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Page last updated at 10:00 GMT, Tuesday, 14 July 2009 11:00 UK

Want to know how to handle all of these?

A child, an arguing couple, Sir Alan Sugar and a traffic warden

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

A brilliant speech can go down in history. But most of us write words the world will never listen to. Can speech-writing teach us skills for dealing with tricky situations in everyday life?

Pants. Just one of the reasons the US Embassy in Britain is currently advertising for a speech-writer. It says knowledge of the nuances between the Queen's English and American English is vital, for obvious reasons.

However speech-writing is about much more than trying to avoid red faces. As far back as the ancient Greeks, the power of carefully crafted words has been fully understood and expertly exploited.

Barack Obama
Three-part lists

But rather than being all about creative flair a good speech-writer uses a number of techniques to get a point across. And these verbal tools are not only useful at the lectern, anyone can use them in everyday situations, from handling a boisterous child to reasoning with a traffic warden.

This is because speech-writing is the language of persuasion. And the average day largely consists of trying to persuade people, says Dr Max Atkinson, a communications consultant and author of Speech-Making and Presentation Made Easy.

"The way words are put together makes all the difference," he says. "It's often thought that great speakers are blessed with a gift, but they all use the same techniques. What makes people stand out is how often they use them.

"These techniques are the building blocks of effective speech-writing and can be used in other areas of life. Some people use them without even knowing. They are usually the best speakers and the most persuasive people, but anyone can learn them."


Study great speeches and you will soon see a formula, agrees Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London. While some are more complex, others are relatively simple.

What makes the techniques adaptable to everyday life is the fact that language is governed by rules - rules we all learn from the time we begin to speak.

Traffic warden
Try a three-part list of excuses

"Even the smallest child is learning the rules of language, and language acquisition and so these techniques can be applied to them," says Dr Atkinson.

"Research has shown that you can get a different reaction from a child depending on how you speak to them. Like everyone else, they respond to the way something is said."

In a nutshell, a great speech is communication at its most effective, and we all want to communicate effectively in whatever situation we find ourselves in, says professional speech-writer Lawrence Bernstein.

"The rules and techniques of good communication work on all levels - if you're on a stage speaking to thousands of people, asking your boss for a pay rise, trying to buy a new house, or teaching a class of 10 year olds."

So what are the best techniques?


A tactic used by John F Kennedy and by Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher speaks into microphone at the Tory conference in 1980
No turning for Thatcher

People are still quoting JFK's line: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." And Baroness Thatcher was at her most formidable when she famously told the 1980 Tory party conference: "You turn if you want to, the lady's not for turning."

"Using contrasts is a real winner," says Dr Atkinson. "Research shows 33% of the applause a good speech gets is when a contrast is used.

"This is because you are often using a negative and then a positive and that has impact. It makes your point bigger and better."

It's a technique that translates into everyday life, especially with children. While explaining they can't have one thing, it's good to point out what they can have instead. "No, you can't have a skateboard of your own, but you can have a go on your brother's."


Three really is the magic number. "Education, education, education" - Tony Blair's 1997 election-winning mantra. Or it can be a list as simple as "here, there and everywhere".

It's a technique used by US President Barack Obama - he used 29 three-part lists in roughly 10 minutes during his victory speech on election night, says Dr Atkinson.

The theory behind the technique is that three is the first and earliest point at which a possible list of similar words can become unequivocal. No other word needs to be added to make it a list.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen
Power of three in the Lord's Prayer

"It's about completeness. A third word can give confirmation and completes a point," says Dr Atkinson. "It applies in all walks of life. Church services and prayer books are full of three-part lists. Research has shown that people know a prayer is finished when it ends with them praying for three things. They know to say 'Amen' and don't have to be prompted."

Also, it is economical - a third word is the earliest point at which a possible connection, implied by the first two, is confirmed. If you carry on listing items, say speech-writing experts, you risk being criticised for "going on and on". It can be the same in life in general.


Be it "opening doors" or "breaking down barriers", paint a carefully constructed picture with your words.

Martin Luther King
He waxed lyrical about his dream

"It's about taking people on a journey and making it memorable," says Prof Furnham. "Imagery and anecdotes are some of the best ways to do this and they can personalise things."

Again, it's President Obama who experts say is a master of this technique.

"He knows how to use imagery both to increase impact and to make his points. He paints an image but also evokes associations with great communicators of the past like Lincoln and King," says Dr Atkinson.

This technique works whether addressing a nation, or guests at a wedding, say experts.


A good speech-writer knows the rules to follow, and also how to break these to maximum effect. There is always room for the unexpected in a great speech, and in life, says Phil Collins, former speech-writer for Tony Blair.

If done well it can grab people's attention - and he should know. Mr Collins penned Mr Blair's joke about there being no danger of his wife "running off with the bloke next door".

It was one of the former prime minister's most unexpected and memorable lines, delivered in his last speech to a Labour conference in 2006. It was deftly done and showed a real understanding of Blair and Gordon Brown's prickly relationship.

"No one was expecting it, which is what made it so good and so memorable," he says. "Pitched right and delivered well, something unexpected will make people sit up and listen."

Below is a selection of your comments.

The rhetorical device you describe as "contrasts" is technically antimetabole.
ARA, London

ARA, antimetabole would fit a sentence like "I know what I like and I like what I know". In antimetabole you transpose the order of the sentence. As such "You turn if you want to, the lady's not for turning" should not be considered antimetabole as there is a change between positive and negative action.
Tim Knight, Nottingham

Ah yes. We like a good bit of "tricolon" and "tricolon crescendo". Popular trick in the works of Virgil, Juvenal, Martial et al. Good to see the occasional bit of classical rhetoric still appearing in the increasingly sound-bitten fluff that passes as oratory amongst our illustrious leaders.
Zoe, London

All the building bricks for speech-making are there, except one - humour. Lord Birkett MP said that he did not object to people looking at their watches when he was speaking, "but I strongly object when they start shaking them to make certain that they are still going".
Don Grant, London

Winston Churchill was very aware of the power of three in speeches. Who can forget his "blood, sweat and tears"? Another technique he used is timing and pauses. A lot of people rush ahead, but a great speech has pauses to allow a response (and knows when the response is likely to come) and to create suspense. It is also important to be clear and not rush words together, slow speech tends to add a dignity (gravitas) to the proceedings.
Chris C, Aylesbury UK

Chris, perhaps we struggle to remember more than three list items: Churchill had "nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat".
Nich, Margate

Use short words. Winston Churchill used to say things like "The news from France is very bad." Use a word of just one syllable where you can.
Richard Wilson, Stafford

As an A-Level English language student we covered the approach of analysing, constructing and presenting writing in many forms, including journalistic writing in Year 12. The art of speech writing is not just about persuasion (rhetoric) but also about the passion from the communicator. I can't seem to stop analysing anything that seems to cross my eyes, reading a book, watching the news or listening to music. English language is an excellent subject to consider, but ruins the joys of reading or watching your favourite TV programme.
Hannah, Bracknell, Berkshire

The one thing missed off this list is passion. Barack Obama spoke with real passion in his election speech. Tony Blair captured the feelings of the nation when he spoke of the death of Princess Diana. For me that's the difference between a good and a great speech.
Val, Birmingham

If you have want of lessons in great speech writing read Mark Anthony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar not to praise him" etc. Seemingly hackneyed on superficial acquaintance but having all the devices. Beginning with sorrow and balance to a sceptical audience, and concluding with partisan power sufficient to change the listeners from suspicion of his motives to a vengeful tide against his enemies. A lesson in being the final speaker, and incidentally pure political poetry.
Robert Davies, Bournemouth

I once heard that a good speech needs a good beginning and a good ending; a great speech keeps the two very close together.
Andy Taylor, Southampton, UK

As an ex-student of philosophy, I have to say speechwriting is not truly persuasion, as in all forms of oratory, the orator has to make concessions to the crowd to make them think what he says is what they are thinking already. The best way to change someone's mind is through discussion and debate, where ideas can be analysed and demolished to show the other person that your method is the "true way". See the Phaedo by Plato for more.
Edward Halliday, UK

Perfect contrast from President Kennedy for this week that we celebrate 40 years since humans launched to the moon: "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
John F, Congleton, UK

Note also this week that Neil Armstrong's first words from the moon were a simple contrast: "One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind."
Max Atkinson, Wells, Somerset

Like him or not, Tony Blair was - is - particularly good at speaking. He used a lot of three-part lists, and his influence is felt throughout British politics: How many times have we heard phrases like: "We want to do x, we can do x, and it's the right thing to do"? Everyone seems to do it.
Andy Puttnam, London

Three-part lists can be ineffective, though, if each item in the list is the same. Take the Prime Minister: "I have been getting on with the job, I am getting on with the job, and I will continue to get on with the job."
LP, London

What you have touched upon is the Classical Liberal Art of Rhetoric, the art of the rhetor, or orator. The first rule is of course decorum: what is said must be appropriate to the audience being addressed. There are hundreds of rhetorical figures which can be used in speech to persuade, as well as the more familiar simile, metaphor, symbol. There is even a branch of rhetoric used in law: forensic rhetoric or judicial oratory. And we see most rhetoric not in political speeches, but where persuasion is most needed: advertising.
Mike Crompton, Hayfield, High Peak, Derbyshire

Whilst nobody can disagree with these simple and well-known techniques for making a good speech, the tragedy is that most modern politicians seem bent on creating memorable and well-delivered lines for their own sake. Truly great leaders are remembered for (in threes) living by their words, dying by their words and finally, but most importantly, turning their words into physical achievement. It takes more than a little technique to achieve that.
David Naylor, Preston

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