Time to fire up the engines, says Johnson

A question of trust: Educated in Latin and Greek, the PM is steeped in the tradition of rhetoric.

Should we believe a natural orator? The UK’s PM marked his return to work with a metaphor-packed address aiming to hearten the nation and allay public fears over the end of the lockdown.

If the aim was a breath of fresh air, it came in more senses than one. Yesterday, Boris Johnson was back. He gave a speech about the lockdown from the famous lectern outside 10 Downing Street. As one sketch writer puts it this morning, as he stepped out, the wind caught his hair “like the seeds of an enormous dandelion clock”.

“If we can show the same spirit of unity and determination as we have shown in the last six weeks,” Johnson declared, “then I have absolutely no doubt that we will beat it together.”

Though it did not compare with the wartime speeches of his hero Winston Churchill, it was a reminder of the power of words. During the prime minister’s absence, the nation had to make do with a grey tapestry of functional prose from his deputy Dominic Raab and a variety of scientists. Now the orator was back, and rather than merely informing people, he was aiming to inject them with new hope and energy.

Many experts have pointed out that persuading people to believe in you and share your point of view is an essential skill for any politician. Many are good at doing it in private, but fail to come across convincingly in public. The ones who make their mark on history are almost invariably those who can do both.

One of the most gifted orators of our time is Barack Obama. Until he was invited to speak on behalf of John Kerry at the 2004 Democratic Convention, he was almost unknown. But so brilliant was his rhetoric that it shot him to political prominence; four years later, he became the US’s first black president.

Obama drew inspiration from Martin Luther King, whose I Have a Dream speech played a crucial part in the struggle for American civil rights. King himself was inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which – though only 272 words long – is considered the greatest speech in American history.

Nelson Mandela was another highly influential orator, whose eloquence helped South Africa make a peaceful transition to a post-apartheid state when many feared that such a deep, political change would result in bloodshed.

But words are a double-edged sword. Sometimes a silver tongue is a cause of mistrust. In 2007, David Cameron transformed the Conservative Party’s prospects by delivering a brilliant conference speech roaming about the stage with no notes – but when it came to campaigning to stay in the EU, the public was unconvinced.

Should we believe a natural orator?

Rhetorical question

Some say, no. Clever words can bring people over to a politician’s side temporarily but, in the long run, deeds are what matter. Prime ministers are always making eloquent promises that they fail to fulfil. Boris Johnson is a clever and funny speaker, but his past is riddled with broken promises – personal and political. He will be judged not on his speeches, but on his record.

Others say, why not? We trusted King and Obama – and, on the whole, with good reason. Humans are gifted with emotional intelligence and the power to convey emotion is a vital part of real communication. You can have the best political ideas in the world, but they will be worthless unless you can get them across effectively.

You Decide

  1. Who is the best speaker you have ever heard?
  2. Many politicians have people to write speeches for them. Is this dishonest?


  1. Write a one-page speech about the coronavirus crisis and ask your family to listen to it twice. First deliver it so that it sounds as boring as possible; then deliver it again, making it sound incredibly exciting.
  2. Learn by heart the speech Once More unto the Breach, Dear Friends, Once More from Shakespeare’s Henry V and say it with conviction to your family.

Some People Say...

“If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), American politician and inventor

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
For centuries, public speaking was considered a skill which every educated person should have. In Shakespeare’s time, a third of the basic school curriculum was devoted to rhetoric: pupils were expected to study writings on the subject by Greek and Roman masters, such as Aristotle and Cicero. It was only in the 19th Century that it fell out of favour, as more attention was paid to the sciences.
What do we not know?
Whether the age of oratory is coming to an end. The art was developed to persuade a live audience who were prepared to listen for a long time; one of the greatest speeches ever given in Parliament, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s attack on Warren Hastings, lasted five hours and 40 minutes. Now people have much shorter attention spans, and politicians can communicate more effectively through soundbites, tweets, and short TV interviews.

Word Watch

Functional prose
Plain language that gets to the point.
The Latin word for “speaker”, now meaning someone who makes a public speech.
John Kerry
An American politician who ran unsuccessfully against George W Bush in the 2004 presidential election. He was later made secretary of state, in charge of foreign policy, when Obama became president.
The art of persuading people. A rhetorical question is one you ask without expecting an answer.
Martin Luther King
A black American clergyman and politician who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was assassinated four years later.
Gettysburg Address
A speech given in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of a military cemetery in Pennsylvania. Gettysburg had been the site of the most important battle in the American Civil War earlier that year.
Nelson Mandela
South Africa’s president from 1994 to 1999.
The word means “apartness” in the language of Afrikaans. It was a policy that determined relations between South Africa’s white minority and its black majority, legalising racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against blacks from 1948 until the early 1990s.


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