Simon Lancaster: Speak Like a Leader at TEDxVerona (Full Transcript)


Simon Lancaster at TEDxVerona

Here is the full transcript of top speechwriter Simon Lancaster’s TEDx Talk: Speak Like a Leader at TEDxVerona conference. Simon Lancaster runs Bespoke, a speechwriting consultancy and he has written speeches for many top politicians and CEOs.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: speak-like-a-leader-by-simon-lancaster-at-tedxverona


Speech writing must be one of the weirdest jobs in the world. No matter how carefully the words have been prepared, you are never quite sure how they are going to be delivered.

Yesterday, I was in London, and I was watching one of my clients, who is a big Australian businessman, deliver a speech that I’d written for him. I’d written for him this passage, kind of with Winston Churchill in mind, about how we’ve got to fight for our future, fight to protect our position, fight our competitors. And I’d forgotten about the Australian accent. And I watched from the back of the room with horror as I saw him go, “We’ve got to ‘fart’ for our future, ‘fart’ to protect our position, and I’ll tell you what, folks, when I wake up every morning, there is one thing I know for sure I’m going to do that day; ‘fart’!”

So today I’m going to share with you some speechwriter secrets. Because I don’t know whether you know this, but there is a secret language of leadership; a secret language of leadership that we all used to be taught at school. Ancient rhetoric. This was a core part of the curriculum in Ancient Rome, part of the trivium. In London, right the way through to the 19th century, it was possible to get a free education in rhetoric, but not in mathematics, reflecting the importance that was placed on the topic.

Today, teaching in rhetoric is restricted — restricted to a powerful, privileged few. So what I’m going to do in my speech is revive this ancient art of rhetoric and share with you six techniques so that you can all speak like leaders.

So right, okay, stop. Right, stop listen. Look left, look right, look center. How are you feeling? Distressed? Anxious? Little bit edgy? That’s because I’m mimicking, hyperventilating. And so this is the authentic sound of fear, and that fear transfers to you. This is an ancient Roman rhetorical device; they used to call it asyndeton. And it’s one that leaders still use today. So David Cameron uses it: “Broken homes, failing schools, sink estates.” Tony Blair used to use it as well: “Education, education, education.” Barack Obama too: “A world at war, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a generation”.

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Why three? Well, three is the magic number in rhetoric. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

(In German) “One people, one empire, one leader.”

(In Italian) “Eat well, laugh often, love much.”

That was the hardest part of this speech to practice, so thank you for the applause.

This is also an ancient Roman rhetorical device. They used to call it tricolon, which makes it sound like a peculiar part of the digestive system. But it’s just putting things in threes. You put your argument in threes, it makes it sound more compelling, more convincing, more credible. Just like that. And so we find the rule of three here, there, and everywhere. And so indeed you can tell the history of Verona through nothing more than the rule of three. If you think that Caesar used to come here 2,000 years ago, “Veni, vidi, vici.”

400 years ago, Shakespeare wrote “Romeo and Juliet,” which was set here. “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” But of course, far and away the most momentous event in Verona’s history — today’s TEDx: “Reinvent. Rethink. Relay.” Right.

Let’s move on; number two. Three sentences in which the opening clause is repeated. Now this is what Winston Churchill did with his, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight on the fields and in the streets.” Of course, he could have said this a whole lot quicker. But he wanted to communicate his emotion, so he repeated it. When we are emotional about things, our perspective distorts. And this then manifests in our speech. And so this is the authentic sound of passion.

I love Verona. I love Italy. I love pasta. I love tiramisu. I love all of you. I love the excitement, I love the energy, I love the enthusiasm here in this room. Are you feeling my passion? You should be because I am a speech writer and I know how to make a point. It sweeps people away. And this is why — this is a technique which is used by slick salesmen and by market traders. “I’m not asking £20, I’m not asking £15, I’m not even asking 10 pounds.” It sweeps people onto the next point, which is free balance in statements.

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“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

“There is nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what’s right with America.”

“To be or not to be.”

If the sentence sounds as if it’s balanced, we imagine that the underlying thinking is balanced, and our brain is tuned to like things that are balanced. Balanced minds, balanced diets, balanced lives. And so we are drawn to these kinds of sentences, we are attracted to them even if that balance is actually just an illusion. Like, we’re looking to the future, not the past. We’re working together, not against one another. We’re thinking about what we can do, not what we can’t.

Now let’s move on to number four. Metaphor. Metaphor is probably the most powerful piece of political communication. But it’s the bit no one ever talks about, the elephant in the room, so to speak, which is extraordinary because we use metaphor once every 16 words on average. So our conversation is littered with metaphors, scattered with metaphors. We can’t speak for very long without reaching for a metaphor, and metaphors are very loaded.

So you see, metaphors are all over the place, and they are political in that they are used by people to lead people towards things, or indeed to make them recoil. And so we use beautiful images, images of people, images of love, images of family, of sunshine, in order to draw people towards things, and we use disgusting images — vermin, scary monsters, disease, sickness, in order to make people recoil. And they’re all lies, and they are never challenged. And yet they have an enormous impact on the way that people behave and respond. There’s been research showing that changing nothing more than the metaphor in a piece of text can lead to fundamentally different reactions from people on questions ranging from whether or not they’ll invest in a company, whether or not they will back particular crime policies to even whether or not they’ll support a foreign war. And so this is really, really important stuff. And it’s all around us.

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So let me just take three of the big metaphors — three is the magic number — three of the big metaphors that are around at the moment. “The Arab Spring”. You’ve all heard of The Arab Spring. You can’t talk about what’s going on in the Middle East without calling it an Arab Spring. “The Arab Spring”. Sun’s shining, flowers blooming. This is a time of regrowth, rebirth, rejuvenation. And yet it’s a big lie, isn’t it? Even the most optimistic, geopolitical experts look at the Middle East and say this is going to take two generations to recover. It’s not an Arab Spring; it’s an Arab Inferno.

Take another one; “The Calais Jungle”. Now this a phrase that has really taken root, metaphorically speaking, in the last year or so. If you Google “Calais” and “jungle,” you get 70 million results. If you google “Calais” and “croissant,” you get just half a million results. And what’s the image this is planting in your mind? It’s planting in your mind the idea that migrants are like wild animals, to be afraid of, they are dangerous, they represent a threat to you. And this is a very dangerous metaphor because this is the language of genocide, it’s the language of hate. It’s the same metaphor that Hitler used against the Jews depicting them as snakes. It’s the same language which was used in Rwandan genocide by the Hutu against the Tutsi; they were described as cockroaches. And so it should be of intense concern to us that this is a phrase that is being used now by the mainstream media to talk about some of the most vulnerable people on our planet.

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