Puzzzle-Solution formats

If you've arrived here from the BBC website, a very warm welcome to the Blog. If you haven't, you might like to see the article that's been sending quite a lot of people here since earlier today.

One important rhetorical technique that wasn't mentioned in Denise Waterman's piece on the BBC website, is what I refer to in my books and courses as the Puzzle-Solution format. It's based on the very simple principle that, if you say something that gets the audience wondering what's coming next, they'll listen more attentively and, if it's a good 'solution', they'll applaud it.

An example I often use when teaching is from a speech that Ronald Reagan made when declaring his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. What's puzzling is why this should be a moment of 'mixed emotions' for him:

PUZZLE: This is a moment for quite some mixed emotions for me.
SOLUTION: I haven't been on prime-time television for quite a while.

Another of my favorite examples comes from a speech by William Hague when he was leader of the Conservative Party.

This one poses as big a puzzle as anyone who knows anything about the recent history of British politics could ever pose, namely the suggestion that former Tory prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath could actually agree on something in a debate about Europe.

To appreciate the solution, it also helps to know that, on the previous day, the conference stage had been furnished with some chairs supplied by the Swedish furniture company IKEA:

PUZZLE: Ted and Margaret came on to the platform for the debate on Europe yesterday and they were both in instant agreement.
SOLUTION: They both hated those chairs.


Something else not mentioned in the post on the BBC website is the way in which you can combine rhetorical techniques to achieve greater impact.

In this clip, from the 1987 UK general election, Mrs Thatcher poses a metaphorical puzzle (why is the Labour party's manifesto going to be like an iceberg), the solution to which comes in the form of a simple contrast:

PUZZLE: From the Labour Party expect the iceberg manifesto.
[A] One tenth of its socialism visible.
[B] Nine tenths beneath the surface.

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