Just a brief disclaimer before we begin. This is not an endorsement of any political party. I am merely looking at how certain elements of persuasive writing are used in speaking to the public and in ensuring people understand and carry out the wishes of the Government.
Often when I teach non-fiction writing to my students, they will ask me what the point is of studying how to write an argument or a piece of persuasive writing. They do not seem to understand that much of what is taught will be useful to us in our adult lives.
In times of crisis, the means by which a government communicates vital information to its people is paramount. During the Second World War, propaganda in the form of posters, speeches and announcements on the radio, as well as cinema adverts, were all used to ensure the public understood key elements such as how to survive rationing, how to cope with air raids and evacuation of loved ones and how to go about their normal lives during wartime. The language used to convey these messages would be punchy, succinct, and memorable. Catchy phrases were employed to convey messages. We see this now with the government’s key message on staying in our homes. Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives. Slogans ensure that there can be no doubt concerning what citizens must do to protect themselves and their families.
Every day on lockdown, we watch the Prime Minister’s briefing from Downing Street. If ever there was a real-life example of how persuasive writing and public speaking techniques are used in modern day life, then this is it. No matter how well a speech is written, delivery is a key factor in its success. Some politicians are more adept at delivering their speeches. When Margaret Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative Party in the late 1970’s, she was given lessons in public speaking from a tutor at the National Theatre to make her sound less shrill and to speak at a lower pitch in an attempt to make her appear more in control and compassionate. A marked difference can be heard from her earliest recordings.
Inevitably some politicians are better at it than others. I have to admit that when I see Michael Gove speak, I find him slimy and repugnant. He is not terribly enthusiastic or even likeable as a speaker, and often I find myself switching off within a short time. In contrast, I think Rishi Sunak is skilled at making his speeches sound empathetic. He uses a great deal of repetition and short, punchy sentences to ensure that the public have no difficulty in comprehending his message and the measures he has introduced. Dominic Raab? Well, I think he still has a great deal to learn.
Boris Johnson has come a long way since his days of waffle and acting like a bumbling buffoon. He has clearly been coached in his delivery in the same way that Margaret Thatcher was trained. Boris has been away from work suffering from the corona virus. On his return to work, he gave a rousing speech to show that he is now back at the helm and to answer criticism concerning whether some of the restrictions should be lifted. He employed many devices used in persuasive speaking to get his point across. This speech was most probably written with assistance but since Boris has a lifetime of experience in journalism, he may have had considerable input himself. Whether you agree with his politics or not, he employs similar passion and linguistic devices to Churchill. The main reason there have been comparisons to Churchill, is that Boris uses the analogy of fighting a war against the corona virus. His return to work speech warned that coming out of lock-down too soon could cause a second spike and an economic disaster.
So, what exactly is persuasive language?
Here are some types of persuasive techniques and examples of how they can be used:
Flattery Complimenting an audience A person of your intelligence knows
Opinion A personal viewpoint presented as fact I believe that this will work
Hyperbole Exaggerated language used for effect. This is the best thing to have happened.
Personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’. You are the key to this entire idea succeeding
Imperative command Instructional language. Get on board and join us!
Triples Three points to support an argument. Safer streets means comfort, reassurance, and peace of mind.
Emotive language Vocabulary to make the audience feel a particular emotion. I am starving.
Statistics and figures Factual data used in a persuasive way. 80% of people agreed that this would change their community for the better.
Rhetorical question – a question which implies its own answer Who does not want success?
Persuasive language also uses a lot of imagery to exemplify a point as well as repetition and listing to ensure the message is delivered.
I studied in detail the full text of the speech Boris gave outside Downing Street on Monday 27th April 2020. Furthermore, I also showed it to some of my students, since it was such a perfect example of using persuasive techniques. For example: Boris frequently used the ‘we’ of personal pronouns to make everyone feel as if we are all together in trying to eliminate this virus and that each and every one of us has contributed to the success of the measures. He also used flattery when speaking of the Public’s forbearance, good sense, spirit of community, and altruism. He used the example of Captain Tom Moore, with his optimistic spirit. There is alliteration, personification, idioms, punch lines, personal address, and superlative language amongst many other language devices.
If you are looking for a perfect example of how language is used in our daily life and how the techniques students learn in their English lessons prove ideal training for real life, then this is the perfect example. Whatever career a student goes into, learning persuasive techniques can prove essential from job applications, interviews, presentations, speeches or even in trying to put forward a strong opinion on something. Have a read of the speech below and see how many examples you can find. I have underlined some examples myself.
“Good morning. I’m sorry I’ve been away from my desk for much longer than I would have liked and I want to thank everybody who has stepped up, in particular the First Secretary of State Dominic Raab, who has done a terrific job, but once again I want to thank you, the people of this country for the sheer grit and guts you have shown and are continuing to show.
“Every day I know that this virus brings new sadness and mourning to households across the land and it is still true that this is the biggest single challenge this country has faced since the war and I in no way minimise the continuing problems we face.
“And yet it is also true that we are making progress, with fewer hospital admissions, fewer Covid patients in ICU, and real signs now that we are passing through the peak. And thanks to your forbearance, your good sense, your altruism, your spirit of community, thanks to our collective national resolve we are on the brink of achieving that first clear mission to prevent our National Health Service from being overwhelmed in a way that tragically we have seen elsewhere.
“And that is how and why we are now beginning to turn the tide. If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.
“And so, it follows that this is the moment of opportunity, this is the moment when we can press home our advantage. It is also the moment of maximum risk because I know that there will be many people looking now at our apparent success and beginning to wonder whether now is the time to go easy on those social distancing measures.
“And I know how hard and how stressful it has been to give up, even temporarily, those ancient and basic freedoms – not seeing friends, not seeing loved ones, working from home, managing the kids, worrying about your job and your firm.
“So, let me say directly also to British business, to the shopkeepers, to the entrepreneurs, to the hospitality sector, to everyone on whom our economy depends: I understand your impatience, I share your anxiety.
“And I know that without our private sector, without the drive and commitment of the wealth creators of this country, there will be no economy to speak of, there will be no cash to pay for our public services, no way of funding our NHS.
“And yes, I can see the long-term consequences of lockdown as clearly as anyone, and so yes, I entirely share your urgency, it’s the Government’s urgency.
“And yet we must also recognise the risk of a second spike, the risk of losing control of that virus and letting the reproduction rate go back over one.
“Because that would mean not only a new wave of death and disease but also an economic disaster, and we would be forced once again to slam on the brakes across the whole country, and the whole economy, and reimpose restrictions in such a way as to do more and lasting damage.
“And so I know it is tough and I want to get this economy moving as fast as I can, but I refuse to throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak and huge loss of life and the overwhelming of the NHS.
“And I ask you to contain your impatience because I believe we are coming now to the end of the first phase of this conflict.
“And, in spite of all the suffering, we have so nearly succeeded. We defied so many predictions, we did not run out of ventilators or ICU beds, we did not allow our NHS to collapse.
“And on the contrary we have so far collectively shielded our NHS so that our incredible doctors and nurses and healthcare staff have been able to shield all of us from an outbreak that would have been far worse.
“And we collectively flattened the peak. And so when we’re sure that this first phase is over and that we’re meeting our five tests – deaths falling, NHS protected, rate of infection down, really sorting out the challenges of testing and PPE, avoiding a second peak – then that will be the time to move on to the second phase in which we continue to suppress the disease and keep the reproduction rate, the R rate, down but begin gradually to refine the economic and social restrictions, and one by one to fire up the engines of this vast UK economy.
“And in that process difficult judgments will be made, and we simply cannot spell out now how fast or slow or even when those changes will be made, though clearly the Government will be saying much more about this in the coming days.
“And I want to serve notice now that these decisions will be taken with the maximum possible transparency, and I want to share all our working and our thinking, my thinking, with you, the British people.
“And of course, we will be relying as ever on the science to inform us, as we have from the beginning but we will also be reaching out to build the biggest possible consensus across business, across industry, across all parts of our United Kingdom, across party lines, bringing in opposition parties as far as we possibly can.
“Because I think that’s no less than what the British people would expect.
“And I can tell you now that preparations are under way, and have been for weeks, to allow us to win phase two of this fight as I believe we are now on track to prevail in phase one.
“And so I say to you finally, if you can keep going in the way that you have kept going so far, if you can help protect our NHS to save lives, and if we as a country can show the same spirit of optimism and energy shown by Captain Tom Moore who turns 100 this week, if we can show the same spirit of unity and determination as we have all shown in the past six weeks, then I have absolutely no doubt that we will beat it together.
“We will come through this all the faster and the United Kingdom will emerge stronger than ever before.
“Thank you all very much.”