First Draft #16: a newsletter on public language
Biden's nameless foe; Starmer's open goal; the power of emotion; charisma
He who shall not be named
Joe Biden has had a rhetorical rebrand. Enough about national unity. Last week, commemorating the 6 January attack on the US Capitol, the gloves finally came off. “I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of our democracy” he declared. And there could be no doubting who was to blame for the violence. “Those who stormed this Capitol,” he said, “came here in service of one man”.
Yet for a speech that references Donald Trump sixteen times, his name does not appear once. Mentioning only “the defeated former president”, Biden joins the Obamas, Bernice King, and Meryl Streep in employing an ancient rhetorical tactic.
Antonomasia, as Quintilian describes it, is “something posited for a name”. It has crowned history’s greatest heroes – the dynamic duo, the great emancipator, the fab four. But more frequently it establishes foreboding. Think Snow White’s nameless huntsman, the disquiet of Frankenstein’s monster, du Maurier’s “the second Mrs de Winter”. For US Democrats, a skilful reference to the “former president” taps into a collective feeling – a shared antipathy that unites audience and speaker on the side of The Good.
The most persuasive use of antonomasia, however, flatters the listener with a knowing wink. A famous example comes, fittingly, from the Bard. In decrying Brutus as “an honourable man”, Mark Anthony seals his fate. The lesson for speechwriters? Calling out your opponent can be effective, but an artful allusion can be deadly. @_alice_elliott
The art of kicking into an open goal
“It can be a lot harder when you are kicking into an open goal”. How many times did you hear or read that nonsensical opinion before Keir Starmer’s questioning of Boris Johnson over the Downing Street party allegations? Of course it’s not harder when there is an open goal. It’s much harder when there is a goalkeeper in the way.
But there is more to this than exposing a cliché. Just visualize the metaphor for a moment. The correct strategy, when confronted with an open goal, is simply to roll the ball in slowly and carefully. That is what Starmer did. He took it slowly, allowing his accusations to unfold over six questions.
After his performance, many said that Starmer “smashed” it. But that is exactly what he didn’t do and shouldn’t have done. The only way in which you miss an open goal is if you try and smash it. If you have an open goal, just roll it in. It really is a lot easier. @PhilipJCollins1
Hellmann’s empty rhetoric
“Born in a NY Deli back in 1913, Hellmann’s purpose is to help people enjoy good, honest food, for the simple pleasure it is, without worry or waste.” Once you’ve negotiated the curious syntax, you might simply find these lines as bland as Hellmann’s itself. Not if you are the fund-manager and Unilever shareholder Terry Smith, however. On January 1st, he registered his dismay. “A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot,” he wrote to his fund’s investors, “the Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913 so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert — salads and sandwiches).”
Every brand today believes it must have a purpose, and perhaps consumers do indeed demand one. But surely they must be kept plausible. Last year, Unilever subjected COP delegates to a Hellmann's sponsored art installation highlighting global food waste. While mayonnaise may have resuscitated a few turkeys and hams this Christmas, a slathering of Hellmann’s surely won’t make a serious dent in the world’s groaning landfills. And the queue of half-finished Hellman’s jars in my kitchen today suggests the opposite may well be true. I can't be the only one to see greenwashing (or, perhaps more accurately, whitewashing) at play. So give me an empty stomach over empty rhetoric like this. @joshuahwilliams
Jargon buster: Thought leader
If you post a blog and nobody reads it, are you still a thought leader? This philosophical head-scratcher has a surprisingly simple answer: yes! Of course you are. Everyone’s a thought leader now. Accountants. Fitness influencers. Most PR firms. In fact, forget the blog. Merely existing should do it. The bar for thought leader status is now so low, no person or company that describes themselves as one can be taken seriously. Non-jargon alternatives are available. Say you lead on a particular issue, or are influential in a specific way. True visionaries don’t use marketing buzzwords. Now there’s a thought worth following. @AlexDymoke
Persuasion vs Influence
It has become a truism that we must ratchet up the emotional register in order to persuade. The behavioural scientists have built their reputations, and sometimes fortunes, on the idea. As a result, the classical ideal of persuasion, where evidence and arguments are weighed rationally against one another, has given way to influence, where we are surreptitiously nudged to act or think a certain way.
There is little doubt that our heads often follow our hearts, but I was relieved this week to come across two academic studies (ht @WoodClaudia) that show this isn't always the case. In one, the researchers showed that a well-informed audience wants less emotional language not more. In the second, emotional appeals pitched at an audience seeking logic and reason were shown to more often dissuade than persuade.
For two groups of people, these findings will be fairly obvious. The first is anyone who has ever stood in front of an audience of sceptical and well-informed opponents. Tugging on their heart strings rarely changes much. The second is anyone who has read the ancient rhetoricians, who knew millennia ago that persuasion is a balancing act of appeals to the head (logos), the heart (pathos) and the appeal of the speaker themselves (ethos). @joshuahwilliams
Johnson and the limits of charisma
Boris Johnson has made a career of defying expectations. An Old Etonian, he became Mayor of Labour-voting London. He broke the Brexit impasse that swallowed up his two predecessors. In the subsequent general election, he won the biggest share of the vote since 1979, sweeping Labour’s heartlands. Commentators have tried to pin down what makes Johnson so formidable. Is it the self-mockery, the boosterishness, the hair? Boil it down and you get a single word: charisma.
But charisma is a fragile thing upon which to build a political career. Max Weber, one of the great writers on charisma, posited that it is not innate. Instead, it is projected onto people observed doing extraordinary things. Charisma must constantly be proved. If things stop breaking your way it can desert you. It is sometimes said that charisma is all Johnson has. As poll numbers slide and internal dissent builds, we may find he doesn’t even have that. @zachdhardman
The most important speech in US history
Nelson Mandela delivered perhaps the greatest plea for life in the history of rhetoric. On 20 April 1964 Mandela spoke to the Supreme Court of South Africa on a charge of high treason. Mandela protested his innocence and sought to avoid a sentence of death. He was successful, if 27 years in prison can be said to be a success. But not even Mandela’s speech saved his life as directly as Teddy Roosevelt’s life saved his.
On October 14, 1912, just after eight o’clock in the evening, Roosevelt left the Hotel Gilpatrick in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to go to deliver a campaign speech for the National Progressive Party which he had formed to seek an unprecedented third term in office.
As the crowd in the street applauded Roosevelt he stood in the back of his car to wave his hat in acknowledgment. As he did so, John Schrank, an unemployed saloonkeeper, shot him in the chest with a Colt .38 revolver. Roosevelt put his finger to his lips, saw he was not bleeding from the mouth, and concluded that the bullet could not have penetrated his lung. Coming on like the Black Night in The Holy Grail, he immediately demanded he be driven to deliver his speech.
When Roosevelt arrived at the auditorium the doctors found that his life had been saved by the thick speech manuscript in his inside pocket. He spoke, as planned, although with an ex tempore section on violence, and only then went to hospital where an X-ray located a bullet lodged in a rib, where it remained for the rest of Roosevelt’s life. Even though Woodrow Wilson won the election, there has never been a more important speech. @PhilipJCollins1
Language and beyond
A fascinating look at the writing habits of Patricia Highsmith, with great quotes from her diaries, such as: “Remember (and realize) that a sentence may be set into the middle of a previously written paragraph, without interfering with rhythm, that this sentence can be the iron bolt, or the germ cell, or the life itself, all added later, as the fleck of white at the end of a nose may quicken the entire portrait.”
A lovely extract from Leo Rosten’s classic book on Yiddish, spotted on Twitter.
The brilliant Rosa Lyster in the FT on what makes a great fictional party, from Salinger to Joyce to Zadie Smith. Including this prize quote from Norman Rush: “[The party] became the kind of scene that makes you want to be a writer so you can capture a transient unique form of social agony being undergone by people in every way”
Yale professor Timothy Snyder has no time for the trite proclamations about storytelling in Jonathan Gottschall’s new book. Read his brilliant evisceration here.
Barney Ronay with a commendably measured take on the contradictions of Novak Djokovic.
The two best ways to win at Wordle, from a professional crossword setter.
“There was a time when art took upon itself the duty of shocking its public, and when some of its great works were very shocking indeed. But that time was the late 19th century”: A well written and thoughtful argument that art today should not shock.
The New Yorker on a new crop of “distraction free” devices aimed at internet-addled writers.
The age of remote work demands good writing, argues Bartleby in The Economist: “Lists of corporate values can make greeting cards seem hard-hitting. But thoughtful codification of a firm’s culture makes more sense in hybrid and remote workplaces, where new joiners have less chance to meet and observe colleagues.”
New from us
The Tories knew what they were getting with Johnson and only have themselves to blame, argues Phil in the New Statesman.
Big tech doesn’t just need a new story, it needs a new reality, says Josh in City AM.
At The Draft we’re specialists in writing and rhetoric. We help businesses and public figures make their case more persuasively. If you could use our help, get in touch. And if you enjoy First Draft, forward it on. Thanks for reading.