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

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

Simon Lancaster at TEDxVerona

Here is the full transcript and summary 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.

In this talk, Simon Lancaster discusses six steps that leaders use to make their arguments sound more plausible. He argues that education should be open to everyone and that we should call this initiative “democracy.”

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


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”.

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.

“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.

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 is 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.

Let’s take one more; “The financial storm”. The financial storm for the financial crisis. Was the financial crisis really an act of nature as the storm metaphor suggests? So it was nothing to do with greedy bankers? Or timid politicians? Or ineffective regulators? The storm plants a phoney image in our minds that this is something that just swept in, naturally and equally, will just sweep away with no need for action on our parts. It’s a big lie. Pope Francis knows that it’s a big lie. And so he doesn’t speak using the financial storm metaphor. He has a different metaphor. He talks about the dung heap of capitalism.

And so there he is using the metaphor of shit, which is wonderful because what he is calling for, he is demanding a clean-up of the whole system. And this is a metaphor that every human being on the planet can instantly understand, will be instantly disgusted by, and this is a metaphor that can get a giggle from time to time. So falling into this metaphorical space is one that some of our funnier politicians do from time to time.

Boris Johnson, back in the UK, he’s talked about how the labor leader emanated from the bowels of the trade union movement. In my time working in government we had Tony Blair and Gordon Brown described as two cheeks of the same arse. And Ronald Reagan once talked about government as a baby with a huge appetite at one end, and no sense of responsibility at the other.

So let’s move on to number five. Exaggeration. When we’re emotional, our perspective distorts. This manifests in our speech. And people who are emotional about something will therefore go over the top. So, “My God, I’ve been waiting to give this talk my whole life. I didn’t sleep at all last night, and I am going to give my heart and soul to you.” Okay, these are all exaggerative statements. Leaders do this kind of stuff all the time. You might think it’s out of order, but in actual fact, exaggeration is just part and parcel of ordinary conversation. So they’re just replicated in the kind of things that we do naturally when we do that.

Let’s move on to number six. Rhyme. There is research showing people are more likely to believe something is true if it rhymes than if it does not rhyme, which feels absurd but it’s down to what linguists talk about as the processing fluency of language; how easy is language to swallow? If you speak using long words and long sentences, it’s like giving someone a steak and asking them to swallow it. Whereas if you give them something pithy, like a rhyme, it’s like asking them to just sip on some Prosecco.

And we learn things through rhymes from the moment that we’re toddlers. “One, two, buckle my shoe.” And so rhymes are signifiers of truth in our society, so they can often be used therefore to conceal fallacies. I don’t know if any of you remember the OJ Simpson case. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Yeah?

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” It sounds simple, it sounds true, but my god we could save some healthcare spending if that really was up to it, wasn’t it?

Another one in the UK; we all learn spelling through this line “I before E, except after C,” which would be great if only it were true. But it’s complete nonsense. There’s just 44 examples of words in which that’s true. There’s 900 examples of words in which it is not true.

I once presented this to a room full of people who worked in the city, and they said, “Oh yeah, we’ve got one; you’ve got to speculate to accumulate.” Argh! Maybe the whole financial crisis was predicated on a rhyming fallacy. If only the bankers had been going around saying to one another, “Speculation leads to liquidation,” perhaps, we wouldn’t have been in this mess that we are in.

So there we go. There are the six steps. And using these six steps you can make the most absurd arguments sound plausible. Why? If you’re into ancient rhetoric, because they work their way through ethos, pathos, logos. If you prefer thinking about persuasion in terms of neuroscience, they work because they speak to the instinctive, emotional, and logical reins.

And so I’m gong to demonstrate this now. I’d like one of you to throw me an issue. And I will jam a speech out for you; I will improvise the speech. So who would like to suggest a topic for me to — Seriously, go on. Donald Trump?

Do you want me to go for or against? For or against? For. Right.

Plain-speaking. Honest. Authoritative. America’s been waiting for someone to grab it by the scruff of its neck, and pick it up. America’s been waiting for a politician who can dare to tell the truth. America’s been waiting for someone who can really show leadership. Trump’s being knocked by the liberal establishment, but he is winning support from the people. That’s because he is not spinning; he is telling it like it is. And he’s not just speaking to America at its heart, but he is speaking to a truth across the world now.

The world has been waiting for enlightenment from someone like Trump for a long while now. And I tell you what, all of us here in Verona today, we ought to be thanking our lucky stars that for once we’ve got genuine political debate taking place in the United States. Maybe, who knows, we might get something like this in Europe one day. Stranger things have happened.

So…if you think about Trump that he is someone we should dump, then to all of you in the EU, I say, “Fuck you!”

Thank you.

I would just like to make it absolutely clear for the record, I think we should dump Trump. He is a chump.

Thank you.

It’s a playful exercise, but the point I am making here is very serious. The reason we all used to learn rhetoric at school was because it was seen as a basic entry point to society. How could society be fair, unless everyone had equal ability to articulate and express themselves? Without it, your legal systems, your political systems, your financial systems are not fair. And so it should be of intense concern to all of us that education in this has been narrowed to a very small and powerful elite.

In Britain, there is one school that teaches rhetoric, and that is Eton. 19 of our last 50 Prime Ministers went to this school. So did our current Mayor of London, so did our Archbishop of Canterbury. It is absolutely scandalous that when in the world we’re dealing with such huge challenges — financial inequalities, the apocalyptic threat of climate change, religious persecution unmatched since the 1940s — that we should be restricting debate to such a narrow minority. Instead of teaching our children to sit down and shut up, we should be teaching them to stand up and speak out.

So let’s revive rhetoric. Let’s really reinvigorate debate around the world, and let’s really give every child on the planet [a chance] to become a leader. What should we call this grand initiative? Well, here is an idea. How about “democracy”?

Thank you.


In Simon Lancaster’s TEDx Talk, “Speak Like a Leader,” he delves into the art of effective communication and rhetoric as a vital tool for leadership. He begins by recounting a humorous yet enlightening anecdote about a speech he had written for an Australian businessman, highlighting the critical distinction between written words and their delivery.

Lancaster introduces the concept of the secret language of leadership,” which he asserts is rooted in ancient rhetoric. He laments the decline of rhetoric education, which was once a fundamental part of school curriculums but is now limited to a select few. He emphasizes that mastering this ancient art can empower individuals to speak like leaders.

Throughout the talk, Lancaster elucidates six key rhetorical techniques used by influential leaders:

  1. Asyndeton: This technique involves the deliberate omission of conjunctions to create emphasis and impact. Examples from prominent figures like David Cameron, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama are provided to illustrate its use in speeches.
  2. Tricolon: Lancaster explains how the rule of three—presenting arguments or phrases in threes—adds weight and credibility to statements. He draws examples from history, including Caesar’s famous “Veni, vidi, vici.”
  3. Repetition: Lancaster highlights the power of repetition to evoke emotion and emphasize points. He references Winston Churchill’s iconic speech, “We shall fight on the beaches,” as an illustration of emotional impact through repetition.
  4. Balance: This technique involves crafting statements that sound balanced, appealing to the human preference for equilibrium. Famous quotes like “Ask not what your country can do for you” are used as examples.
  5. Metaphor: Lancaster focuses on the significant influence of metaphors in shaping public perception. He critiques certain metaphors, such as “The Arab Spring” and “The Calais Jungle,” pointing out their potential to mislead and manipulate public opinion.
  6. Exaggeration and Rhyme: The talk explores how exaggeration and rhyme contribute to the persuasiveness of speech, often making arguments appear more believable and compelling, despite sometimes being misleading.

Throughout the discussion, Lancaster emphasizes the potency of these rhetorical tools, their ability to mold public perception, and their impact on decision-making processes.

In addition, Lancaster critiques the educational system for restricting rhetoric education to a privileged minority, citing institutions like Eton in the UK. He argues that a fair and just society necessitates widespread rhetoric education to ensure that all individuals have equal access to the tools of persuasive communication.

The talk culminates with a call to revive rhetoric education globally, advocating for its importance in empowering individuals to articulate their thoughts effectively, participate in meaningful debates, and contribute to a fair and just society. He humorously suggests that the initiative to teach rhetoric be termed “democracy,” signifying the democratization of the ability to express oneself.


(Audible) Winning Minds: Secrets from the Language of Leadership – Simon Lancaster

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