Last month, tiny Lincoln City slayed the Goliath of Burnley Football Club, and in doing so became the first non league side in modern times to make the quarter finals of the FA Cup. Cue scenes of utter delirium - and never mind the fact that they were themselves unceremoniously dumped out of the Cup by Arsenal yesterday.
How did they upset all the odds to beat a team 80 places above them in the Football League? “We broke the game into six 15-minute periods,” said their manager, Danny Cowley. His idea was that by coming up with specific strategies for each slice of the match, they could control the game far better than if the players had just gone out with a general but inflexible idea of what they wanted to achieve.
The same is true with speeches. As a minimum, every speech should evolve through a beginning, a middle and an end, so the audience feels guided along a rhetorical path.
But why stop with just three sections?
Aristotle – one of the fathers of rhetoric – wrote that an argument had four parts: the introduction, the central claim, the evidence and the conclusion.
Predating Danny Cowley by a good 2,000 years, Roman writers then expanded Aristotle’s four parts into six: the introduction, the statement of the case, a preview of the argument’s major points, the evidence, the refutation of counter-arguments, and the conclusion.
It’s not a rigid rule. so you can mix the sections around if you want. But the idea is that a speech is at its strongest when it comes at the argument from a variety of angles rather than just battering the audience with fact after fact after fact.
Let’s say you want to persuade employers to let staff stay in bed until noon every day.
One way to do that would be to treat the speech as a conveyor belt for a series of points that support your argument: it’ll reduce sickness; it’ll make staff feel valued; it’ll increase sales of pillowcases, eye masks and alarm clocks. So on and so on. Thank you and goodnight.
But a better way would be to introduce the topic, tell the audience you view, back them up with those three points, point to relevant evidence (for example, what happened when our competitors tried the same thing), pick holes in the opposing arguments ("some say that this is nothing but laziness…but staff are knackered in the mornings anyway, so productivity will probably improve"), and then close with a rousing call-to-arms to Britain’s duvet-hoggers.
It’s rare for people to say that their latest speech was inspired by the manager of Lincoln City FC. But just occasionally, it’s justified. As Sir Alex Ferguson almost said: “speechwriting, eh? Bloody hell.”