Some years ago a friend – another former speechwriter for a U.S. president — asked me to talk to a group of Scandinavians about working in the White House. Every year since then, I have addressed Kjell Ringdal’s Washington Seminar.
Each November, the seminars bring to this capital city Norwegian and Swedish journalists, legislators and government officials for several days of presentations on American politics and government. Speakers typically have backgrounds similar to those of their audience. They include members of Congress, senior journalists, current and former executive branch officials, as well as think tank scholars. At first, I spoke exclusively of my White House experiences, using my stories as windows on how the American presidency and American political institutions work. Soon I discovered that Kjell himself found the details of presidential speechwriting particularly exciting and, at his urging, started focusing my presentations in that direction.
Now, of course, I understand that Kjell Ringdal is Norway’s most celebrated proponent of the art of political persuasion. Members of all political parties and leaders of many corporations seek his wise advice. An independent man, for a period he was lured into government service handling communications for NORAD, the nation’s foreign assistance agency. He left when he realized that life in a bureaucracy, however noble the purpose, was not for him. Since then, he has taught communications at Norway’s leading business school, advised his many clients on how to put across their messages, and published his newspaper columns. I was particularly delighted when I learned that he was writing a book on the rhetorical arts.
Kjell has asked me to use this introduction to share my own thoughts on rhetoric.
Following are three simple – well maybe not so simple — rules:
Rule #1, be tightly cogent: Abraham Lincoln was once asked how he succeeded in making his speeches so compelling. He answered that when he was studying law, he came across the word “demonstrate,” which he took to mean a higher standard of proof. Lincoln taught himself the law. He read books of statutes and cases. To learn to “demonstrate” a point, he decided to memorize all the proofs of Euclid.
Sometime after I first heard that story, I realized that I had gone through much the same process as Lincoln had – though obviously without the profound insight — in learning to write for President Reagan. I had discovered that making a case required starting with propositions that audiences knew intuitively to be right, the equivalent of Euclid’s axiom. From there, I found that, to be effective, I had to build my argument from point to point in tightly fitting steps, similar to developing a geometric theorem.
Sounds simple, yes? It would be, but rhetoric conceals a conundrum. Aristotle discovered it. He wrote, correctly, that the difference between rhetoric and philosophy is compression. Philosophy is a series of syllogisms, as in: If A and B, then C; if C and D, then E; if E and F, then G. In rhetoric, you must leap the gap from A to G, largely skipping everything in between. But how? How can you, the speechwriter or the speaker, at the same time “demonstrate” and compress? The answer lies in the next rule.
Rule #2, be concrete, in small and big ways: Part of leaping the gap is tapping wellsprings of association, authority, evocative experience, and emotional as well as rational understandings.
This is why speakers use quotes. Yes, a quotation carries the force of its formulation. But it also carries the authority of the one who is quoted, of his or her life, achievements, experience, of the things with which he or she is associated, of the circumstance from which the quote came. So a quote is more than a few words strung together. It is an entire persona and world brought to bear on an idea. It tells more than its words. It is a window on an entire story.
The same, in a different sense, can be said of statistics. Used well, statistics tell a story, too. They give shape, depth and specificity to the larger tale you are telling. Towards the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway, returns to Gatsby’s abandoned mansion and, coming to the front steps, finds someone has scrawled graffiti on them. That graffiti remains a detail stuck in my mind. It anchors a moment of the story in something hard and real — something that I see in my imagination and believe. Use rightly, statistics do that, too.
As you can tell, in talking about quotes and statistics, I am talking about elements of stories. Images and metaphors are other elements. So are characters. So are historical, personal, even fictional moments in time, as with Nick Carroway’s moment on the mansion steps.
The point is that in one way or another leaping the gap invariably comes down to storytelling, to putting your audience into a place, a moment, among heroes and villains, and both showing them and letting them discover how A takes them to G.
Rule #3, be memorable: I am thinking here both of humor and what have come to be known as soundbites. In linguistic terms, the two are pretty much the same thing, except that humor adds the surprising or outrageous to the sharp turn of a phrase.
Either way, the memorable phrase sums up a point in your story, that is, it becomes the landing place for your leap.
That phrase may be as simple as a name for an idea you are advocating. In American history, William Jennings Bryan’s “cross of gold” was such a name. In 1896 the Democratic Party nominated this former congressman for president on the strength of both his argument that the nation should decouple from the deflationary gold standard and the power with which he put his argument: “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold,” he declaimed to the delirious cheers of a national political convention.
There are many techniques to writing reliably catchy phrases. Another is to allude to a moment in literature or popular culture. The most memorable rhetorical moment of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was an example of this device. Under pressure to change policies, Mrs. Thatcher took the name of a great play of the immediate post-World War II period, The Lady’s Not for Burning, and with a change of one letter, replied to her critics in a phrase that remains alive in common memory, “The lady’s not for turning.”
One final item of advice, more essential than any of the others:
Speak from Conviction: If you are to be an effective speaker, you must carry a torch. You must speak the truth as you know it. You must argue for a future you believe in. You must settle in your mind and your heart what you stand for, what you will work for, what you will fight for. Without conviction all artifice comes to nothing. Words are mere sounds.
We hear modern sophists scoff of speechmaking, “That’s just rhetoric.” But how will free people govern themselves if not via mutual attempts at persuasion? And how will any of us persuade if we cannot hold an audience and speak to it in terms that its members understand?
Must we not learn our audiences’ cares and aspirations, their loves and their lives, the way they see the world, the way they hear its music – and is this lesson of listening which is so essential to effective rhetoric not also the essential predicate of humane and fruitful governance in any country at any time?
So rhetoric in the end is listening as well as speaking. It is empathy. It is, as one whom for these pages I will call the Great Demonstrator said a century and a half ago, “of the people, by the people and for the people.” May it never perish from the Earth.