Book review: You Talkin' to Me? by Sam Leith

While the greatest flights of rhetoric require a crisis, its techniques are also helpful in business. Phil Collins applauds a succinct and useful guide to the subject.

by Phil Collins
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2011

For something that never went away, rhetoric is making a great show of being back. Barack Obama's ascent to the presidency of the United States of America on the wings of his rhetoric has inspired renewed interest in the topic. The most recent in the series of books that have been published on the subject is Sam Leith's You Talkin' to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama.

Indeed, Leith's central point is that rhetoric is everywhere and always has been. An acquaintance with the classical techniques of rhetoric will help you in every act of persuasion, from trying to decode advertisements to getting your children to let you wash their hair.

Obeying one of the rules of rhetoric, Leith gets his best example in first. I won't spoil it (or reduce the chances of you buying the book) by repeating the joke, but Leith cites a wonderful exchange between Homer and Marge Simpson which shows how we all know what rhetoric is, even if we are not versed in the full panoply of Greek tags that apply to the effects.

Throughout the book, Leith mixes folksy examples with the canon of the classics. His own rhetorical style alternates between the grand and the colloquial. Rhetoric has had periods of both and we are in a colloquial age. Lloyd George once referred to 'the great pinnacle of sacrifice, pointing like a rugged finger to Heaven' and was admonished in the newspapers for being too lowbrow. If George Osborne said that about the deficit, he'd be carted off to the funny farm or made poet laureate.

The juxtaposition of scholarly and everyday speech is occasionally jarring and it raises one of the other questions that a speechwriter ought to ask, namely, who is the implied audience for this work? Some books on the market are clearly guides for practice. But this isn't quite a do-it-yourself manual. Anyone in business who has a presentation to give will have to work quite hard to unearth those tricks of the trade that are relevant to presenting the latest figures to the salesforce. Although the book begins with a very wide frame of reference, the examples are, overwhelmingly, taken from political speech.

Not that it is quite a scholarly text either. Leith doesn't have a theory of rhetoric he wants to impart. What he wants to do above all is to explain and this is something he does very well. If you are looking for a clear guide to the tenets of classical rhetoric, that makes the subject seem less forbidding than it is in the original texts (although Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian are a lot more fun than you might imagine), this book fulfils the brief perfectly.

There are many lessons that can be taken from this book, but two stand out. The first big point is that rhetoric needs to be matched to the occasion. It's not accidental that Churchill is the best orator in British political history. That was partly about delivery - the sarcastic way he deliberately mispronounced 'the Nahsies' in the Commons created what Aristotle called an 'ethos'. Churchill also made clear arguments, dressed in vivid language. But the reason we remember Churchill's speeches are that they came at a big moment.

Churchill's own career is good evidence of this point. As a young subaltern in India in 1897, he wrote an essay, The Scaffolding of Rhetoric. He taught himself to speak on any subject in an effortless torrent of words. The effect was suspicious because, for most of his early career, Churchill was lavishing his fury on subjects that were too small. 'I have had to eat my own words many times,' he said late in life, 'and I have found it a very nourishing diet.' But then, in 1940, his words suddenly found their moment as Churchill's war speeches galvanised an anxious nation. It remains the greatest and most vital act of persuasion in British history.

The point that Leith draws out is that you can't fake moments like these. Talking like this won't work if you are announcing a review to the planning system. The grand style is appropriate, however, if you are a black man running to be president. The authority and grandeur that come with the office allow a president to say things that a prime minister cannot. If David Cameron started saying 'Yes we can', there would be a resounding pantomime chorus of 'Oh no we can't'.

The second big point to take from this book is that it is vital, in speech writing, to get as much said as quickly as possible. This book exemplifies the point - it races along and it gets a lot said without flagging. The best example in the whole canon is Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. This outstanding piece of prose writing is well under 300 words, a third of the length of this review.

You Talkin' to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama
Sam Leith
Profile: Books £14.99

- Phil Collins was prime minister Tony Blair's chief speech writer, and is now a columnist on The Times

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