The plain English truth about speechwriting and rhetoric

Posted by on February 03, 2012

The conclusion of our Plain English theme brings a guest post by Martin Shovel, a writer, animator and speechwriter with a special interest in new media and social networking. He writes regularly about language and communication on his own CreativityWorks blog and is a contributor to the Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog. He tweets @MartinShovel.

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For centuries, speechwriters have been viewed with suspicion. We’re regarded as the used car salesmen of the English language usage world because we specialize in the darkest of linguistic arts: rhetoric, the art of persuasion.

The rot set in when the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato put the boot into rhetoric around the 5th century B.C. They argued that rhetoric didn’t say anything substantive about the world – it wasn’t a proper body of knowledge, like medicine or business, for example.

Instead, they characterized rhetoric as little more than a set of tools and techniques that enabled a speaker to wield persuasive power over an audience, irrespective of whether what was being said was true or false. Rhetoric wasn’t concerned with right and wrong; its aim was conviction, not knowledge or understanding.

The doubts raised by Socrates and Plato persist to this day. In fact there is still a widespread belief that rhetoric is like the US sitcom ‘Seinfeld’: essentially a clever show about ‘nothing’. Rhetoric is regarded by many as a dubious gun-for-hire, whose primary concern is entertaining and manipulating an audience, not educating or enlightening them.

At the other end of the linguistic trust spectrum, we find the relative newcomer, plain English. As its name suggests, plain English presents itself as the honest broker of the English usage world: an impartial mediator between ideas and the words that reveal them. On the Australian Plain Language.gov website, Professor Robert Eagleson states that “writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on the message instead of being distracted by complicated language”.

Descriptions of plain English, like Eagleson’s, often imply a distinction between a message and the words that express it: as if words are a window we look through to reveal the ideas that lie beyond them. Metaphorical image-rich language is seen as problematic because it has a tendency to dirty the window and obscure the message.

But if we look at the variety of ways we use language on a daily basis, the distinction between words and message melts away. Rhetoric teaches the speechwriter that how we say what we say affects the meaning of what we say, and my experience of writing speeches confirms this.

When we ask someone to do us a favour, our choice of words is critical to the success of our request. A clear, but abrupt, plain English, “pick it up!”, might cause offence. Whereas a more rhetorical, “would you be an angel, and pick up that pen for me?”, might just do the trick.

Context also plays a crucial part in our choice of words: where we are, who we’re talking to, our relationship to the person, or people, we’re talking to, and so on. If I’m talking to my wife or daughter, I might use angel, but if I’m speaking to a stranger in a noisy bar, or to my boss at work, I could end up in hot water.

We use language to perform all kinds of different tasks: we ask for things, we complain, we apologize, we persuade, and so on; and because content and style are inseparable, all of us learn to become rhetoricians, in order to survive.

The study of everyday language use teaches us that plain English is a style choice, not a privileged insight into the way language works. It’s a style that comes in handy when writing an instruction manual or a contract, but it’s of limited value when attempting to rally troops under fire, or trying to persuade the electorate to hand you their precious votes.

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Comments (8)
  • I think you are building straw men in order to tear them down. Surely the Plain English campaign is all about using language that is appropriate to the relationship.

    If language is used to obfiscate then and deliberately hide your intention, then the relationship is not an equal one; and in the realm of contracts and public service announecements we deserve an equal relationship.

    If language is used to ask a loved one to pick up a pen, then obviously you are going to use different language because the relationship is different.

    Posted by Stephen greene on 6th February, 2012
  • Thanks for your comment, Stephen.

    You refer to ‘straw men’, but don’t say what they are, so I’m not sure how they relate to my piece. I agree with you that plain English has a useful role to play in “the realm of contracts and public service announcements”, but I’m arguing that it is essentially a style choice, and not a privileged insight into the way language works.

    Posted by Martin Shovel on 6th February, 2012
  • I would suggest that plain English can be very useful when “rallying troops under fire”. Look at Churchill’s “We will fight them on the….” speech – as fine a piece of rhetoric as you will find anywhere, but delivered in the simplest of language. Plain English and rhetoric are often the best of bedfellows.

    Posted by Tim Stockil on 7th February, 2012
  • Many thanks for your comment Tim.

    Winston Churchill said that “short words are best and the old words when short are best of all”, and the famous passage you refer to is a good example of this philosophy in action.

    But the passage is highly rhetorical and would be ridiculed by advocates of plain English if it appeared in a public service announcement. It is a brilliant example of anaphora: a rhetorical term in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of successive sentences or phrases. Churchill builds towards a powerful emotional climax by repeating the phrase “we shall fight”.

    “We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills …”

    Using short, easily understood words is not the same as using plain English. If you look at many of the greatest examples of oratory – especially from the 20th century – you’ll find they are full of short, old – i.e. Anglo-Saxon – words.

    Posted by Martin Shovel on 7th February, 2012
  • Hi Martin. Interesting post. But there’s not a conflict between plain English and rhetoric: plain English is itself a rhetorical device. It conveys the unconscious message, ‘it’s simple’ – even if it isn’t. Obama’s ‘Yes we can’, Clinton’s ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, Bush’s ‘read my lips’ and so on and so on. Cameron always ends any speech, statement or interview comment with a plain English summary of his message, e.g. ‘we get it.’

    The Ancient rhetoricians – Aristotle, Demetrius et al – all distinguished between a plain style and a stately style in rhetoric. I cover this in my book – Speechwriting: The Expert Guide (published by Robert Hale) – forgive the plug. The Ancient Greeks had fine advice, e.g. ‘For the sake of lucidity we must often repeat ourselves. What conciseness gains by being attractive it loses by being obscure. As men running past us often pass unrecognised, so language, too, is not taken in if its movement is rapid.’

    The true battle lies not between rhetoricians and plain speakers but between pedants and plain speakers. A pedant would never have stood for Obama’s ‘Yes we can.’ They would probably have recommended instead, ‘It is perhaps true to say that certain collections of American people are capable of achieving certain things together in certain circumstances, but it is by no means true all of the time, as recent events have proved.’ It was the brevity and simplicity of ‘Yes we can’ that gave it its rhetorical force.

    Cheers,

    Simon

    Posted by Simon Lancaster on 7th February, 2012
  • Thanks for your comment Simon. I totally agree with you that there’s no conflict between plain English and rhetoric; hence, my conclusion that plain English is a just style choice, among many possible style choices. And I think we would both agree that skilled rhetoricians/speechwriters use a wide variety of styles to get their messages across – i.e. they use the right tool, or tools, for the job in hand.

    The problem arises when advocates of plain English imply that their ‘style’ of expression reveals something deeper, and truer, about the way language and meaning work.

    P.S. I would happily recommend your book on speechwriting to anyone with an interest in the subject!

    Posted by Martin Shovel on 7th February, 2012
  • I recently retired, but my last few years of employment were as a speechwriter.
    I had a running dialog — not always pleasant — with the principals for whom I wrote. I worked for one position, but there was turnover in that post.
    I have long believed that basic rhetorical devices, alliteration, repetition, etc., help a listener receive your message. Listeners, unlike readers, cannot re-visit passages to parse meaning — they have catch it first time through or risk becoming lost.
    The speakers for whom I wrote were enamored of plain speech; one even objected to using quotations because “It makes it sound like I don’t have ideas of my own.”
    I also believe that crisp, clear unadorned prose is usually a winner in narrative writing. Hemingway’s monosyllabic style can be exceptionally effective in letters and reports, for example, but less so in speeches.

    Posted by Duncan Morrow on 10th February, 2012
  • […] bottom line is this: authentic is a style. If you believe that it contains essential truths about the speaker, you probably also believe that […]

    Posted by Improvising authenticity – has the written speech had its day? on 1st March, 2012
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