“Brexit means Brexit.” It’s a phrase that the British people have become accustomed to hearing over the past few months, and this month the country will take the first step towards the abyss or the promised land (depending on who you speak to), when PM Theresa May triggers Article 50.
Politicians do love a catchy turn of phrase. Their job is dependent on persuading large numbers of people of the validity of their message and the most skilful politicians are those that can combine presence, tone and language to greatest effect.
Theresa May is a canny politician who is well aware of the power of words and imagery. Note her unexpected visit to the House of Lords to watch over proceedings as they debated the Brexit bill. It was she who coined the phrase which started this column and hasn’t been afraid to take it even further when she announced in December, “I’m interested in all these terms that have been identified – hard Brexit, soft Brexit, black Brexit, white Brexit, grey Brexit – and actually what we should be looking for is a red, white and blue Brexit.”
I am presently working on a book that explores techniques for effective presentation and using alliteration creates a memorable rhythm that yields grandstanding rewards. Other popular devices used by politicians and public speakers are rhetorical questions, antithesis and tricolon. Had Julius Caesar given a long and rambling speech about his political and military achievements in Roman Britain he would have probably disappeared from our history pages as quickly as Michael Gove from the Tory leadership race. As it is, his simple quip “Veni, Vidi, Vici” booked his place for eternal posterity.
One of Britain’s best known politicians, Winston Churchill, knew the power of persuasive language and tone more than most and it is testament to his mastery of this skill that so many of his phrases are still remembered today. As well as fighting them on the beaches, he gave us such gems as ‘our darkest hour’ and the ‘iron curtain’, not to mention numerous witty ripostes.
It was not just Churchill’s words that chimed with an audience that hung on every word as Britain stared into a far more frightening abyss of standing alone against the march of Nazism. His way of talking is just as memorable too. In the years since many actors have played him by mimicking the grandness and purposefulness of Churchill’s distinctive speaking style.
However, while preparing for his own part in the upcoming film Churchill classical actor Brian Cox made the discovery, by listening to private recordings of the leader, which he recently revealed to an interviewer. “I kind of discovered that the Churchillian voice was very much part of his oratory style – – something he created.” In real life, he was actually “very quick and much more mercurial in his language”.
One of the tricks, used most effectively by Britain’s most famous PM was to take the letter ‘a’ and draw it out with emphasis. The effect of this styled form of speech was to create an air of gravitas and authority, the slowness of the pace particularly suited to the medium of radio which carried his speeches to the nation.
As Theresa May goes forth on her quest to lead Britain to the promised land, the only certainty is that we can expect her and her government to coin a new of batch of persuasive phrases to flag wave as we head over the top but she will probably not be enlisting the help of Welsh Tory leader Andrew Davies whose impassioned speech to conference culminated in a rally call, “conference, we will make breakfast…brexit!’
Luan de Burgh
Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of The de Burgh Group – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.