[Originally published at guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 10 October 2012, before David Cameron’s speech at the 2012 Conservative Party Conference. Reproduced in time for David Cameron’s speech at the 2013 Conservative Party Spring conference with kind permission of the author.]
From asyndeton to hyperbole, how many of Cameron’s tics will you spot in his speech today? Simon Lancaster sets the tone
I start with asyndeton. Short sentences. Bundled together. In groups of three. Sounds breathless. Urgent. Hyperventilating. No conjunctions. Wonky grammar. Disconnected ideas. Look left. Look right. Look centre. They’re listening. They’re watching. They’re feeling. Then stop. Pause. Breathe.
For now the time has come for anaphora, where I repeat the opening clauses of three successive sentences to show that I am a strong man with a strong sense of purpose. Yes, the time has come for anaphora, where I repeat the opening clauses of three successive sentences to show that I am a strong man – clearly fixated upon a single course of action. I tell you – the time has come for anaphora, where I repeat the opening clauses of three successive sentences to show that I am not a weedy winkling, but a big, big man – vaguely redolent of Churchill.
Then stop anaphora, and start antithesis – or contrast. For I know, as Britain’s prime minister, that if I give them three contrasts in a row, I will sound not bonkers, but balanced; not partisan, but judicial; not emotional, but logical. My ideas may be tautologous – moving forward, not backward; making Britain stronger, not weaker; looking to the future, not the past – but it really doesn’t matter. I can say whatever I damn well like – because as long as I wrap a rhetorical contrast around my words, I’m guaranteed to sound measured, not mad.
Then, while the contrasts are still ricocheting around the audience, I have a great opportunity to sneak in unnoticed and plant a metaphor deep within the audience’s fertile minds. I will then love, care for and nurture that metaphor, gently sprinkling, feeding and watching over it, encouraging it to take root and grow. But if it looks as if it is growing to excess, getting out of control, then I will not hesitate to take out my shears and prune it back – I need my metaphor to propagate among the audience and hopefully spread it into the media and, crucially, grow into the national consciousness.
But then it is time for the hyperbole. This is my favourite part of the speech. It is the bit where I can get thoroughly carried away, ludicrously overstating my case to the -nth degree, outrageously making the most over-the-top promises I can possibly imagine, even though I have no chance of ever keeping them. At this point, I look like an evangelist, a pulpit preacher – like a more deranged version of Billy Graham or a more sane version of Tony Blair.
I might talk about night and day, good and evil, fire and water, light and dark, the right way and the wrong way. I might talk about how, under the Conservatives, every person – rich and poor, young and old, black and white – will be wealthier, healthier and happier. I might talk about how I dream that Britain will be a place in which every single person in the whole country can reach their full potential regardless of their race, religion or background – whether they’ve been to Eton or Westminster, Oxford or Cambridge, the Bullingdon or the Athenaeum. I might talk about how I will never be able to sleep until the great and mighty spirit of Britannia is once again towering over the world, slaying the tyrants, spreading freedom, conquering slaves and ruling waves.
And to end? With brevitas, of course. The Ultimate Cameron. Short sentences. Short words. But full of meaning. Because we can. Because we get it. Because we dare. Like that. And we do get it. But now I must stop. I came. I saw. I spoke. I’ve been David Cameron. I’m here all week. Thank you. And good night.
Simon Lancaster runs Bespoke, a speechwriting consultancy. He has written speeches for many top politicians as well as the CEOs of HSBC, Cadbury and Intercontinental Hotels. He is the author of Speechwriting: The Expert Guide (Hale, 2010)