Best practices6 techniques for clear and compelling speech

by Simon Lancaster • October 26, 2021

Politicians and other public figures deploy particular rhetorical devices to communicate their ideas and to convince people, and it’s time that we all learned how to use them, says speechwriter Simon Lancaster.

There is a secret language of leadership — and it’s one that anyone can learn, says UK speechwriter Simon Lancaster in a TEDxVerona talk. He has made a career out of crafting addresses, remarks and talks for top politicians and CEOs of international corporations such as Nestle and Unilever, and continues to do so. Refreshingly, rather than clinging Gollum-like to what he’s learned and knows, he believes everyone should have access to the same tools that he and his colleagues use.

By tools, he’s not talking about special software or databases — he’s referring to rhetoric. Rhetoric has its roots in ancient Greece (think: Aristotle) as clear, convincing speech was seen as an essential component of communication and participation in a democracy. Instruction in rhetoric remained part of the curriculum in many secondary schools in Europe and the US until the 19th century.

“The reason we all used to learn rhetoric at school was because it was seen as a basic entry point to society,” explains Lancaster, who is based in London. “How could society be fair, unless everyone had equal ability to articulate and express themselves? Without it, your legal systems, your political systems, your financial systems are not fair.”

Yes, the power to persuade is just that — power.

Lancaster states there is only one school in England that still teaches rhetoric: Eton, the alma mater of 20 Prime Ministers (including current officeholder, Boris Johnson). He adds, “It should be of intense concern to all of us that education in this has been narrowed to a very small … elite.”

While Lancaster can’t send the world to Eton, he can share the 6 rhetorical building blocks needed to speak persuasively. Here they are:

Building block #1: Breathless sentences or phrases

Barack Obama gave an acceptance speech for the ages in 2008 after he was first elected president of the US. He spoke vividly of the challenges that lay ahead for the country: “Even as we celebrate tonight, we know that the challenges tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime: Two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.”

Lancaster wants us to pay special attention to the last part of that sentence, the “two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century” part. Yes, it’s a stressful mouthful — not just because of the content but because of how it’s delivered. Short, staccato phrases like these mimic how we speak when we’re anxious and in a hurry. This technique helps communicate urgency to an audience.

Building block #2: Speaking in 3s

What’s the other rhetorical trick underlying “two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century”? The rule of 3.

Humans are accustomed to things coming in 3s: whether it’s judges on American Idol, bowls of porridge in a fairy tale, or sides in a triangle. Our minds and ears have been trained by speeches (Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, for the people, by the people”); slogans (reduce, reuse, recycle); and book titles (Elizabeth Gilbert‘s memoir Eat, Pray, Love). “You put your argument in 3s, it makes it sound more compelling, more convincing, more credible. Just like that,” says Lancaster.

Recall British PM Winston Churchill’s stirring triplet from the speech he delivered to Parliament on June 4, 1940: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight on the fields and in the streets.” Besides the rule of 3, he gave the line additional rhetorical firepower by repeating the opening clause.

Lancaster explains, “When we are emotional about things, our perspective distorts, and this then manifests in our speech. So this is the authentic sound of passion.” Doing this can catch an audience in the speaker’s enthusiasm.

Building block #3: Balanced statements

“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” It’s a line from president John F Kennedy’s inspiring 1961 inaugural address, and one that’s stood the test of time. Why? Its balanced construction, says Lancaster. “If the sentence sounds as if it’s balanced, we imagine that the underlying thinking is balanced and our brain is tuned to like things that are balanced.”

Grouping balanced statements in 3s further amplifies the effect:

“We’re looking to the future, not the past.

We’re working together, not against one another.

We’re thinking about what we can do, not what we can’t.”

Building block #4: Metaphor

According to Lancaster, people use a metaphor once every 16 words on average (side question: Where do statistics like this even come from?). He declares, “Metaphor is probably the most powerful piece of political communication.”

Metaphors are rich in imagery and awake immediate feelings in people, so it follows that politicians love them and sprinkle them like birdseed (“like birdseed” is a simile, not a metaphor, and similes are other strong rhetorical tools to have in your kit). At times, they can employ them to point us to an ideal or aspiration. For example, in his farewell address, president Ronald Reagan movingly invoked America, h/t to John Winthrop, as a “shining city upon the hill.”

Too often, however, metaphors are used to manipulate, incite and denigrate. Politicians and talking heads could have called the 2015-16 refugee encampment in Calais, France, a “refugee camp” or “refugee settlement.” Instead, they deployed this loaded word: “jungle.” Lancaster says,“It’s planting in your mind the idea that migrants are like wild animals to be afraid of, that they are dangerous, that they represent a threat to you. This is a very dangerous metaphor because this is the language of genocide; it’s the language of hate.” Unfortunately, media outlets picked up “Calais jungle” and used it as their shorthand identifier of the camp, extending the metaphor’s reach.

Building block #5: Exaggeration

In the same way that we get breathless when they’re speaking with passion, our speech distorts in another significant way. We exaggerate. So when we’re sitting down to a meal after having eaten little that day, we tell our family and friends: “I love this pizza.” But when we say things like this to each other, we also realize it’s a bit of distortion: We do not love the pizza in the same way that we love our children or parents or the planet, and everyone present knows that.

Similarly, politicians and leaders might say things like “I’ve waited my whole life to say these words” or “I will work to achieve this with all my heart and soul.” These utterances are indeed over the top, but because they’re acceptable and even welcome since they echo how we speak.

Building block #6: Rhyming

Starting from childhood, many of us are taught concepts through rhymes — such as “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” or “i before e except after c.” With their musicality, they’re a pleasing informational snack that sticks in memories like a musical earworm.

Rhymes can seem corny, but sprinkled in at the right time, they can be incredibly potent. We all remember the pithy “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” from defense attorney Johnnie Cochran during O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial.

Rhyming’s appeal comes “down to what linguists talk about as the processing fluency of language — how easy is language to swallow?” says Lancaster. “If you speak using long words and long sentences, it’s like giving someone a steak and asking them to swallow it. Whereas if you give them something pithy, like a rhyme, it’s like asking them to just sip on some Prosecco.”

These six tricks can help us speak directly to people’s instinctive, emotional and logical brains, and they are extremely effective, says Lancaster. There’s no need for us to be in the public eye to use them in order to sway others or make our words stay in people’s minds. Even if we never employ them in our own lives, it’s equally important for us to recognize them. Politicians, con artists and advertisers utilize them to win votes, spread opinions, or sell products people don’t need. By being alert to these rhetorical devices, we can be better citizens and consumers.

This post was originally published on TED Ideas. It’s part of the “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

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Simon Lancaster

Simon Lancaster is one of the world’s top speechwriters. He first became a speechwriter in the late 1990s, working for members of Tony Blair’s Cabinet and now writes for the CEOs of some of the world’s biggest companies. Lancaster is a visiting lecturer at Henley Business School, Cass Business School and Cambridge University. He writes regular columns for Total Politics and The Guardian and provides expert commentary for the BBC and Sky News.

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