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.


'Every view on every question'

Winston Churchill: A Life in the News Churchill news

Richard Toye

Oxford, 2020


ISBN 978 0 19 880398 0

Richard Toye’s earlier book, The Roar of the Lion, focussed on Churchill’s speeches. The title of his new book indicates a more diffuse theme. Toye explores this very public life in three dimensions: Churchill’s own prolific writings; his media image; and his attempts to control the press.

Churchill began his journalistic career in the last decade of the 19th century, just as the telegraph and the telephone were beginning to globalize the press. He effectively ended it in 1947, with an article in Life on the Truman Doctrine.

By that point, ‘the press’ had become ‘the media’, and Churchill found himself having to navigate new channels. He famously took well to speechifying on radio, and he was hardly averse to being photographed or filmed. Indeed, in the notorious Sidney Street siege of 1911, he appeared in the newsreels, not pontificating but seeming to lead the operation from the midst of the crowd - perhaps one of the first politicians to exploit film in this way.

But he was never happy speaking to camera, and he hated the rigmarole of television. He also claimed that the new media undermined the practice of democracy: “under dictatorships,” he wrote in 1936, “the press is bound to languish, and the loudspeaker and the film to become ever more important.” Hence, perhaps, his hostility to the BBC, which he regularly accused of abuse of power.

Not that he was above trying to exercise power without responsibility himself, by censoring the newspapers – mostly unsuccessfully.

The early 20th century saw what Churchill called the ‘trustification’ of the press. As a Victorian, he regarded newspapers, in Toye's words,as “a positive force for national cohesion.” The press barons of the new century – Northcliffe, Rothermere, Harmsworth King – gave fewer than two hoots for national cohesion; they regarded themselve as political players in their own right, using the papers they controlled to influence opinion and policy.

Lord Beaverbrook, in particular, plays an important part in this story. Churchill’s response, in 1930, to ‘the Beaver’s’ newly founded United Empire Party was characteristically ambiguous: hesitant to damage a fragile friendship; cautious over committing himself to a cause that might not win popular support (protectionism touted as ‘Empire free trade’); ambitious to reassume control of the Conservative party (which he’d abandoned in the 1920s). Where did the main chance lie? What move would most advantage him?

Beaverbrook himself became exasperated with Churchill’s dithering. “He has held every view on every question,” he wrote to J L Garvin, editor of the (then right-wing) Observer in 1932; “… he is utterly unreliable in his mental attitude.” His words might suggest envy or resentment, as Toye suggests; but it was shared by many, throughout Churchill’s career.

The intricate, shifting network of political, press and personal interests makes this a tough tale to tell. Toye contributes all the solid scholarship and balanced judgement that distinguished The Roar of the Lion. The story catches fire at several points: the South African escapades; the Edwardian controversies; his prescient forecasts from the sidelines after World War Two, as Britain slipped from centre stage politically.

At other times, perhaps inevitably, the narrative slackens a little. Photographs of the main players, and a timeline, would have been helpful.

To his great credit, though, Toye resists reducing the complexity of Churchill’s character, both psychological and dramatic. This life in the news seems to anticipate another 20th-century invention: celebrity. Everything contributed to the cultivation of ‘Winston’: the books, articles, speeches and political machinations; the watercolours and the bricklaying at Chartwell; even road accidents and visits to the zoo. The circumstances of his birth had been mildly, usefully, scandalous (just five months after his parents’ marriage). And by the time the day dawned of his funeral – meticulously planned himself, apparently, as ‘Operation Hope Not’ – Britons had fallen for the myth. Richard Toye’s book shows us how hard, and at times desperately, Churchill had worked to create it.

Mixing method and experience: 'Leading Lines' by Lucinda Holdforth


Leading Lines

Lucinda Holdforth

HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd (6 Feb. 2020)

ISBN-10: 1460757297

ISBN-13: 978-1460757291



There are, broadly, two types of speechwriting book. There are manuals offering a systematic method, the most celebrated of which, currently, is probably Richard Lehrman’s The Political Speechwriter’s Companion. And there are the memoirs of speechwriters, most of them, according to Lucinda Holdforth in her new book, “laments over totally failed speechwriting relationships.”

Leading Lines sits – quite comfortably, in fact – between these two camps. Dr Holdforth herself is no failure: she’s worked at the highest political and corporate levels in her native Australia. She knows whereof she speaks.

And she’s produced a real page-turner.

Leadership, she says, is changing.

“During my own long career I have witnessed the emergence of new, non-elected leaders with tremendous overt or hidden politician influence, for better or worse. The most significant of these have been corporate leaders.”

She cites, too, the rise of advocacy groups, charitable organisations, and “new leaders … from previously untapped and sometimes unlikely sources”, all of whom need to speak well. In fact, she’s said elsewhere,

“when any individual gives a speech, they become a leader. They have the precious opportunity to lead their listeners to a new attitude or understanding or insight.”

To reverse the logic: giving a speech inevitably makes a leader of the speaker.

Politicians usually have an implicit understanding of the need to harness the power of rhetoric. But “words do not have the same automatic positive connotations for corporate types,” writes Dr Holdforth. CEOs tend to see communication as “an unpleasant addition to their job, rather than central to its execution.” But, she says, “if you want to lead, you have to persuade. If you want to persuade, then you will need to give speeches.” You may need a speechwriter to help you. Leading Lines is aimed at both speechwriters and speechmakers (though, in truth, I wonder how many will find it).

Speeches themselves are increasingly taking on a life beyond the podium. They’re now broadcast through a host of channels; indeed, “this wide dissemination is one reason why a great speech is such a valuable investment: it becomes a driving and unifying communication tool.”

In this wider environment, they become subject to new pressures and constraints. Dr Holdforth goes as far as to say – echoing Mark Thompson in his book Enough Said – that “political correctness has been a disaster for plain speaking and public discourse.” She notes an increasing scepticism among audiences:

“Anyone who takes on a traditional leadership role in the modern world comes up against a wall of cynicism – legitimate cynicism.”

As she sees it, the way to deal with both challenges – the well-meaning but baroque obfuscations, and the jeering hostility that they so often provoke – is to focus on argument.

Finding the argument is at the heart of her strategy when working with a speaker. Many of her business clients give her what they see as a speech structure; she recognises it as “a record of their thinking process, culminating in the main message. The task of the speechwriter is to flip the order, and make sure the main message is up the front and structures the entire speech.”  

“A leader’s speech works best as the resolve product of thinking, not a record of the thinking process. The voice of reason has an integrity and a sense of resolution… Speechwriting is no a transcription services, but a creation service. The words don’t just reflect an idea; very often, they also shape and crystallise it.”

Here is a rhetorician boldly reasserting the centrality of what Cicero called invention in rhetorical practice. “This clarity of writing,” she says, “is about more than just a modern and mobile style. It is a form of ethics.” Rhetoric without argument is facile and trivial. But we who value rhetoric, she says, must not succumb to despair in the face of Etonian classical allusions or incoherent ranting.

“The answer to rhetoric that we don’t like … is … not less rhetoric, it’s more and better rhetoric.

And what makes it better is a focus on argument. Everything in a speech – the speaker’s authority, the stories they tell, the emotions they conjure – everything derives from their core argument.

Dr Holdforth invokes Barbara Minto: she of the famous Pyramid Principle, born of McKinsey and now ubiquitous in the corporate universe, if still rarely followed. Too many corporate communications managers, for instance, supply speechwriters with lists of bullet points described as the ‘outline’ of a speech. “Joining the dots,” writes Dr Holdforth, “just creates a list of ideas, not an argument.”

A leader’s argument must also address the beliefs and values underlying their audience’s cynicism. “Any thorough argument,” she writes, “must increasingly go back to basics and question the underlying assumptions” – and she invokes Stephen Toulmin’s warrant-based model of argumentation to support her thesis.

Leaders, of course, must also tell stories. Dr Holdforth sees that stories supply our deep need for meaning, so any story that the leader tells must knit with a robust argument to supply that meaning.  She points out, strikingly, that the argument will often itself supply the emotion that lifts a speech. “Clients tell me they want their speech to have stories with passion,” she writes, “as if passion were an ornament that you could paste on any old speech draft, rather than the intellectual energy driving and shaping it.”

She’s particularly good on ceremonial speeches. “Many of us,” she writes, “live in a lonely and godless world, and we hunger for ceremonies that lend significance to our days.” But, in fact, “few occasions reveal deep, underlying divisions and discord more than a ceremonial event.” The job of a ceremonial speech, then, is not so much to generate energy as to channel the energy already in the room: “to tap into that energy and reflect it back to the audience.” The speaker should remind us “why we love each other despite our flaws, and stick together despite our differences.” The speech, she says, “becomes a form of communion.”

So, in this new book, Lucinda Holdforth supplies a rich mix of method and experience. Where Lehrman’s book is like taking a training course, Leading Lines is like an apprenticeship. If you’re a professional speechwriter, buy two copies: one for yourself and one for your speaker. (Bookmark the opening of Chapter 4 for their attention.)

Keep it close at hand; you’ll find yourself coming back to it. Leading Lines is a book that just keeps giving.

‘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].


Six patterns of explanation

People-3d-thinking-mind-mapping-497747340-5b31bbec8e1b6e0036ab2793[image: DrAfter123 / Getty Images]

We understand information by pattern-matching. If you can organise information into a simple pattern that your audience or reader can recognise, they'll be better prepared to understand it.

For instance, we can explain in six different ways. I have no idea who first created this list of patterns, but my hunch is that it appeared at some point in the early nineteenth century. The list varies slightly from textbook to textbook; this is the version I've found most useful over the years.




Comparison and contrast

Cause and effect

Chronological or process pattern

Get to know these patterns. They'll help you explain anything more clearly.



Explanation by example, probably the simplest pattern, creates a list. Examples can help make an idea concrete by creating a mental image.

Journey times for passengers are just about keeping to expected levels on all Tube lines. The Metropolitan, East London, Northern and Piccadilly all report additional excess journey time averages. The Bakerloo, Victoria and District Lines showed the most marked improvement during the Christmas period. 

Signal words for explanation by example include:

  • in addition
  • another
  • for example
  • also
  • several
  • a number of

This pattern could be presented graphically as a bullet list. (Like the one above!)



We humans seem to have a natural talent for sorting information into categories.  Categories are created by dividing information into parts. This pattern follows three rules.

  • Every item under consideration should fit into one of your categories.  If you have odd items left over, add other categories or rework your existing categories. 
  • Categories should not overlap.
  • Items should fit into only one category.  If you cannot decide where to put something, ask if it can be eliminated as irrelevant, or whether it needs a category to itself.

Give each category a clear name.  Sub-categories will come under larger categories with more general names.

Put things, people, places, into categories based on their similarities. Alternatively, you could take one thing, person, place and divide it into its components.

Make the purpose of classification clear and interesting. A paper classifying the different areas to study in college is not very interesting. A paper classifying the different types of sexism in the classroom is interesting.

Explain how you have created your categories. Include the rule or principle used to classify items into groups. Use examples, details, and data to help readers distinguish between categories.

Playing fields may be owned by private or public landholders. Private owners include companies, banks, sports clubs, developers, or individual land owners not necessarily associated with any commercial enterprise. Public owners include local authorities, schools, colleges or other public sector bodies such as the Civil Service or National Health Service.

Signal words and phrases or categorising include:

  • include
  • exclude
  • not limited to
  • can be divided into
  • types of
  • sorts of

Categorising could be represented graphically by a pie chart.




A definition identifies something uniquely: an object, a procedure, a term or a concept.  There are three types of definition.

  • A short definition explains by means of a synonymous word or phase, often in brackets or between commas. 
  • A sentence definition is made up of two sections: the class to which the object belongs; and the features which distinguish it from all other items in the class.  A glossary is made up of sentence definitions. 
  • An extended definition can be short as a paragraph or as long as a chapter.  It may include a brief history of the term (the language it came from, its current use, how the use has changed).  An extended definition should also include the object's function.

ROI for tourism is the amount of additional visitor expenditure that campaigns generate compared with the amount of public money invested in these campaigns. 

Explore a subject’s meaning fully. Differences within the definition are fine if they exist within the established boundaries.

Draw clear boundaries around the defined subject to avoid confusion with other subjects. Use examples, details, and anecdotes to strengthen your definition.

Signal words and phrases  for definition include:

  • is defined as
  • means
  • is described as
  • is called
  • refers to
  • term
  • concept

I haven't ever found a good visual or graphic representation of definition. A Venn diagram might be helpful. On the other hand:


Comparison and contrast

Comparisons display the similarities between things; contrasts show the differences.  You can use them separately, or together: comparison before contrast.

In our view, the CEE regional businesses share similar growth drivers, in particular robust regional economic outlooks, high growth advertising markets,operational synergies as part of the MTG group,regulatory changes and the launch of niche channels.

The variance in availability of playing fields between inner and outer London is marked. In theory, there are 227 playing fields available to residents in inner London boroughs, as opposed to 1,202 available to residents in outer London.   We discuss availability in theoretical terms because availability does not necessarily equate to accessibility. There are issues around access for local people, who may find themselves deprived of access for a variety of reasons.

The items under consideration must be comparable.  You would not compare the costs of freight haulage by rail in the UK to container haulage to Australia by ship. Establish the criteria by which you are comparing and contrasting.  Have as many as possible: cost, convenience, prestige, size, security, safety and so on. Rank the criteria in priority order.  This might be a controversial exercise, but unless the criteria are weighted you will not be able to contract them effectively.

State a clear purpose regarding why the subjects are being compared or contrasted at the beginning of the paper. Explaining the differences between summer and winter, however well written or spoken, must also be interesting.

Share enough features to make a comparison valuable. Choose a narrow enough basis for comparing or contrasting, so that all major similarities and differences can be covered.

Signal words and phrases for comparison and contrast include:

  • similar, different
  • on the other hand
  • but
  • however
  • bigger than, smaller than
  • in the same way
  • parallel

Comparison and contrast can be presented graphically as a table.

Compare and contrast[image from allcameradriver.com]


Cause and effect

Cause and effect explains why something happened. 

The difficulty, of course, is in deciding which is cause and which is effect! A cause is so often the effect of another cause, which may be harder to determine or control.  Look for the immediate cause; the underlying cause; and the ultimate cause.  Your analysis will be circumscribed by the areas of responsibility involved.

The breakdown in communications within the London Ambulance service had an impact on the service’s ability effectively to deploy the necessary vehicles, personnel, equipment and supplies to the incidents.  Survivors told us repeatedly of their surprise at the apparent lack of ambulances at the scenes, even an hour or more after the explosions. 

Cause and effect is a technique fraught with danger.  Determine which type of cause you are searching for: immediate, underlying or ultimate.  What is your purpose in identifying these causes?  Be open-minded.  Try not to rush to conclusions or to allocate blame 'politically'.  Be as logical as you can.  Eliminate coincidence.  Take all factors into account.  Is there more than one cause?  Are there other effects that you have not considered?  Trace all the links.  Go as far back as necessary (or as is expedient!) to the ultimate cause.

The robust advertising growth will be largely driven by demand from both local and multinational advertisers, buoyed by deregulation and relatively stable economic conditions.

Signal words for cause and effect explanation include:

  • for this reason
  • consequently
  • as a result
  • on that account
  • hence
  • because

Cause and effect can be represented graphically by a fishbone or Ishikawa diagram. This is also a useful tool for establishing causes of a problem.




Chronological or process pattern

Items are listed in the order in which they occurred or in a specifically planned order in which they must develop.  In this form of explanation, the order is vital; changing it would change the explanation's meaning.

A process pattern lists all the steps necessary to carry out an operation.  It may take the form of a set of instructions (like a recipe), a quality procedure or a technical specification report.  It proceeds step by step.  The steps must occur in a particular order: if the order is wrong, the operation will fail. 

The proposed timetable is as follows:

Scoping brief to Chair on 7 April;

Project Initiation meeting at 10am on 11 April;

Scoping brief to Members on 12 April;

Despatch call for evidence letters by 21 April;

Written evidence received by 26 May;

Evidence analysed and briefing paper prepared for Members by 5 July;

Evidentiary Hearing 13 July;

Formal approval of scrutiny report at 12 October Committee meeting

Process analysis usually tells the reader about a process or how to do it. 

In calculating the cost of capital, we compute the split of earnings between domestic and international operations, which after the deconsolidation of the Argentinean subsidiaries comprise mainly Brazil. To calculate the cost of capital of the domestic operations, we add the eurobond yield of 3.64% to the Italian equity risk premium of 4.0%. To calculate the cost of capital of the international operations, we add the Brazil short term interest rate of 30% to the country risk premium of 6%. Lastly, we calculate the weighted capital obtained on a earnings basis.

Instructions tend to be far more detailed explanations.

Signal words and phrases for chronological or process explanation include:

  • first, second, third
  • first, secondly, thirdly
  • next
  • before
  • after
  • when
  • later
  • until
  • at last

Chronological explanation could be presented graphically as a timetable -

2019_Red_Timetable- or as a timeline:


A set of instructions will be laid out as a numbered list - like a recipe:

RecipeNote that the list of ingredients here is explanation by example. The method is organised as a process. The distinction between the two is made even clearer by the use of bullets for the list of examples, and of numbers for the process. 

Notice also that lists of instructions are not necessarily in process order.


(And please do not try to iron your backside, even on a low heat.)

I run training courses on effective writing email and letter writing, report writing and grammar. Contact me to find out more.



Presenting science: finding the structure

Road[image: Harish Krishna on Flikr]

In the previous two posts of this series, I’ve outlined some of the challenges facing scientists presenting to a non-specialist audience, and the need for a clear message. Once you've clarified your message, you need to find the structure that will work best for it.

The thoughts in this final post arise from my work with the seven Award Lecturers at this year’s British Science Festival (2018, at the University of Hull).They were consistently inspiring.

When I’m working with scientists on scicomm presentations, creating the structure is usually the most exciting part of the job. Every presentation takes its own shape, and our task is to discover that structure together.

So making rules about structure is pretty well impossible. But I think we can lay down three broad principles.

First, the presentation structures that succeed are always dynamic. They move in some way from beginning to end. That movement might be a straight line; it may be a tortuous meander; it may be a journey that suddenly changes direction.

Wineglass_model_for_IMRaD_structure.Now, you could present your research as a journey. Simply adapt the structure of a research paper:

  • Introduction (what was the problem?)
  • Methodology (what did you do?)
  • Results (What did you find?)
  • Discussion (what did you think about it?)
  • Conclusion (what have you proved?)

This is the classic IMRAD structure. And it might work for the audience in a scientific conference. That’s to say: it’s likely to make them feel comfortable and safe and maybe a bit sleepy…

But IMRAD is unlikely to work with a non-specialist audience. The problem is that the place where your research starts is unlikely to be a place that non-specialists would recognise or understand.

You have to start somewhere the audience finds familiar.

And then you have to entertain them.

Deep down, every audience wants a performance. Think of a simple tune, or a joke, or a magic trick. (Good science demos, of course, are very like magic tricks.) They all arouse expectations, and then fulfil them. Many scientific presentations are static: they’re all fulfilment.  (‘Make your point, then give the evidence.’). Your structure has to set up an expectation - and then fulfil it. For many researchers, this realisation is often an 'aha!' moment.

The structure you're looking for, then, is dynamic. It must move. It's not the structure of a paper; it's the structure of a performance.

All gripping performances contain moments of suspense and surprise. Create a mystery.  The more intriguing, the better. (Think of all those science documentaries in which, about halfway through, the narrator’s voice deepens and we hear the words: “And at that point they discovered something utterly astounding.”) It doesn’t have to be a burning controversy.  A life cycle with intriguing gaps; an ancient manufacturing process that remains a mystery to this very day; a mismatch between theory and findings; all of these can give you the hook that will capture your audience’s attention.  

Or think of a story. Every story follows a similar structure.

  • Situation: which everyone in the audience recognises.
  • Problem: which complicates the situation and makes in interesting, adding tension.
  • Question: how is the crisis going to be resolved?
  • Response: “…and they all lived happily ever after/… and the beast was slain/ … and the hero discovered something new about himself/herself/the world.”

FreytagpyramidThere are plenty of models around to help you develop a narrative. Take a look at the the Freytag Triangle, ‘SPQR’; and Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. The trick is to ask what would work for your audience: what stories work for them? Look for the points of arousal in your narrative: the moments of mystery, choice, uncertainty, conflict. (“Why did that happen? Why did that fail? How can we fix this?”)

Arrange your structure around these turning points.  (I sometimes call them ‘hinges’.)

Second, narrative isn’t everything.  Scicomm practitioners and consultants can become obsessed with storytelling. But other kinds of discourse can perform. Some kinds of explanation, for example, are inherently dynamic. Think of contrast (the difference between then and now, here and there, us and them). Cause and effect, too, can be gripping, especially if the effect is surprising. (Science demos, again...) A process, by contrast, might be dynamic but it probably lacks suspense or surprise (and a process that involves conflict probably isn’t a very effective process). Lists of examples and carefully organised categories tend to be utterly boring. (Especially on slides.)

Argument, of course, is packed with drama. Make a striking or controversial claim, and your audience will be gripped.

Third, let your intuition help you.  Caroline Goyder suggests factoring in dream time.  Create a loose framework, she says, “as soon as the invitation to present goes in the diary.” “Once you have that frame,” she says, “your unconscious will get to work and the idea will grow, even while you’re doing other things.”  I’d also suggest talking your material through with a (preferably non-scientific) friend.  Where do their eyes light up?  What fascinates them?  Those moments are potential hinges.

Discovering the structure that makes a science presentation fizz is one of the most exciting parts of my job. We never know what that structure will be when we start exploring. But we always know it when we find it.

What's your message?: finding the foundation of a great science presentation


This is the second of three posts.

What makes for a zingy science presentation?

In my previous post, I highlighted the need for scicomm practitioners to answer the ‘so what?’ question. How can we produce a science presentation that’s truly meaningful for a non-specialist audience?

The sessions that I’ve seen in the last two days all delivered simple messages. It was the clarity of those messages that made them satisfying and enjoyable. We took them away with us. They were truly take-home messages.

The message depends more on your audience than it does on your subject matter. Every ordinary presentation talks about something. Every extraordinary presentation talks to its audience.

So how do you find a good message?

It's a matter of pulling focus. Start broad and narrow your thinking down.

Invention diagram

Start with your subject. What are you talking about?

Ok. Now put that question behind you. You're not going to talk about anything. You're going to find interesting and meaningful things to say to your audience.

Now ask: who's my audience? Think about their likely demographics. Think about their general beliefs and attitudes, especially about the subject you’re tackling. (Vaccination? Climate change? Masculinity? There will be attitudes, beliefs and prejudices swirling around…) Think, too, about how they might think about you. And think about the hidden audience: on social media, in the press, or around the festival or event where you’re speaking.

You’ll be able to use all of this information in the presentation itself. For example, you can use it to help you identify – or seem to identify – with the audience. You could use information about the audience itself in the presentation. And you could use questions or statements generated by the audience themselves at some point. But all this is for later. Let’s come back to the message.

So: now identify your objective. How do you want to influence the audience? The simple answer is almost certainly that you will want to either explain or persuade. You can do both, but not at the same time! Try to decide which of these two is your overall objective.

And now, identify your topic. This is your position on the subject, where you stand in relation to it in the presentation. (The word comes from the Greek word topos, meaning ‘place’.) A quick short cut to a topic is to write down a phrase beginning with the word ‘how’ or the word ‘why’. One session today had the topic: “why our approach to obesity is wrong”. Another had the topic: “how we can strengthen our immune system’s ability to remember pathogens”.  A third was: “how brain training might help people living with Huntington’s disease”.

Now put the topic and the objective together. (They should of course make sense already in relation to each other.) Find the sentence that expresses your message, and delivers your objective, as simply as it can. In the cases I’ve mentioned, we can simply remove the initial words.

Our approach to obesity is wrong. [Persuading]

We can strengthen the immune system’s memory. [Explaining]

Brain training may be able to help people living with Huntington’s disease. [Explaining]

Your message is the foundation on which all the rest of the presentation will be built. And if you’re wondering where to put the message – At the beginning? In the middle? At the end? – then you’re ready to move on to the next stage of constructing a meaningful and entertaining science presentation: you’re thinking about structure.

And we’ll deal with that in the next post.

'So what?': the conundrum of scicomm


[image with thanks to magnoliamc.com]

This is the first of three posts. Links to the other two are at the end.

This week, I’m at the British Science Festival in Hull, which offers hundreds of exciting events creating a conversation between science – and scientists – and everyone else. It’s a great place to observe the challenges facing science communication, and the thrill when good scicomm successfully engages its audience.

Jim AlKThis year’s festival is likely to be dominated by artificial intelligence – not least because the British Science Association’s new president, Jim Al-Khalili, will be devoting his Presidential Address to that topic.

It’s hard to keep up with the advances in AI: only three months ago, IBM unveiled Project Debater, a system capable of debating with humans on complex topics in real time. Project Debater seems to bring AI squarely into the rhetorical arena, perhaps for the first time. Does Project Debater automate persuasion?

The history of AI begins with attempts to replicate logical thinking: Simon and Newell developed Logical Theorist, widely considered the first AI program, in the mid 1950s. Classical AI, based in part on the work of Alan Turing, later developed algorithms using heuristics to make reasonable choices in pursuit of a goal. Classical AI now helps systems in logistics, in manufacturing and construction to plan and execute processes in highly controlled environments.

Machine learning – arguably the next stage in the AI story – creates systems that hunt for patterns in data. Neural networks take AI still further, mimicking to some extent the neurological structures of the brain. Systems like IBM’s Watson and AlphaGo (developed by Deep Mind) seem to be able to go beyond regurgitating knowledge and running logical deductions: they give a very good impression of discovering new strategies for solving problems and even generating new ideas.

But even these most advanced forms of AI lack the ability to think conceptually. As Professor Al-Khalili demonstrated in a recent TV documentary, we can train a program to recognise a dog, but it doesn’t know what a dog is.

So, at the heart of AI sits a conundrum. It’s known as Moravec’s paradox. AI is becoming ever more effective at the kind of complicated rational thinking that humans find hard, but it can't yet replicate the kind of perceptual and conceptual thinking that toddlers find effortless: recognizing a face, moving around in space, and catching a ball; paying attention to what’s interesting, setting goals, and planning a course of action.

Moravec famously explains the paradox in evolutionary terms:


Encoded in the large, highly evolved sensory and motor portions of the human brain is a billion years of experience about the nature of the world and how to survive in it. […] We are all prodigious olympians in perceptual and motor areas, so good that we make the difficult look easy. Abstract thought, though, is a new trick, perhaps less than 100 thousand years old. We have not yet mastered it. It is not all that intrinsically difficult; it just seems so when we do it

There’s a further paradox here. Those older, unconscious cognitive skills include the most sophisticated thinking skill of all: the ability to generate meaning. The question that AI has yet to learn to answer is: “So what?”

Scicomm faces the same paradoxical challenge. Scientists – inheritors of a rational method barely 2000 years old, which Moravec calls "the thinnest veneer of human thought" – need to be able to communicate with human brains that are highly evolved meaning-making systems. They need to engage the emotions, values, aesthetic judgements and social skills that shape our perception of reality. They need to tell us, not just what they know or how they’ve come to know it, but what it means.

In short, they need a rhetorical method to complement the scientific method.

In the next two posts, I’ll be exploring two key elements of that method: finding a message and discovering a structure for your presentation.

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.”

Remembering Fred Metcalf




My colleague Brian Jenner told me today that he'd heard of the death of Fred Metcalf.  Fred was one of modern rhetoric's unsung heroes: a jokesmith and writer for the great and good, who has not received the recognition he deserved - and undoubtedly shunned.  His lugubrious, subversive humour will be greatly missed. 

Read Brian's obituary - where are the notices in the national press?  Fred deserves better. 

Here is my short review of his book, The Biteback Dictionary of Humorous Political Quotations.  The very title somehow conjures a wry smile. 





Fred Metcalf:  The Biteback Dictionary of Humorous Political Quotations

Biteback Publishing, 2012

ISBN 978 1849542 241


A good book of quotations is like a box of superior chocolates.  You enjoy one, and before you know it...

Fred Metcalf’s collection of political quotations is among the most superior.  His range is remarkable, historically (from Cicero to blog postings from 2012) and stylistically.  He includes one-liners and slow-burners of up to 60 words; he quotes real people and fictional characters (The West Wing is well represented).  Some of the humour is broad (including – perhaps a few too many – American stand-up comedians); some traditionally witty; and some satirical (Yes Minister is here). 

You’ll find writers, actors, activists and plenty of real politicians, many of them with their own entries:  quotation collages that deliver caricatured, often surreal pen portraits.  The entries on national characteristics brazenly celebrate their own political incorrectness.  Metcalf is happy to include Anon, and its more recent descendant, the bumper sticker (“GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE. ABORTION CLINICS KILL PEOPLE.”)  “That’s humour at work,” chuckles Metcalf in his introduction; “ever ready to undermine your most precious and long-held beliefs.  It thinks it’s funny!”

One quibble.  The dictionary is arranged by subject, including issues, movements, philosophies and political parties.  My pedantic side would have welcomed an index of authors. 

Use this book in two ways.  Reach for it when you want to add the sharp tang of a ready-made quotation to a speech.  And study it closely to discover the secrets of being quotable.









Fred and Rodger Evans at a recent European Speechwriters Network conference