Current Affairs

Order out of chaos: speechwriting under pressure

Most speeches are written to tight deadlines. But some deadlines are tighter than others. At the Brilliant Communicators’ conference run by the
European Speechwriters’ Network on 18 November, we were given a rare insight into the challenges of crafting a speech in truly exceptional circumstances.

MolofskyJosh Molofsky currently works at the American embassy in London. Back in 2020, he was speechwriter for Chuck Schumer, Democrat and Minority Leader of the US Senate. In late December that year, Schumer paid tribute to Josh’s skills: “every day,” he said in a speech on the floor of the Senate, he “bring[s] poetry and organization to my thoughts.”

Two weeks later, Josh would need to do all that and more.

6 January 2021. Late afternoon. At about 2pm, the Senate had gone into emergency recess as rioters stormed the Capitol. Now, four hours later, order was being restored. Schumer, holed up at Fort McNair, had only limited knowledge of what had happened inside the Capitol. With events still unfolding, he would have to address the reconvened Senate – and about 40 million people watching on television. It was Josh’s job to find the words.

He had 45 minutes.

His thoughts turned to the ancient Greek creation myth. Out of chaos, order. Not just the usual chaos of thoughts, feelings and images inside any writer’s head as they set to work, but the terrifying chaos of an insurrection against the orderly administration of a democracy.

So: did he make a plan?

“Not at all,” Josh told me afterwards. “It entirely emerged as I worked. When you’re up against a deadline as tight as this one, you don’t have time to sketch things out. You know you simply have to begin, and hope that one item will flow to the next. That’s what happened here.”

Here’s Josh’s own account of what he wrote, together with the words as Schumer finally spoke them in the Senate.

(You can watch Schumer delivering the speech here.)


1: Set the context.

Somewhere in the background, I suspect that the elements of a classical oration are informing Josh's thinking. First, the exordium: establish the speaker's credibility – hence the personal references at the very beginning –  and announce the purpose of your speech. Josh needs to find, in his words, "a common term": a way of contextualising this event for the audience. What’s just happened is unprecedented. Trumpism itself is unnervingly ahistorical. So, Josh looks to the past.

It is very, very difficult to put into words what has transpired today. I have never lived through, or even imagined, an experience like the one we have just witnessed in this Capitol. President Franklin Roosevelt set aside Dec. 7, 1941, as a day that will live in infamy. Unfortunately, we can now add Jan. 6, 2021, to that very short list of dates in American history that will live forever in infamy.

2: What happened?

Now, the narratio: tell us what happened. Paint a picture. This is enargia: what Richard Lanham calls “vigorous ocular demonstration”. By ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ the events in their minds' eye, the audience becomes more deeply involved, not only cognitively but emotionally.

But Schumer’s words need to do more. After all, his audience have been watching actual images of the riot all afternoon. So Josh subtly frames these events within a wider, deeper narrative.

“I’m a big believer in ‘word strings’," he said: "the use of similar terms throughout a paragraph to create a sense of coherence for the listener.” That sense of coherence is generated imaginatively: the word strings generate meaning by creating networks of associations. Here, the words ‘temple’, ‘desecrated’, ‘hallowed’, ‘shelter’ evoke the ancient idea of a sacred space polluted (in this case, literally – people defecated on the Senate floor).

“I reached for these terms because they have a very biblical significance,” Josh told me. “Schumer and I are both Jewish, and when you talk about temples being desecrated, we think of Chanukkah, a holiday about the Temple of David being destroyed, and more importantly, being re-consecrated. That’s what this speech was trying to do: re-consecrate or re-dedicate Congress to its rightful purpose.”

These word strings operate at the speed of light. Look at that word ‘stalk’, which transforms the rioters into monsters from the underworld – or maybe George Romero’s Living Dead. A single word sparks a direct imaginative connection, flashing in under the radar of rational thought.

This temple to democracy was desecrated, its windows smashed, our offices vandalized. The world saw Americans' elected officials hurriedly ushered out because they were in harm's way. The House and Senate floors were places of shelter until the evacuation was ordered, leaving rioters to stalk these hallowed halls. Lawmakers and our staffs, average citizens who love their country, serve it every day, feared for their lives. I understand that one woman was shot and tragically lost her life. We mourn her and feel for her friends and family.

And then the images are objectified, so that we can reflect on them. Like Greek heroes, we feel shame and dishonour.

These images were projected for the world. Foreign embassies cabled their home capitals to report the harrowing scenes at the very heart of our democracy. This will be a stain on our country not so easily washed away – the final, terrible, indelible legacy of the 45th president of the United States, undoubtedly our worst.

3: Name the villains and heroes.

We're moving on to the confirmatio, sometimes referred to as the 'proof'. Who’s responsible for this outrage? The perpetrators must be – if not named – at least defined.

He signals his intention by saying what they can’t be called. Then he turns - consciously or not – to synonymia: “the use of several synonyms together,” according to the trusty Silva Rhetoricae website, “to amplify or explain a given subject or term.” Synonymia “adds emotional force or intellectual clarity”, and “often occurs in parallel fashion.” As it does, more or less, here: check out the three-part list of paired definitions.

I want to be very clear: Those who performed these reprehensible acts cannot be called protesters – no, these were rioters and insurrectionists, goons and thugs, domestic terrorists. They do not represent America. They were a few thousand violent extremists who tried to take over the Capitol building and attack our democracy. They must and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law – hopefully by this administration, if not certainly by the next. They should be provided no leniency.

The enemy is nameless. The heroes, in contrast, are named.

I want to thank the many of the Capitol Hill police and Secret Service and local police who kept us safe today, and worked to clear the Capitol and return it to its rightful owners and its rightful purpose. I want to thank the leaders, Democrat and Republican, House and Senate. It was Speaker Pelosi, Leader McConnell, Leader McCarthy and myself who came together and decided that these thugs would not succeed, that we would finish the work that our Constitution requires us to complete in the very legislative chambers of the House and Senate that were desecrated but we know always belong to the people and do again tonight.

There is, of course, one name still to be spoken.

And Josh holds that name back.

“I wasn’t quite ready to say the President was entirely to blame,” he told me; “it was happening too quickly. Hence the ‘great deal’ and ‘in good part’.”

Plenty of rhetorical devices here: opening the section, again, with a negation (‘did not happen spontaneously’, echoing ‘cannot be called protestors’); anaphora ­– three times ‘the president’ rings out, three times he is accused; the antithesis between ‘discourages’ and ‘encourages’; the three-part lists that pepper this section of the speech. And the rising sense of outrage is pulled under control with the resonating references back to shame and the judgement of history.

“I’d never have used the word ‘demagogic’,” said Josh, “if Schumer hadn’t used it with me on one of our phone calls leading up to the speech. Whenever I had even a hint of his thinking, I made sure it found the way into the speech, like a signpost.”

But make no mistake, make no mistake, my friends, today's events did not happen spontaneously. The president, who promoted conspiracy theories and motivated these thugs, the president who exhorted them to come to our nation's capital, egged them on – who hardly ever discourages violence and more often encourages it – this president bears a great deal of the blame. This mob was in good part President Trump's doing, incited by his words, his lies. This violence, in good part his responsibility, his ever-lasting shame. Today's events certainly – certainly – would not have happened without him. Now, January 6 will go down as one of the darkest days in recent American history. A final warning to our nation about the consequences of a demagogic president, the people who enable him, the captive media that parrots his lies and the people who follow him as he attempts to push America to the brink of ruin.

Listen to the way Schumer exploits that last phrase: it’s at 4.47 in the YouTube clip. “I used to keep track of the words that sang in his Brooklyn accent,” said Josh. “The way he pronounces ru-in with two distinct syllables always stood out to me.”

4: Point the way forward.

The peroration was the hardest part to write. (It often is.)

“I needed to find an emotional core to organise around,” Josh told us.

He tries to plug into his feelings of heartbreak and turns for inspiration to Lincoln’s first inaugural address, in 1861: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Schumer rejects it. Too soft.

Josh tries again, this time channelling anger. He attempts a homily: more enargia, in an effort to embed the horrors of the day in the audience’s memory.

Three hours after the attack on January 6th, after the carnage and mayhem was shown on every television screen in America, President Trump told his supporters to ‘remember this day forever.’ I ask the American people to heed his words: remember this day forever. But not for the reasons the president intends. Remember the panic in the voices over the radio dispatch; the rhythmic pounding of fists and flags at the chamber doors. Remember the crack of the solitary gunshot; the hateful and racist Confederate Flag flying through the halls of our Union; the screams of the bloodied officer crushed between the onrushing mob and a doorway to the Capitol, his body trapped in the breach…

And so on.

Schumer rejects it. Too hard. And why tell the audience to remember? It's far too early to forget.

Time is running out.

Last throw. What to do?

Look forward.

As we reconvene tonight, let us remember, in the end all this mob has really accomplished is to delay our work by a few hours. We will resume our responsibilities now, and we will finish our task tonight. The House and Senate chambers will be restored good as new and ready for legislating in short order. The counting of the electoral votes is our sacred duty. Democracy's roots in this nation are deep, they are strong. And they will not be undone ever by a group of thugs. Democracy will triumph, as it has for centuries.

“I can tell I wrote this quickly,” Josh explained, “because of the verb/noun pairings. The verb I want for the second sentence is 'uproot' but it’s so similar to the first that I opt for 'undone', which is something you can do to democracy but not its roots. Too late to fix, though!"

(My own view, for what it’s worth: ‘uproot’ or ‘tear out’ would have worked fine. If you set up a metaphor, follow it through. Subtly, of course.)

“This was an intensely political speech,” Josh told me. “I was supremely aware of the many audiences this speech needed to address or mollify.

“The first few paragraphs are written for a national audience – straight down the middle.

“The next two are written for the Democratic base, our most important source of political support. The fellow Republican leaders are named in gratitude as an olive branch to the centre-right.

“And the close goes back to the general audience.

“There has to be enough for everyone to say, ‘Ok, he sees it a bit like I do.’ Sometimes, you have to select the audience for the message you want them to pay attention to. Hence that tactic: ‘to my fellow Americans…’  I wanted to tell them that whatever message was about to come next was intended just for them.

“I was really writing to myself. But also to everyone who felt like I did that day.”

So, to my fellow Americans who are shocked and appalled by the images on their televisions today and who are worried about the future of this country, let me speak to you directly: The divisions in our country clearly run deep, but we are a resilient, forward-looking and optimistic people, and we will begin the hard work of repairing this nation tonight. Because here in America we do hard things. In America, we always overcome our challenges.

‘Hard things’ echoes, deliberately or otherwise, Kennedy’s 1962 ‘We choose to go to the moon’ speech. But this is a sober ending: no attempt to rouse or enthuse; rather, a sense of gritty determination and quiet optimism.

For me, the real achievement of this speech is that Josh trusts his imagination and intuition to guide him. ("Well, yes," he conceded; "and years of speechwriting experience.")

Pence McConnell
Unlike Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell, who spoke before him – you can see their tight-lipped speeches here and here – Schumer frames the appalling events of January 6 in a wider context that offers the reassurance of meaning in the face of the incomprehensible.

Just as Josh intended: order out of chaos.

And what did he learn from this experience? “Focus on the facts,” he replied. “What you’re writing is the first draft of history.”

To enjoy more insights from fellow speechwriting professionals, join the European Speechwriter Network and book a place at one of their conferences.


‘So what do you do?’: the 19th European Speechwriters’ Conference, Paris, 25 September 2019

What’s the collective noun for a group of speechwriters?

A proclamation? A peroration? A paradox, perhaps?

Speechwriting is, after all, a profession full of contradictions. Speechwriters craft public language and lurk in the shadows; they crave close access to their speakers and often see their texts mangled by cloth-eared apparatchiks. They need to be agile networkers, and they work - for hours and hours - alone.

A collective of speechwriters might seem an oxymoron.

Which is why the very concept of a speechwriters’ conference promises intrigue and surprise. Both were evident at the 19th conference of the European Speechwriters’ Network, held in September 2019 at the Irish Cultural Institute in Paris.



The location was apposite. Last year, French speechwriters founded La Guilde des Plumes, which is rapidly establishing itself as the francophone companion organisation of the ESN. Members of the guild attended the September conference, contributing to a day of rich conversation, both on and off the platform.


You might expect the conversation to be wide-ranging. But you might not expect the sheer enjoyment that invariably bubbles up, the moment these people get together. Forget the bottom-numbing, tunnel-vision specialism of most professional conferences. ESN conferences are fun. (Guy Doza’s puckish chairing in Paris set the tone.) Speechwriters are a motley band with a wide range of responsibilities; and every good speechwriter has a healthy obsession with ‘general knowledge’. You can never tell where the conversation might turn.




Melanie Dunn’s briskly stimulating talk opened the proceedings, distilling impressive experience into a checklist of necessary skills, amounting to a virtual job description. Speechwriters, she told us, need to be able to absorb, sponge-like, vast amounts of information, and then distil it into three crisp ideas. Melanie notices a new requirement, too: the ability to navigate social media and online analytics.




Speechwriters - whether political or corporate - must also integrate with the culture in which they work – while often finding themselves isolated. (Another paradox.) During the day, we encountered cultures aplenty. This is a truly European network: French, Danish, Polish, Norwegian, Dutch – the list goes on, and includes Americans, Canadians and others.

Then there’s the Irish connection. Tom Moylan mischievously suggested that his country’s heritage gave it several linguistic headstarts over the English. (Gaelic has given English numerous words, including ‘Tory’.) Ireland has a noble storytelling tradition: every leader or taoiseach, throughout history, has had his file (pronounced ‘filly’), a prophetic poet who foretold the future in verse or riddle.


Speechwriters, Tom suggested, could well transfer some of the core conventions of that tradition into their own practice: be humble (never begin until you’ve been asked, three times); open innocuous but intriguing; and don’t protest if you’re interrupted.

Pauline Genee, who writes speeches for Dutch politicians, brought her expertise as a novelist to the conversation. Focus on conflict and character, she told us.



Don’t be afraid of simple formulas. A wants B and is prevented by C; without that dynamic, a rambling narrative will never become a compelling tale.

Sometimes the story explodes in front of us. Kevin Toolis considered how leaders respond to a crisis: a sudden, overwhelming, threatening event. The purpose of a catastrophe speech must be to restore authority, order and calm in the face of incipient violence or chaos. It needs to be delivered immediately; time, Kevin told us, is your enemy. This is a dangerous, risky speech to write – the world is listening – but it’s unavoidable if you want to capture the narrative.



His example was Tony Blair’s speech on the morning of Princess Diana’s death: forged at white heat with Alistair Campbell in the night watches after the fateful car accident; perfectly framed (Blair stops off, on a damp Sunday morning, as he takes his family to church in Sedgefield); and performed – there is no other word – with pinpoint precision, complete with careful hesitations and a voice breaking with emotion.


That speech did its job perfectly. And every speech, as Peggy Noonan reminded us via Melanie Dunn, has a job to do. Foregrounding the task of persuading an audience over the bland delivery of complex information can be tricky, especially when your principal is a pathologically cautious banker.

A number of European central banks were represented in the audience; and, on the platform, Antonia Fleischmann painted a vivid picture of her role at the Bundesbank. Her job is to help the bank maintain trust. When so many speeches from central bankers are so alike, markets can move on the substitution of an exclamation mark for a full stop. (These speeches are also scrutinised in transcript.)



Antonia sits with market analysts – rather than her comms colleagues – so that she can understand the mind-boggling complexities of international finance. She’s learnt that, if you want to convince economists of the virtues of clear language, the best tools are data-driven text analytics and readability statistics.

Improv, on the other hand, might not cut it with financiers. But there’s no reason why speechwriters shouldn’t try a bit of stand-up. In one of the afternoon breakout sessions, Alexandra Fresse-Eliazord – who has assembled a collection of 300 drama exercises – cajoled a group of us into making up stories from scratch. Composing extempore can help bring written speeches to life.



Of course, we need to balance spontaneity with attention to structure and style. At ESN conferences, the rhetorical tradition, from Aristotle onwards, is never far from the surface. Imogen Morley took another breakout group through a lively analysis of a speech by Hilary Clinton to demonstrate how studying good speeches from the past, far from being a dry academic exercise, can generate new ideas.



Even tennis can provide valuable insights. Jennifer Migan – herself a professional tennis player turned speechwriter and coach – explained how the skill of reading your opponent on the court can become the skill of empathy with a speaker who might find it hard to open up with a writer.




In the end, of course, it all comes back to language. The words have to work hard. Writing for a Chinese corporation, Jennifer told us, meant focusing on the company vision and ruthlessly excising any content that didn’t fit. Writing for a prominent speaker in Doha, Melanie Dunn explained, meant exchanging punchy arguments and explicit emotion for the poetry of Arabic and a shimmering presentational image for the speaker. In a one-party state, as one delegate explained to me over coffee, the task of a public speech is simply to fill the void.

And working in France, as Lucie Robin explained in the day’s keynote talk (more mischief: Lucie's chosen title was Know Your Enemy) means understanding how eloquence in French is closely codified and monitored. The French take pride in their language and value the appearance of smartness (don’t take out the long words; add to them). Avoid the taboos (money; religion); cultivate wit (l’esprit). Above all, treat your audience with maximum respect.


It’s a sobering thought. At a moment when public discourse in English is suffering from a surfeit of bad manners, we anglophones would do well to remember that the language of diplomacy is founded firmly on French. We need to find a new public language: principled, nuanced, collaborative. And speechwriters could have a leading role in establishing it.

The European Speechwriter Network holds its next conference at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, on 1, 2 and 3 April, 2020. To book a place, email [email protected].


Thoughts on speechwriting: Philip Collins

Philip Collins


A selection of comments on speechwriting from Philip Collins' new book, When They Go Low, We Go High.

Numbers in  brackets are page numbers where the quotes appear.

You can find a review of the book here.




The aim of good public speaking is to borrow the rhythms of everyday speech but aat the same time to heighten its effects. The objective is to write high-octane ordinary speech, as if an eloquent person were speaking naturally at their best, fluent and uninterrupted, with all the connecting threads edited away.(11)

An audience gets only one hearing, and pictures dwell longer in the mind than abstract arguments. (24)

It’s not, in the end, you who decides whether a passage works. The audience will decide for you. (27)

… the speech conciliated opposing parties. Note how this is done by avoiding specific positions, on which the speaker can be pinned down… This is a more flowery section than the rest, which is usually the tip-off that a writer has less to say. (32) [Thomas Jefferson, 4 March 1801]

Blessings and happiness should find their way back into our rhetoric. (35)

Great rhetorical prose is not complex. It is ordinary speech elevated to the heights. (40)

A smooth transition is one of a speech’s technical problems and Lincoln here packs it into a single word. (43) [Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address; the word is 'consecrate']

Speeches should accelerate, intellectually and audibly, as they come to their end. (43)

A lot of hard work goes into making a speech sound simple. (48)

One of the dangers of rhetoric … is that it can run away with the speaker. (51)

Occasion matters to the verdict of greatness. (55)

Obama is the master of the glorious compromise, the beautiful consensus, the slow change that lifts the heart. (61)

Respect your occasion. (66)

Rhetoric cannot work when the phrases are too lavish for their topic. (87)

Poor speakers try to rouse the audience with only a rising intonation and an increased volume at the end of a line, but the applause will only ever be resounding when the vocal trickery is deployed for an important, completed thought. (107)

The composer of a speech always faces a question about where to locate the best line. Should it come, like their finest hour, at the end? Should it open the speech? Or should it be… buried in the text? (120)

Soft-pedalling on a crucial point gets you a reputation as a fraud. A reward greets being candid. (133)

Character is a set of virtues we display which add up to who we are. But we also use the word  ‘character’ to describe a figure in fiction. That usage too is relevant to rhetoric, and it is highly relevant to the imagined community of a nation. (169)

Criticism is better countered if it is named honestly. (171)

Franklin is not only talking about an open mind. He is dramatizing an open mind. The axiom of the novelist and the screen-weriter – show, don’t tell – applies to the good speechweriter too. (176) [17 September 1787]

Every speech ever made has one of three possible functions: to change knowledge, perception or behaviour. (177)

A trial defence rests more on the character of the plaintiff than any other rhetorical form. (193)

These are brave words on an extraordinary occasion, which is the essence of a great speech. (200) [Nelson Mandela, 20 April 1964]

In situations of political oppression and adversity much has to be said by implication and allusion, allegory or metaphor. It would be dangerous to spell out the implications. A metaphor requires the listener to rewrite the speech’s meaning as he or she listens. (205)

Scriptwriters and playwrights hide plot twists in a joke. In the midst of laughter an audience drops its guard. … A joke in a speech has the same dual function. (229)

Every speechwriter knows that editing is the greater part of writing, and anyone with a facility for language can write a long speech quickly. Writing the correct and appropriate short speech takes time. (237)

Wilberforce exhibits a primary skill of democratic politics – the patience to argue for a secondary item as aa preliminaty to the principlal aim. (239) [12 May 1798]

It is always important to end well. … There are two ways to finish. One is with elevation, the other is with pathos, but either way, the audience needs to be prepared, with the progress of the argument and the inflection of the voice, for the approaching conclusion. (244)

Pankhurst makes this case because she wants to be, rhetorically, the soul of reason to show that violent methods attach to valid ends. She is also a single-issue campaigner who has chosen a battle she might win – the franchise – rather than start a forlorn fight for everything, which yields nothing. (249) [24 March 1908]

It is always good to have a watchword, to embody the message in a single phrase. (262)

All speeches can be analysed by their use of time. Some speeches settle scores with the past. Some describe a current predicament and some project perfection into the future. (272)

Like all drama, a speech needs valleys and peaks. You cannot jump from summit to summit. An audience will be carried along with a passage of rhetorical grandeur if it seems to derive from an argument and bring it to a resolution. Like a joke requiring the set-up, or the recitative between the arias, the duller sections matter in the construction and, even though they may not dwell in the mind, the speech would suffer for their absence.  A brilliant speech is a whole entity and its more prosaic passages cannot be dismantled without doing violence to its finer parts. (272)

It is overwrought to reach straight for ‘wrong and wretched, squalid and brutal’ in the opening paragraphs. … This is like melodramatic characterisation in a poorly conceived opera. The drama starts in histrionic mood without any justification. The audience senses at once that this is Kinnock’s starting assumption rather than his reasoned conclusion. If you do not already share his starting assumption then the bald assertion is unlikely to be persuasive. (282-3) [15 May 1987]

Write in particular, not in general. (288)

… the crititique of your opponent is implicit in a clear description of your own view. You don’t help yourself when you serve up insults on a trowel. (289)

… speeches alone change nothing unless the background events are grand enough to warrant the rhetorical indignation. (300)

It is a basic rule that whenever a speaker starts to confuse politics with nature it is time to run for the hills. That speaker will always be trying to smuggle in something undesirable in which other human beings are regarded as not worthy of equal consideration. (323)

It’s not quite true that all good speeches both read well and sound well. (341)

Speaking a better future into existence

Philip Collins When they go low

When they go low, we go high: speeches that shape the world – and why we need them

4th Estate, 2017

ISBN 978 0 00 823569 7


Ignore the clunky title. Philip Collins’ impressive new book is not just another anthology of speeches, but a powerful and passionately argued polemic.

Collins believes fervently in liberal democracy. And open, public speech is democracy’s very life blood. But our democracy is in poor shape. “If we want to attend to the good health of our democracy,” he writes, “and we really must, then we need to attend to the integrity of the way we speak about politics.”

The ailment, he claims, is disillusionment, which he suggests may arise from democracy’s manifold successes over the decades. Those successes mean that there’s less to fight for; all too often, political speech has become dull. In fact, he suggests, “most political speeches today are unnecessary.”

But democracy will always face new conflicts and threats. “It is the nature of human beings to disagree. Politics is the means by which that division is recognised, negotiated and settled.” That’s why politics demands speech: “it is in the spoken word that the defence of politics has to be conducted.” A speech is a performative act: it enacts the very process of politics. In this argument, then, rhetoric and politics become virtually synonymous.

Disenchantment with politics fosters the illusion that there is an alternative. The current contender is populism, which Collins roundly condemns but perhaps doesn’t quite pin down. If democracy – he quotes his hero Camus – is the system for those who know that they don’t know everything, the populist always claims to have all the answers. 

Collins places populism in the context of a long and heterogeneous absolutist tradition. Democracy demands patience – “and patience,” he writes, “is usually in short supply. Many distinguished people have called for a short cut to utopia.” But, from Plato to Mao, the politics of the shining path invariably leads to tyranny. And tyranny silences, with catastrophic consequences.

Collins develops his thesis into five claims. Politics gives voice to the people, promotes peace over war, speaks nations into being, improves the condition of the people, and tames the worst human instincts. “All of these virtues,” he writes, “require poetic political speech,” so he creates five main sections, illustrated with a clutch of speeches and bookended with essays elaborating his argument.

These essays are the most engaging parts of the book: at times, more so than the speeches themselves. Collins' practical insights into speechwriting are useful but sporadic. (You can find a selection of them here.)

More absorbing are his broader discussions, pitting the slow-burning successes of democratic politics against the demagogues and the revolutionaries – all those who thought that they were on the right side of history. Camus, writes Collins, “understood that history doesn’t have a side. History does no work for us; we have to choose for ourselves.” The greatest speeches – in the face of time and chance – make that choice.

Tyranny denies the possibility of choice by removing the possibility of conversation. “To live in utopia is to be amidst perfection already achieved. Nothing develops and nobody can change their mind.” Collins analyses oppression in rhetorical terms. Camus again: “Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.”

That remarkable sentence signals the ambiguous power of rhetoric sitting at the heart of Collins’ argument: the power to overcome fear, despair and isolation by welding its audience into a community.

Populism does so by demonising. Collins watches Hitler scapegoating Czechoslovakia, in the speech he gave in 1938, immediately before annexing the Sudetenland. “One of the puzzles of Hitler’s rhetoric,” he writes, “is how someone whose thinking was so disordered, in every sense of that term, could be so effective on the stage.”

The solution is in the rhetoric itself, which bodies forth the utopian dream in the very act of entrancing its audience. The order Hitler craved was possible only the podium. By creating an identification between himself and his audience, he manages to seal off, for a while, the exigencies of reality. As Collins writes: “the novelty in his rhetoric was to create a bound community, a Volksgemeinschaft, just by talking it into life… This is the trick of the shaman. He has created a need and a Weltanshauung and claimed it was what the people thought all along.”

Exactly. Binding is what rhetoric does. As Collins himself ruefully admits, “it is the pinnacle of what every speaker would like to achieve; for rhetoric to be true as soon as I say it, and because I say it.”When

Political truth has to be talked into life. It’s never transcendent; it always emerges from the clash of arguments. You’ll find yourself arguing with Collins as you read. That’s surely his intention. And, because, as La Rochefoucauld said, “the passions are the only orators that convince,” Collins argues that democratic politics must rediscover “the principle of hope.” Rhetoric matters because we need a “better, more enchanted politics.” The responsible democrat must describe what has gone awry and find words to speak a better future into existence. “The spectre of utopia is profound fear; its promise is extraordinary hope. The purpose of politics is to contain the fear so that the hope can thrive.”

The best lack all conviction

Mark Thompson: Enough Said Thompson

The Bodley Head, 2016

ISBN 978-1847923127


The simple answer to the question Mark Thompson asks himself  – “What’s gone wrong with the language of politics?” – is that it has split in two. 

On one side, “the weirdly affectless and dehumanized style in which many public policy documents are written.” 

On the other, “honesty of emotion and at least the appearance of being willing to engage with the lowliest members of [a] chosen community.”  Thompson labels these two rhetorics rationalism and authenticism. 

“Something has gone awry with our politics,” he says; but it’s a mark of his intellectual sophistication that he resists simplistic explanations.  Instead, he places public language “in the centre of a causal nexus”: “our institutions and organizations,” he writes, “are living bodies of public language, and when the rhetoric changes, so do they.”  He quotes George Orwell (whose Politics and the English Language he submits to a nuanced analysis): “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”

The dichotomy between gutless rationalism and the “punctiliously immoderate language” of authenticist politics is hardly a new phenomenon. As I read this book, I kept hearing Yeats's words from 1919: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst  / Are full of passionate intensity.”

In our own day, rationalism is evidenced in the impenetrable policy wonkery of government departments and NGOs, which Thompson traces to the gradual breakdown of technocratic consensual politics in the post-war period.  As data has become ever bigger, it has become harder to explain or justify policy decisions clearly.  (Deciding on a third runway, for example, is far more difficult than deciding to build Heathrow in the first place.)  Decision-making must involve compromise, but compromise hardly figures in political campaigning, which has by now become more or less a continuous process.  “The zone of ambiguity and flexibility,” writes Thompson “– that zone where almost all political progress takes place – has become rhetorically insupportable.” Instead, rationalism fetishises dialectic (and evidence), while the authenticist foregrounds narrative.  The rationalist venerates facts and evidence; the authenticist dismisses both as 'factoids', preferring greater, fuzzier, 'truthier' truths.

From a longer perspective, Thompson seeks the roots of both rhetorics in the Enlightenment. 

Rationalism derives from the empiricism of Hume and the positivism of Comte, and authenticism from the counter-Enlightenment writings of Johann Georg Hamann, through Hegel and Kierkegaard to Nietzsche and Heideigger (in whose work it connects explicitly to nationalism). 

Authenticism fuels the contemporary distrust of the political class.  Nietzsche, along with Marx and Freud, figures large in what Thompson calls “the school of suspicion”: all three “detected a layer of falsity and deception in human utterance that must be stripped away before the truth can be revealed.”  The meme of ‘false consciousness’ proliferated in the (very authenticist) counterculture of the 1960s and has now gone mainstream.  The presumption of bad faith in every politician (“Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”) also colours the investigative and analytical journalism that forms such a major part of Thompson’s own career (DG of the BBC, CEO of Channel 4, CEO of the New York Times). 

His analysis of these two competing rhetorics thus spirals, like a widening gyre, to encompass the media, celebrity advocacy and all the other components of an increasingly complex public space.

At every turn, his deep understanding of rhetorical principles – from Aristotle onwards – is leavened by vivid stories drawn from his experience.  He discusses Thatcher and Reagan, Berlusconi and Putin, Clinton and Trump.  He describes the parabolic adventure of spin from Campbell to Cameron.  All the big stories are here – the notorious Belgrano phone-in on Nationwide, Jo Moore’s “a very good day” email after 9/11, the David Kelly tragedy – and, in substantial chapters that repay repeated study, Thompson explores how a failing public language affects the discussion of three contentious issues: the presentation of scientific research, the decision to go to war, and the boundaries of free speech. 

How, then, to address the crisis? Thompson calls up our capacity for prudence – what the Greeks called phronesis – to help us “perform a sense-check on anything that sounds too good to be true.”  One way to develop prudence, he suggests, is to put public language “at the heart of the teaching of civics.”  It’s a tall order: “the humanities as a whole,” he writes, “stand at low tide, judged less economically valuable … than the sciences.”  But if the most important question confronting any society is how we are to live with each other, then becoming skilled in public language must be a first step in addressing it.  Thompson’s words should raise a cheer among all right-thinking liberals: “Let’s teach our children rhetoric.”

And where can we professional rhetoricians seek improvement, at the verbal end?   “The seeds of renewal,” writes Thompson, “germinate in unexpected places:” in the language of the immigrant, the refugee and the marginalized; in satire; and – intriguingly – in hip hop.  And he sees a promising new bud within political discourse itself.  “Though it is often spoken by the weak and dispossessed,” he writes, “there is something unstoppable about the language of fairness.”

Mark Thompson’s remarkable – and remarkably readable – book bulges with useful information and ideas.  For anyone who contributes to public language, Enough Said is essential reading.

The perfect eulogy

Thanks to Alex Chalk for pointing me towards Michael Clarke's superb eulogy for Phillip Hughes. 

You can watch it and read the transcript by clicking on the image (my screenshot taken from the BBC website).



Clarke demonstrates perfectly how a good eulogy must be planned to the last stroke.  When emotion is as raw and unbearable as it is here, every rhetorical technique is essential.  

This eulogy ticks every single box.

You can read the transcript and tick off the rhetorical questions, the antithesis, the three-part lists.  This eulogy works under the surface as well as on it.  The purpose and structure are beautifully realised.

Eulogies, like toasts and award speeches, are what the ancients called epideictic.  We'd call them ceremonial.  The person (usually a person) being celebrated might be called the honoree.  

The purpose of a ceremonial speech is always tied to the occasion on which it is given.  It also needs to articulate the idea or value the occasion represents.  Here, Clarke binds honoree and value in one word: 'spirit'.

Persuasion always has a part in ceremonial speeches.  But it's not quite the persuasion of a deliberative or judicial speech.  Here, the argument needs to be:

  • less rigid;
  • more emotional; and
  • more related to the significance of the event for the audience.

Clarke constructs a gentle argument connecting the idea of Hughes' spirit to the spirit of cricket.  It's an argument using analogy that binds the audience to the event and creates a sense of shared belief.

Ceremonial speeches tend to have four main goals.

First, it commemorates the honoree.  In doing so, the speaker must immediately establish the emotional nature of that commemoration.  Not difficult in this case.


I don't know about you, but I keep looking for him. I know it is crazy but I expect any minute to take a call from him or to see his face pop around the corner.

Is this what we call the spirit? If so, then his spirit is still with me. And I hope it never leaves.

Second, it connects the honoree to the audience and to the event.  The aim is to create an intimacy between all three elements, to make the audience feel that they belong to this occasion.  Shared memories do the job perfectly, as do the many references to the shared values of the game.


Is this what we call the spirit of cricket? From the little girl in Karachi holding a candlelight tribute to masters of the game like Tendulkar, Warne and Lara showing their grief to the world, the spirit of cricket binds us all together.

Third, the speech creates a story or narrative about the honoree.  The story should display characteristics of the honoree and events relating to it; the story should also demonstrate why the honoree is worthy of being celebrated.  The goal is to tie the event to the past and to the future.  Clarke uses the story of his own walk onto the pitch and the sense of Hughes's spirit being with him to evoke the man's character and significance.


I stood there at the wicket, I knelt down and touched the grass. I swear he was with me.

Picking me up off my feet to check if I was OK. Telling me we just needed to dig in and get through to tea. Telling me off for that loose shot I played. Chatting about what movie we might watch that night. And then passing on a useless fact about cows.

I could see him swagger back to the other end, grin at the bowler, and call me through for a run with such a booming voice a bloke in the car park would hear it.

Finally, the speech conveys the significance of the event.  How does the honoree affect the lives of the audience?  How will it continue to do so in the future?  How will the audience act differently as a result of paying tribute to the honoree? 


Phillip's spirit, which is now part of our game forever, will act as a custodian of the sport we all love.  We must listen to it.  We must cherish it.  We must learn from it. We must dig in and get through to tea.  And we must play on.

Ceremonial speeches use a variety of strategies to make their effect.

The speech will make careful use of emotional language.  The speaker should choose specific terms and phrases that evoke the emotion they want to arouse in the audience.


The photos, the words, the prayers and the sense of communion in this loss from people across the globe have shown me his spirit in action. It has sustained me and overwhelmed me in equal measure.

The speech will always focus away from the speaker.  The speaker’s ethical appeal in such a speech will not be on their own experience or expertise, but on the three features of ethos that relate the speaker to the honoree:

  • the values demonstrated by the honoree
  • the reasonable, practical wisdom demonstrated by the honoree
  • the honoree’s dedication, benevolence, self-sacrifice or significance for society


And the love of my band of baggy green and gold brothers and sisters has held me upright when I thought I could not proceed. His spirit has brought us closer together - something I know must be him at work because it is so consistent with how he played and lived. He always wanted to bring people together and he always wanted to celebrate his love for the game and its people.

The speech will make connections between the event and the honoree as quickly as possible.  Doing so helps the speaker focus on the honoree rather than themselves; it demonstrates the importance of the vent for the audience.  The speech will include descriptions of the event and about the honoree, and they will repeatedly stress the connections between the two.


I'm deeply honoured to have been asked by Phillip's family to speak today. I am humbled to be in the presence of you, his family, his friends and his community. He was so proud of Macksville and it is easy to see why today.

Ceremonial speeches benefit from being short.  Nobody ever wished a ceremonial speech to be longer.  Not even a eulogy.  Actually, especially not a eulogy.  Clarke comes in at just under 5 minutes.  More than time enough to make his point.    

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Capax imperii...

The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson

Edited by Harry Mount

Bloomsbury 2013

ISBN 978 1408 1835 26


On my beside table, I currently have a copy of Mark Forsyth’s The Etymologicon.  It’s one of a fast-proliferating breed of book: designed to look more like books than books, with extra thick pages, big type and textured covers.  Sort of hyper-real books.Not-quite books. Waterstone’s counter yesterday was awash with them. 

Boris Johnson reminds me of this kind of book.  He’s a not-quite politician.

When he was appointed shadow Arts Minister in May 2004, his response was:  "look the point, what is the point?  It is a tough job but somebody has got to do it."  Anacoluthon and erotema - interrupting the syntax of the sentence with a rhetorical question - are carefully placed in the service of a precisely calibrated impression of what Boris has proudly called imbecilio. 

"Boris," says Harry Mount, in an introduction to this book that's considerably more interesting and insightful than I was expecting, "is in fact a brilliant calibrator."  He can shift his register precisely as the kairos demands. 

In particulaJohnson2r, his "magical gift for surreal, amusing apology" works "like a sort of bulletproof armour."  When Eddie Mair called him "a nasty piece of work" earlier this year, Boris drew the venom with relative ease.  "If a BBC presenter can't attack a nasty Tory politician," he suggested the next day, "what's the world coming to?"

Clever.  Tory politicians are nasty; BBC presenters are inherently anti-conservative; 'twas ever thus and 'twill ever be thus.  By holding up a mirror to our own prejudices, Johnson implies a level of honesty that actually increases his credibility.   He knows that the only politician the public will now believe is a parody of a politician. 

He uses his lack of ethos to magnify his ethos.

There's no doubting, then, the man's rhetorical flair.  (Open this book at any page.)  "That facility," claims Mount, "is largely to do with having studied classics."  He has the classicist's command of language, playing off Latinate against Anglo-Saxon just as he plays off class against class.  And his schooling allowed him to rehearse to perfection a role based on the archetypes of privilege, public school and ivory-tower academia:  "Billy Bunter meets Bertie Wooster meets Professor Brainstorm."  It's a "well-practised, mock-bumbling, Latin-loving routine that never fails him in “that crucial Johnsonian mission – to get him off the hook.”

For some, the image is a disguise.  Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP, believes that “there’s a smooth machine under the buffoonery.  It’s not an exaggeration,” he claims, “to call him a genius.” (What is it, then, I wonder?)

Ian-HislopIan Hislop’s comment on Boris is more ambiguous.  When people ask Hislop, “Is Boris a very clever man pretending to be an idiot?’, Hislop simply replies: ‘No.’

What Eton and Balliol failed, apparently, to instil in our man is any "capacity for long, concentrated periods of work" (Mount's words).  When he missed a First, they say he went alone to the cinema and cried.  When he was writing for the Daily Telegraph, he consistently failed to file his copy on time. When Mount asked one of Boris's old classics tutors about his chances of making it to Number 10, the man replied:

"Capax imperii nisi imperasset."



This is Tacitus on the Emperor Galba:  "He was up the job of emperor, as long as he never became emperor."



Johnson's practised incompetence may allow him, very effectively, to hide what Jonathan Coe has called “his doggedly neo-liberal and pro-City agenda”. (I'm seriously indebted to Coe's recent article in the LRB.)  Whether it also gives him cover for his lack of political competence is another matter.

For the moment, we can hold off the question about his ability to rise to the demands of high office.  What matters is why people vote for him.  His wit gains him support because it taps into a very British contempt for anything outstanding.  "Boris," claims Mount, "manages to pull off the trick of being ambitious and successful, at the same time as implicitly mocking ambition and success.  You end up forgiving him his ambition, and not begrudging him his success, because the whole act is so funny and endearing."

Ah.  Endearing.

So Boris scores because he has incorporated satire's mockery of political hubris and incompetence into his own act and utterly emasculated it.  Johnson knows that he has nothing to fear from the public’s laughter, because the public’s ridicule for politicians has become undiscriminating.  He knows, to paraphrase Coe, that the best way to deal with satire is to create it yourself.  Mount quotes Stuart Reid, Boris's deputy editor at the Spectator:  “people of all social classes and most political persuasions will vote for him, precisely because he reduces everything to a joke.” 

Wit and wisdom for our time.

That Jubilee sermon

I’ve been wondering whether I should post this.  Be warned: what follows is a rather dense (and long) analysis of a sermon.




Yes, really.



Article-2154808-137524A7000005DC-872_634x909I watched with interest Dr Rowan Williams speak at the Jubilee service on Monday, 4 June.  (I was really watching for the magnificent music, and caught the sermon by the way...)  I have enormous respect for Dr Williams; and the theme of his sermon warmed my heart.

But I couldn’t help feeling that there was a point when the congregation almost visibly switched off.  And I could feel it happening myself. 

What was going wrong?  Could we work out, technically, how the sermon’s rhetoric was failing? And what could we learn about good speaking from this sermon, delivered by a man of such taste and deep intellect?


OK.  Here goes. 

Structurally, the sermon observes the divisions of a classical oration rather well: I’ve marked in the text below the approximate positions of exordium, narration, division, proof, refutation and peroration.  I’ve marked the approximate places of the section breaks in the text below. 


In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Some words from St Paul: ‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.’ 

[Exordium: where the speaker sets the scene, grabs the audiences attention and makes an ethical appeal, based on shared values or reputation]

Dr+Rowan+Williams+Diamond+Jubilee+Service+q-wQnwYRqVqlThere will be other occasions to remember the splendour and the drama of the Coronation; today’s focus is different. What we remember is the simple statement of commitment made by a very young woman, away from home, suddenly and devastatingly bereaved, a statement that she would be there for those she governed, that she was dedicating herself to them. 

[A brilliant opening: the contrast of the splendour and drama of the coronation with the solitary crisis facing a very young woman; the contrast also of the abstract (splendour, drama) with the personal and concrete (a very young woman, away from home), that focuses our imaginations at once on an emotionally powerful image. 

Stylistically, we notice the tying together of the images with the repeated word ‘statement’; the climax (almost) on the idea of dedication.  Which is picked up and amplified powerfully at the very start of the next paragraph.]

 ‘Dedication’ is a word that has come to mean rather less than it used to.

[A careful understatement – litotes, in rhetorical lingo – that alerts us to the prospect of something intellectually significant to come – unsurprisingly, to those of us who know something of Williams’ intellectual background and interests.]

Kinks-dedicated-follower-of-fashionThose of us who belong to the same generation as Her Majesty’s older children will recall a sixties song about a ‘dedicated follower of fashion’ – as though to be ‘dedicated’ just meant to be very enthusiastic.

[Here’s the ethical appeal, precisely placed just where it should be, in the exordium: the unhip hip reference, almost obligatory in a sermon. (Think of Alan Bennett’s ‘life is rather like opening a can of sardines’...)  It won a wry smile from the Prince of Wales, at least.]

But in the deep background of the word is the way it is used in classical and biblical language: in this context, to be ‘dedicated’ is to be absolutely removed from other uses, being completely available to God.

[Narration: where the speaker sets out the main argument] 

[Ah.   To our theme: plunging deep into a metaphysical concept.  The corner isn’t turned entirely neatly: notice the verbiage of ‘is the way it is used’, and ‘in this context’: detracting from the deep meaning of the word rather than illuminating it.]


And so to be dedicated to the good of a community – in this case both a national and an international community – is to say, ‘I have no goals that are not the goals of this community; I have no well-being, no happiness, that is not the well-being of the community. What will make me content or happy is what makes for the good of this particular part of the human family.’


[And the going, suddenly, gets very tough.  Double negatives (‘I have no goals that are not..’) always seem hard for an audience to navigate; the repetition should help, but somehow it doesn’t.  And the double negatives are bolted onto an abstraction: the word ‘community’, with all its connotations of vague liberal values unrooted in any particular group of people.  Ironic that Dr Williams uses the word ‘particular’ a little later.  His language at this point is distinctly unparticular.

We are ascending the foothills of abstraction.]

It is an ambitious, even an audacious thing to aim at.

[So now we have to remember, if we can, what ‘it’ is. Dr Williams doesn’t help: he calls it a ‘thing’.  The only help we get is the image of aiming, which refers us back to the goals he mentioned earlier.]

[Division, where the speaker sets out different areas of the main theme, where we agree and where others might disagree]

It is, of course, no more so than the ideals set before all Christians who try to model their lives on what St Paul says about life in the Body of Christ.

[And what are those ideals?  What does St Paul say about life in the body of Christ? After that long and rather complex passage – read extremely well by David Cameron – can we remember?]

 That doesn’t make it any easier to grasp or to live out;

[Well, no; I suppose it wouldn’t; at least, I would suppose so, if I were keeping up...]

... but the way St Paul approaches it should help us see that we’re not being encouraged to develop a self-punishing attitude, relentlessly denying our own goals or our own flourishing for the sake of others.

[Oh gosh.  We’re *not* being encouraged to do – what?]

What’s put before us is a genuine embrace of those others, a willingness to be made happy by the well-being of our neighbours. 

[An embrace being put before us...?  But the word 'neighbours’ is extremely useful.]

Article-1338912667016-1375D96D000005DC-766482_568x373‘Outdo one another in showing honour’, says St Paul. Compete with each other only in the generous respect you show to one and all; because in learning that respect you will find delight in one another. You will begin to discover that the other person is a source of nourishment, excitement, pleasure, growth and challenge. And if we broaden this out to an entire community, a nation, a commonwealth, it means discovering that it is always in an ever-widening set of relations that we become properly ourselves.

[This struck home with me very forcibly – despite the list of abstract nouns (‘nourishment, excitement, pleasure, growth and challenge’)  The main idea is placed – reasonably simply – at the end of a long sentence, leavened with a tricolon (‘community... nation... commonwealth’).  There’s a hint of a paradox in that final idea that, for me, is very powerful.]

Dedication to the service of a community certainly involves that biblical sense of an absolute purge of selfish goals, but it is also the opening of a door into shared riches.

[A much neater antithesis than we’ve heard so far.  The sonic power of ‘selfish goals ... shared riches’ works very well, too.]

[Proof: where the speaker nails the case down with argument.  Here, the argument is from example: the central example of the monarch’s own dedication]

Article-2154808-1375238C000005DC-921_634x399I don’t think it’s at all fanciful to say that, in all her public engagements, our Queen has shown a quality of joy in the happiness of others; she has responded with just the generosity St Paul speaks of in showing honour to countless local communities and individuals of every background and class and race. She has made her ‘public’ happy and all the signs are that she is herself happy, fulfilled and at home in these encounters.

The same, of course, can manifestly be said of Prince Philip; and our prayers and thoughts are very much with him this morning. To declare a lifelong dedication is to take a huge risk, to embark on a costly venture. But it is also to respond to the promise of a vision that brings joy.

[Suddenly this is working, though not perhaps entirely as Dr Williams would want it to.  As we listen, we’re invited to co-create the meaning of this image. 

Have we noticed ‘all the signs’ (how oddly technical that phrase is, as if we’re discussing the weather or the state of the stock market) that Her Majesty is herself happy (happy??), fulfilled and at home (at home??)? 

The big idea is expressed, finally, with a powerful antithesis, and a rich clash of metaphors: the economic image of a ‘huge risk’ and ‘a costly venture’ giving way to the spiritual image of answering a promise, responding to a vision and finding joy.]

And perhaps that is the challenge that this Jubilee sets before us in nation and Commonwealth. St Paul implies that we should be so overwhelmed by the promise of a shared joy far greater than narrow individual fulfilment, that we find the strength to take the risks and make the sacrifices – even if this seems to reduce our individual hopes of secure enjoyment.

Article-1338913129146-1375C76C000005DC-110211_568x370[Oh dear.  This, I think, is where the congregation finally lost it.  It takes no more than a single sentence.

We’re bombarded with  nominalisations: ‘challenge’, ‘promise’, ‘joy’, ‘fulfilment’, ‘strength’, ‘risk’, ‘sacrifices’, ‘hopes’, ‘enjoyment’ Nothing rooted to any real experience.  And that second sentence is 47 words long.]

Moralists (archbishops included) can thunder away as much as they like; but they’ll make no difference unless and until people see that there is something transforming and exhilarating about the prospect of a whole community rejoicing together – being glad of each other’s happiness and safety.

[‘Thundering’ is good; but what might they be thundering about?  The mist thickens: ‘something transforming and exhilarating’ – what kind of something?  And the word ‘prospect’ is vague: what is it?  A sight?  A vision? A promised future event, perhaps?  And what on earth does ‘being glad of each other’s happiness and safety’ actually mean?]

[Refutation: smashing the counter-positions]

This alone –

[What?  What alone?]

... is what will save us from the traps of ludicrous financial greed, of environmental recklessness, of collective fear of strangers and collective contempt for the unsuccessful and marginal – and many more things that we see far too much of, around us and within us.

Daily_Mail[This is the passage that infuriated the tabloid press.  It did indeed stand out starkly.  Partly, the success of the moment is that it’s well placed: it arrives as the climax of the sermon, just when the refutation is needed.

And it starts so well: the physical image of being saved from a set of traps.

The first trap makes a real impression: that startlingly un-sermonish ‘ludicrous’ and that unequivocal,   simple ‘greed’.  But that last term in the list of three dispels all the power generated at the start, with its repeated ‘collective’s and the totally unmusical ‘the unsuccessful and marginal’. Abstract terms again – as if we daren’t actually name these people.    


And how ironic that the next day we heard about very real, unsuccessful, marginal people being treated with utter  contempt on the very shores of the ‘chartered Thames’, underneath London Bridge...]



[Peroration: the grand finale, in which the speaker sums up the case, reiterates the strongest points and makes the pathetic appeal – the appeal to the emotions] 

One crucial aspect of discovering such a vision – and many still do discover it in their service of others, despite everything –is to have the stories and examples available that show it’s possible.

[Note the awkwardness of the interpolation. Note the vagueness of ‘one crucial aspect of discovering’ – not to mention ‘ to have the stories and examples available that show’.  These constructions, so tangled, so inelegant, do the speaker’s magnificent intellect absolutely no favours.]

Article-2154783-13757D85000005DC-644_964x473Thank God, there are many wonderful instances lived out unobtrusively throughout the country and the Commonwealth. But we are marking today the anniversary of one historic and very public act of dedication – a dedication that has endured faithfully, calmly and generously through most of the adult lives of most of us here.


[Ah. At last the temperature rises a notch.  From the unobtrusive to the very public; from one ‘dedication’ to its repetition leading a tricolon of emotional adjectives: ‘faithfully, calmly and generously’.]

We are marking six decades of living proof that public service is possible and that it is a place where happiness can be found.

[Spendid sentiments, but again – how tangled the syntax.]

To seek one’s own good and one’s own well-being in the health of the community is sacrificially hard work – but it is this search that is truly natural to the human heart.

[Williams usefully ties his ideas back to the earlier notion that selfhood finds it truest expression in community – and the even earlier mention of sacrifice that he quoted from St Paul at the very start.]

That’s why it is not a matter of tight-lipped duty or grudging compliance with someone else’s demands. Jesus himself says ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me’, and that’s what is at the heart of real dedication.

[The quotation seems to have little to do with what precedes it.  Duty and compliance giving way to – food?  The quotation is cryptic: what is at the heart of real dedication?]

This year has already seen a variety of Jubilee creations and projects. But its most lasting memorial would be the rebirth of an energetic, generous spirit of dedication to the common good and the public service, the rebirth of a recognition that we live less than human lives if we think just of our own individual good.

[More tangled syntax.  And the rebirth of that generous spirit seems to lose all its life in the switchbacks of ‘less than human’ and ‘if we think just of’.]

Article-1355376-0C93E761000005DC-813_306x423Listen again for a moment to St Paul. ‘We have gifts that differ according to the grace given us … the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness … Outdo one another in showing honour … extend hospitality to strangers … Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another … take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.’

[Yes, splendid text.  Perhaps this is Dr Williams’ attempt to use St Paul to rouse the emotions.

The problem is that we’ve already heard it.  All of it.]


Dedication to the health and well-being of a community is all this and more.

[All what and more? – just remind me again.]

May we be given the grace to rediscover this as we give thanks today for Her Majesty’s sixty years of utterly demanding yet deeply joyful service.

[And although that ‘utterly demanding yet deeply joyful’ has a fine ring, the music is ruined by the word ‘service’ with its dying fall at the end of the sentence.  The best hope for an emotional kick is in that word ‘joyful’.  What if it came at the end of the sentence?  Imagine:

“... as we give thanks today for Her Majesty’s sixty years of service: service that has shown itself to be utterly demanding, yet deeply joyful.”]

Conclusion: the sermon too often fails to lift off the page.  Too many abstractions, too many sequences of four or more elements, sentences that are too complicated, constructions that double back on themselves.  This is, in the end, a text that has been written to be read, not to be spoken.