crisis rhetoric
The report has concluded that good rhetoric gives audiences good reasons to trust or listen to a speaker.

Politicians need to get people to trust them more if they want their speeches to be heard says a new report launched by the University of Birmingham and the University of East Anglia.

The research project "The Crisis of Rhetoric: Renewing Political Speech and Speechwriting" argues that public debate and the freedom to make arguments and counterarguments are essential for democracy. But debates need to be productive and arguments need to be good ones, while political discussion must be more than just sectarian assertions and insults traded like blows in a wrestling match.

The findings show how a series of recommendations of political speech and speech writing, which concludes politicians and political activists, still must use the same appeals of political rhetoric, devices and strategies as their ancient counterparts in order to get their message across.

The study which has been led by Dr Henriette van der Blom from the University of Birmingham and Professor Alan Finlayson from the University of East Anglia has concluded that good rhetoric gives audiences good reasons to trust or listen to a speaker. But when it comes to politicians’ performance of this role, something is not working.

A 2017 poll found that just 19% of us trust ministers to tell the truth. A 2018 poll showed that only 11% trust politicians to tell the truth ‘a great deal or a fair amount.’ Similarly, people rarely see or hear a long-form political argument. They see only clips replayed on broadcast media: soundbites and slogans, claims without justification, propositions with no supporting argument, which devalues the concept of political oratory and rhetoric. The report also concludes how increasingly politicians seem afraid of their own words: fearful of hostages to fortune, and of their words being turned against them. This strategy has left an empty rhetorical space into which have stepped speakers claiming to say the unsayable.

The report recommends a series of pointers to speakers and speech writers on what makes a good political speech.

  • The style of language appropriate to the particular time and topic. Sometimes ‘ordinariness’ is needed. But that will feel inapt and inauthentic when thoughtfulness and leadership are expected.
  • The character they are playing or writing. When people speak in public – at a wedding, a prize giving, a training event – they play a part in a collective occasion; they have to be not only themselves but also who the audience need them to be.
  • The part the audience is playing. Political decisions are not only about what government does to or for people. They also concern things we will do together, for ourselves and each other. To be convinced, people need to see themselves, their own character, in the argument: who they are now and who they might become.
  • Being prepared sometimes to be bold and to take the risk of speaking openly about what they think and feel.

Dr Henriette van der Blom said:

‘We are at a turning point where political speech is changing: politicians are worried about the language used in the House of Commons and beyond, people don’t trust politicians to say the truth and feel they are not heard, and it is increasing difficult to find a common ground and therefore a broad audience for political speeches. Our project findings offer a set of practical suggestions for creating and delivering speeches which identify and address broader audiences, offer constructive dialogue towards solutions, and enable politicians to speak to policies in a persuasive and credible manner.

The report also suggests speakers and speechwriters need to:

  • Always remember that political speeches are arguments, not ‘presentations’ or ‘advertising’.
  • Have a good sense not only of what people think (according to opinion polls) but of how we think: the general ideas, outlooks and values that people share and that lie behind the polls and focus groups.
  • Consider ways of developing arguments over time, across speeches and not just using them for single occasions; it can take time to persuade people of something and politicians need to make time to do it. Great politicians and great political movements change the common beliefs and prejudices of a community – that is how political history is made.

Professor Alan Finlayson said:

‘At a time when trust in politics and politicians is low it is important that the public can hear and see speeches which aren’t just great presentations and performance and which also give people reasons to agree or disagree with political arguments. Good rhetoric is a conversation, between a speaker and an audience and a way to build agreement about what we will do to address our common problems. That sort of rhetoric - which proves, pleases and persuades - is a vital part of a healthy democratic culture.’

The recommendations and booklet  was launched at the House of Commons, on Tuesday 15th October, with discussions led by the leading classical scholar Professor Mary Beard and the Times columnist and former Downing Street speechwriter Philip Collins.

The Crisis of Rhetoric: Renewing Political Speech and Speechwriting brought together 120 academic researchers, politicians, speechwriters and political journalists to discuss the state of political argument today, to share knowledge and experiences of political speechmaking and speechwriting and to reflect on how ancient and modern ideas about rhetoric can contribute to the quality of political speech and argument today.

Read more information on The Crisis of Rhetoric: Renewing Political Speech and Speechwriting.

  • For more information or interviews, please contact: Hasan Salim Patel, Communications Manager (Arts, Law and Social Sciences) on +44 (0) 121 415 8134 or contact the press office out of hours on +44 (0) 7789 921 165. The University of Birmingham is ranked among the world’s top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
  • The University of East Anglia (UEA) is a UK Top 25 university and is ranked in the top 50 globally for research citations. Known for its world-leading research and good student experience, it was awarded Gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework and is a leading member of Norwich Research Park, one of Europe’s biggest concentrations of researchers in the fields of environment, health and plant science.