Shmuley Boteach persuades with powerful histrionics.

The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion:  This House Believes Hamas is a Greater Obstacle to Peace Than Israel. Shmuley Boteach spoke on the proposition.

Rabbi Boteach puts in a ten second pause at the beginning. An opening pause is very powerful. Counter-intuitively it actually gets the audience’s attention and is a good reducer of nerves. Ten seconds is huge, and I think it works for him.

An overt gag at the very front of a speech is not a good idea. As soon as the audience become aware that this is a gag, there is pressure on them to laugh – which paradoxically makes it less likely that they will do so. It’s a good gag, well told, and deserves a bigger laugh, but now you know why it doesn’t get it. It would work better a little later in the speech, but it would have less point then: its point now is the injection of poison into the Middle East. Boteach’s skill as a speaker is already abundantly clear, so I have no doubt that he had a debate with himself along the lines of the early part of this paragraph. He knows all that stuff and simply made a policy decision.

Halfway through his second minute he launches an extended symploce on the words “as if you […] bad people”. No sooner has that run its course than he is into anaphora – “if a Jew did that…”. Does he know these obscure terms? I have no idea, but as I made clear in this posting it’s not necessary to know the words to deploy the figures of speech..

He delivers with histrionic fervour. This is theatre! He doesn’t have quite the operatic tone of Cornel West, but being less distracting he is probably more persuasive. He is phenomenally persuasive

Please do not infer that I think this performance is just artifice. There is no doubt in my mind that Boteach means every word from the depths of his soul.

And as a speaker he is outstanding.

Nelson Mandela – never, never, and never again…

On 10 May, 1994, Nelson Mandela delivered his inaugural speech. Were I an historian I would wax lyrical about the man. Others will assail us with such pronouncements for probably weeks to come. Not I. As but a humble rhetor allow me merely to examine this particular speech and his delivery of it.

For some time I have been sitting, as it were, upon the speech he delivered to ecstatic crowds upon his release from prison in 1990. If you wish you can view that here. The problem with it is that his first audible word arrives eventually at 5:36, preceded by tumultuous cheering, whistling, applause, and “You’ll never walk alone”. His inaugural address was a much more sober affair.

My first observation is that the monumental significance of the occasion, to a very marked degree, got to him. Furthermore he evidently knew that it would – though not a particularly powerful crystal ball would have told anyone that. The speech had been very, very carefully prepared and crafted.

And written down.

“Oh come on, Brian,” I hear you shout in exasperation. “On an occasion such as this you surely won’t begrudge him a script!” No, of course I don’t begrudge him it, but he would have been better without.

I have absolutely no doubt whatever that the speech was written from his heart, but it was spoken from his eyes. And that is, and will always be, the trouble with a scripted speech. Had he known how to structure and prepare even a hugely important speech for an historic occasion like this for delivering without the hindrance of paper, and then trusted himself to shoot it from the hip, he would have spoken it from the heart and that would have made it immeasurably better.

We need not have lost that beautiful symploce beginning at 8:03 – “Let there be … for all”. We certainly would not have needed to have lost that wonderful Face of the speech at 8:30, “Never, never, and never again shall it be …”  Yes, it was wonderful; but watch and you will see he even looked back at the paper for each of the succeeding occasions that he uttered the word, Never”. Did he need to consult his script each time for that word? No, of course not. But that does demonstrate how, when you permit it to control your speech, paper becomes a demanding tyrant. And like all tyrannies it impoverishes what it rules.

Nelson Mandela 18 July, 1918 – 5 December, 2013.


Knowing words like symploce doesn’t make you a better speaker

My text for today…

DOOLITTLE: I’ll tell you, Governor, if you’ll only let me get a word in. I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you.

HIGGINS: Pickering, this chap has a certain natural gift of rhetoric. Observe the rhythm of his native wood-notes wild. “I’m willing to tell you: I’m wanting to tell you: I’m waiting to tell you.” Sentimental rhetoric! That’s the Welsh strain in him. It also accounts for his mendacity and dishonesty.

Fairly often in this blog there occur words which, it must be admitted, probably stop the eyes of most readers momentarily. At that point a reader that doesn’t know the word may click the Glossary button on the grey ribbon at the head of the page or impatiently go and read something else. I made the decision to use these words here, even at the risk of driving people away, not to flaunt my knowledge of them but to save space. If I had to explain what anadiplosis was whenever it cropped up in a speech I would be adding a paragraph every time. The same is true of all other such.

Most would agree that I, doing what I do, need to know these words. A regular reader of this blog will also find it helpful to know them, and will learn them quickly – there are not that many.  But you don’t need to know them to be a better speaker.

Consider that bit of dialogue at the head of today’s article. It comes from Pygmalion by G.B.Shaw – and therefore also crops up in My Fair Lady. Henry Higgins styles himself Professor and is a scholar and published author of books on linguistics and phonetics. Col Pickering is likewise an author of a book about Sanskrit. If ever two men could be expected to know words like those we are discussing, here they are. Why then did Shaw not put into Higgins’ mouth any reference to symploce? A quick look at the Glossary page will confirm that symploce refers to a form of repetition wherein both the beginnings and endings of the elements are the same. This is perhaps the neatest and most elegant example of it I’ve ever found –

  • I’m willing to tell you
  • I’m wanting to tell you
  • I’m waiting to tell you

But Shaw is silent on the matter; and the only reason I can conceive is that he did not know it was called Symploce.  Why should he?  Shaw was one of the foremost writers of his age, and churned out beauties like that in profusion, but so what?  He didn’t need to have learnt their obscure names to create the things. So why should you?

I fervently favour spontaneity in speaking, because audiences do. The way to find yourself spontaneously uttering beautiful and elegant phrases is to immerse yourself in fine literature and/or poetry where such figures of speech abound.

It obviously worked for Bernard Shaw!

Obama’s victory speech – a tour de force.

When, on the morning of 7 November, I learnt on the radio that Barack Obama had won another four-year term as President of the United States of America, I also learnt that his victory speech had a distinct Face –

“The best is yet to come!”

I greeted this with mixed feelings. I was delighted that he had actually given the speech a Face. Can you quote anything from his inauguration four years ago?  I can’t either. It’s such a simple device, and so many overlook it.  But my delight was tinged with nervousness. His Face was uncannily similar to Ronald Reagan’s under precisely the same circumstances, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” I was nervous lest his victory speech turn out to be merely a rehash of political plagiarism and cliché.


My anxiety was mightily reinforced by his opening which came pretty close to merely updating, “Four score and seven years ago…”; but very quickly my fears were squashed. For what it needed to be, this speech shaped into a supremely impressive example.

What is a speech like that supposed to achieve? Are we to expect detailed policy news? – a reform timetable? – a series of eye-catching initiatives? For heaven’s sake, he was there to congratulate, thank and rally. Nothing else. You’d have to work pretty hard to write a better example of that than this.

I don’t reckon anyone had written this though. He spoke for twenty minutes with no vestige of a script or notes. Many regard that as barely a notch short of magic  It isn’t: it’s easy: everyone I’ve trained can do that. Nevertheless he did it in ringing tones, unhaltingly, scattering names and other data prodigiously. You may think I say this through gritted teeth because I am not his greatest fan as a speaker, but I was bowled over.

There was the series of thankings. We have all curled our toes at lame thankings at the Oscar ceremonies (all actors think they can speak in public, and very few can). Obama addressed each group of thankees in a different way. What a simple device for making each group feel special! Simple, but not easy.

He varied the vocal tone. Most of it was pretty declamatory, which is to be expected under the circumstances. This had the added advantage for him of what I call ‘relentless iambicism’ – a regular lifting of the voice at the ends of words and phrases. Iambicism can be intensely tedious unless it’s appropriate – and here it was appropriate. For Obama the advantage was that it remedied much of his tendency to swallow the ends of his words. He still referred to the ‘peep’ who voted for him in the ‘elecksh’, and so on – but I won’t rain on his parade.  I began this paragraph by stating that he varied the tone. Note how he brings it right down to a quieter intensity at 8:40. Having that section in the middle of all that declaiming was particularly telling. It was a lovely section in the speech.

He stuck in a lot of huge pauses. Very dramatic: a good device for conveying security and authority: an excellent device for buying him thinking time.

That thinking time or a well-developed way with words, or both, produced for instance anadiplosis in the first minute and a very good anaphora triad at 19:20 – keep reaching, keep working, keep fighting.  It could be argued that it was not just anaphora but symploce (beginnings and endings the same) because each element began with ‘keep’ and ended with ‘ing’

How to close? Send for Polly!

At 19:50 he deployed polysyndeton. If you want to build to a big finish (peroration), polysyndeton can be a good friend. You have an enormous list, and instead of reeling it off without conjunctions (asyndeton), you go out of your way to stick the same conjunction between each element in the list. In this case the conjunction was ‘or’. He began with phrases, each joined with ‘or’. The phrases became shorter which caused the incidence of ‘or’ to accelerate. Eventually he was rattling off individual words – all separated by ‘or’. The effect on the crowd was nuclear: it was never going to be otherwise. He climbed on top of the tumult by blazing extended anaphora till he was addressing bedlam.  Who heard all the “God Bless America” bits?  Who needed to?

Barack baby, that’ll do.