Emily Maitlis stirred the nation — but the power of her words were no accident.
Emily Matlis’ introduction to BBC2’s Newsnight on Wednesday has resonated with those who watched it live, and the many more who have seen it echoed across social media.
Here’s what she said:
Hello Good evening
The language around COVID-19 has sometimes felt trite and misleading.
You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the prime minister’s colleagues will tell us,
and the disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same.
This is a myth which needs debunking.
Those serving on the front line right now, bus drivers and shelf-stackers, nurses, care-home workers, hospital staff, and shopkeepers are disproportionately the lower paid members of our workforce;
they are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed.
Those who live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lock-down tougher, those in manual jobs will be unable to work from home.
This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health.
Tonight, as France goes into recession and the world trade organisation warns the pandemic could provoke the deepest economic downturn of our lifetimes, we ask what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark.
Maitlis sought to rebut two fictions that have been circulating as facts. First, that to survive COVID-19 requires some kind of inner steel and fighting spirit, and that survival is a question of character not a range of scientific and medical determinants.
Second, she wanted to highlight the disproportionate impact of the disease and the lockdown on poorer people compared to the more affluent: those holed up in tower blocks compared those pottering about their gardens or using lockdown as a chance to clear out the garage, loft or cellar. Those unable to work because of the nature of their jobs, compared to those with home offices and an established culture of ‘working from home’.
Her words — just 192 of them — succeeded in powerfully raising both issues, generating an emotional reaction in the breasts of the audience, and cueing up nicely the reports which followed. But the important point is that this was no accident. Sure, context is everything, and to make such a statement live on national television in the midst of this extraordinary crisis is usually going to have more impact. And it was delivered flawlessly by a skilled professional communicator. But the success of the words lies in the writing.
Let’s look at how it works. First, it is concise. There are no wasted words; every part is doing a job, like the components in a Ferrari engine. It takes up less than two minutes of your time. This is a point that communicators endlessly make to their clients, not always with success: less is more. No-one thinks your speech is better for being longer. The Sermon on the Mount, the Gettysburg Address, Reagan’s address on the shuttle disaster, Blair on the death of Diana — all short.
Second, there is a clear structure. There are two myths she wants to debunk, and she debunks one after the other, setting up the false premise, then knocking it down. This is known as refutatio: taking on your enemies’ arguments and taking them to pieces.
The final line leads the audience into the programme with a rhetorical question. This is not, as people sometimes say, a question without an answer. It is a question designed to get the audience to think about their own answer. She asks what kind of social settlement to impel us to engage with the question, rather than switch channels or go to bed. Mark Antony ends Friends, Romans, Countrymen with here was a Caesar, when comes such another? The audience — the Roman mob — answer by launching a civil war.
Third, the writer uses a range of other rhetorical devices to engage, entertain and stir the soul. This is what rhetorical devices are for — to make poetry from the flattest prose, and to provoke reactions from the most uninterested listener. Crucially they are all about the sounds of the words, not how they appear on the page. If you read the words above, they seem flat compared to listening to Maitlis deliver them. It’s like the difference between reading sheet music off the page and listening to the artist perform it.
So what can we spot? There’s a nice use of chiasmus — health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health — which the first half of the statement mirroring and balancing the second half. The examples most often given are JFK’s ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country or FDR’s the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself. This section also deploys a device called anadiplosis, whereby the last part of one statement is picked up in the first part of the next. This is well-known to fans of Star Wars, as Yoda warns Anakin Skywalker that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.
There are lots of couplets: trite and misleading, fortitude and strength of character, rich or poor. These are two words spoken together, sometimes allied, and sometime juxtaposed. There’s lots of imagery, using concrete not abstract language, so we can paint pictures in our own mind’s eye. For example, the list of lower paid workers — bus drivers and shelf-stackers, nurses, care-home workers, hospital staff, and shopkeepers — works because we can see the people doing the jobs. A shelf-stacker is a concrete image, whereas a retail operative (or whatever) isn’t. The same is true of tower blocks and small flats, rather than HMOs or some other technical jargon. She lobs in a metaphor too, these workers are on the frontline, as though they were combatants in a war.
The list of trades is also interesting because of the offbeat use of conjunctions. The two ‘ands’ pop up in odd places. Traditionally, a speechwriter uses lots of ‘ands’ (polysyndeton, such as tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, or else asyndeton with no conjunctions, such as education, education, education). Here, Maitlis plays with grammatical form, like Miles Davis, because she can.
And what about our old friend alliteration? Yep, she allows alliteration to articulate her argument, for example when she says pandemic could provoke the deepest economic downturn of our lifetimes, we ask what kind of social settlement. You can hear the p in pandemic and provoke, the d in deepest and downturn, and the s in social and settlement. This last example of alliteration is known as sibilance — when the consonant repeated is an s sound. There’s a quotation too, from the WTO, with the quotation marks denoted in Maitis’ delivery of the line deepest economic downturn of our lifetimes
There are thousands of rhetorical devices, each with a Greek or Latin name. They give the speechwriter a vast toolkit, but as the Maitis piece shows, you don’t have to use every one. For example, she doesn’t use triclons, or groups of three, which most speechwriters use liberally. Just listen to an Obama speech. Nor is there any humour, which would be inappropriate to the tone. In under 200 words, Emily Maitlis caught the mood of much of the nation, articulated our unformed thoughts and solidified them, asked one big question which the nation must address, and used a range of rhetorical devices immediately recognisable to Cicero or Aristotle. All in under two minutes on a Wednesday night.
That shows the power of well-written words, right there.
Paul Richards is a freelance speech-writer and for over a decade has taught speech-writing at SOAS, London.