.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do.

3 part list with third item longest and contrasting with the first two.

So tonight, let us ask ourselves - if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

Two rhetorical questions to lead into the peroration.

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment.

This focus on ‘our moment’, and ‘our time’, developed further in the next sentence, again echoes Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, in which his reference to “the fierce urgency of now” prefaced three sentences starting with “Now is the time…”

This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: yes, we can.

The Image of opening ‘doors of opportunity’ brings us back to the American dream theme, harking back to the opening line of the speech. This simultaneously lets the audience know that he’s nearly finished, continues to echo the spirit of Martin Luther King and gives a sense of overall structural unity.

Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

Max Atkinson is author of Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations (London, Vermilion, 2004 & New York, Oxford University Press, 2005), and Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy: Seven Essential Steps to Success (London, Vermilion, 2008), available from Amazon UK and Amazon USA by clicking links from here.

Not Clinton, not McCain but Obama

For speech-making anoraks like me, Barack Obama’s arrival on the public stage at the 2004 Democratic Convention was a joy to behold. If you’re looking for examples of how to do it well, you can always find plenty of illustrations in more or less any speech he ever makes.

If you’re interested in rhetorical techniques, his widely acclaimed victory speech in Chicago relied very heavily on one of the simplest devices of all, namely the three-part list – of which he cranked out 29 at a rate of just under one every 30 seconds.

John McCain, he told us, had done three worthy things and so had Joe Biden. What’s more, the genius of America has three components to it.

He seems particularly keen on combining contrasts with three part lists, and especially contrasting a third item with the first two, as when he said “We have come so far, we have achieved so much but there is so much more to do.”

This example also has the longest item in third position, which is a common feature of some of the most famous three-part lists of all times, such as “Father, son and holy spirit” and “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

As everyone seems to agree, Obama is a seriously good orator. Apart from his mastery of rhetoric and imagery, I think part of his genius has been to secularise the religious (i.e. Christian) language and imagery of Martin Luther King in a way that implicitly reminds people that he's on message with MLK, while appealing to important wider constituencies of non-Christian voters - especially Jews, but also Muslims, agnostics and atheists - who might otherwise have felt excluded.

For more on this (when I've had time to check it out a bit more), watch this space.

How the BBC handled one complaint about Ross

On 5th September, I made the mistake of phoning the BBC complaints line after the British Olympic gold medallists appeared on Jonathan Ross's Friday night show.

It wasn't the sniggering double entendres about 'muscles', pitiful though they were (see below for a sample), that made me pick up the phone, but Ross's mockery of one of his guests for wearing glasses and reaction to his loss of a contact lens during the final with "boo f******* hoo" (also on the clip below)

I was told by the complaints department that such language was quite normal on his programmes and that regular viewers knew perfectly well what to expect. I was then informed that it was alright because it was after the 9.00 p.m. ‘watershed’, when swearing is O.K.

When I made the rather obvious point that a lot of children would have been allowed to stay up late to see their heroes on their return from the Olympics, the reply was that it was the fault of parents, not the BBC, if there happened to be any young children watching.

What was made very clear was not just that Ross had the BBC'S full approval to use offensive language, but that they were prepared to defend his right to do so against anyone stupid enough to complain about it.

But that, of course, was two months before the recent uproar about his witty contribution to the Russell Brand show.