Generating a response

I have a… rhetorically well constructed argument, and a rhythm to help you

It wasn’t only what he said, but how he said it

Tuesday August 28th, was the 49th anniversary of the day Martin Luther King made his I Have A Dream speech, to the crowds in Washington DC. It is now regarded as one of the greatest speeches, because of its beauty and power – a combination of the poetry of the words, the occasion, and the tremulous lyricism of King’s voice.  The only speech I have listened to as often as I Have A Dream are the impromptu words given by Robert Kennedy after Martin Luther King was shot in 1968, and especially love the quotation from Aeschylus ‘even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God’*.

King’s speech employs a number of rhetorical devices which help the audiences absorb what they are hearing and respond.  Here is a really nice analysis of how the structure of I Have A Dream magnified its power.

The word claptrap (which I would never use about King’s speeches) is often taken to mean verbal nonsense.  But it originally meant a rhetorical device used in speech to evoke a round of applause.  In the 1980s, communications expert Max Atkinson explained how these devices included three-part lists (George Wallace’s, ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever’), juxtaposing opposites (ask not what your country can do for you…), two-part contrasts (set them up and knocking them down…), the use of the word ‘we’ and so on.  Dropping lines with these structures into a speech encourages audiences to show their support, and turns them into active, vocal participants.  It’s partly about emphasis, and partly about providing a clear completion point, and the combination means that audience members feel less nervous about committing themselves to respond.  Comedians who manage to deliver a punchline effectively understand this well.

Television: It’s all about timing (yes,.. it’s a balloon bursting on his head).
Water Wigs:

People who write off television as a passive medium (compared with the supposedly more active lean forward internet) ignore the careful way that programmes are constructed.  Have they SEEN X Factor?  Every episode is put together like a Stoppard screenplay: pleasure, poignancy and pathos, parcelled out into a fluid pace: light and shade, push and pull. It has been argued (by me, a few days ago) that X Factor is putting too many of its special moments at the start of the series, with the result that the second half becomes an anti-climax, but still, you have to admire how it is constructed.  But this happens all over – there is a rhythm to the news, to documentaries, to dramas… to all the most effective programmes, whether they appear as discrete episodes or across a series.  It helps guide the audience through.  They aren’t all plonked together.

The structure of Paul Daniels’ last series

There is one thing though.  Well, two things. The first is that some programmes, aware that viewers often turn up late, overdo the recaps, the ‘what is going to happen’ and so on, to the point where surprises are lost and the flow is interrupted.  If you compare Kitchen Nightmares in the UK with the one in the USA, you can see the difference – the American version seems over-concerned with newcomers and people with short attention spans.    Second, the formatting can be too overt.  Some of the most pleasurable ‘reality docs’ such as Faking It and Wife Swap became formulaic because of identical pacing each episode.  We know which punters will secure investment in Dragon’s Den because the successful pitches are always in the same slot each time.  Is it some sort of contractual restriction?  Rhythm is good, but does it have to be the same one each time?

Hear, Hear.  Or Rather, ‘Hear, Listen, Respond, Think about, Learn’

One aspect of being an audience member that is often overlooked is how the need to respond encourages active listening.  When Parliament was considering whether to allow TV into the House of Commons, the fear was that the sight of MPs barracking opponents would turn off viewers.  But, it was pointed out, if MPs are allowed to respond, it forces them to listen carefully, and to think of an appropriate comeback.  Speeches delivered to a mute audience are often far less effective because the audience can zone out mentally.  A greater danger wasn’t audiences being turned off, but MPs listening in silence and taking in less as a result.

In order to heckle, MPs need to listen. When you articulate you have to think. And from that comes knowledge

Coming back to heavily formatted programmes, the reason for the identical arc to each episode seems to be to provide a clear expectation for the audience, much like the repetition and other devices used in King’s speech. And there’s a balance to be struck when it comes to providing something new – audiences want a few things to cling to – a familiar face, a format they understand.  A clear format leaves the programme to provide surprises elsewhere (it comes back to the idea of a ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ brain that likes to let certain things pass automatically, so that it can think about other things – such as the new faces they are seeing).  In the morning, especially, if preparing to go to work, audiences need things they can rely on.   These fixed cues allow them to switch off part of their brain to automatic mode as they go through their routine more easily.

It’s the same with the news bulletins – audiences don’t know what is going to happen, quite, so having a familiar face helps to anchor it all (that’s why anchors got their name…) so the viewer feels supported and safe.  Television is a little unusual in the world of entertainment in sometimes providing a supporting studio audience to help the audience at home know when it is safe to laugh.  This is usually with sitcoms, though I recall the midweek lottery draw used to pretend that an audience was there (can you imagine the liliputian amount of entertainment that lottery balls late on a Wednesday evening would actually offer?  My God.)  If it is done poorly, such as an overly excited audience during a dull sitcom, it grates terribly.  But if you are laughing too, you don’t notice it.  Televised sport is always more entertaining when there’s a crowd cheering along – it can feel odd watching something and sensing that you’re the only person there.


I once arrived slightly late at a large cinema that was so dark I had to pick my way to the seat. When the lights came up I discovered that I had sat next to the only other person there. Awkward.


And that’s what happens when we listen to a great speech or watch a great TV programme.  Sometimes we need a little help to know how best to enjoy it – so long as we aren’t aware that that’s what is happening.



* That Aeschylus quotation by Robert Kennedy seems rather pertinent – the gaining of wisdom through the rhythmic dripping of pain on the heart.  As if the wisdom is enhanced by the way the sadness is delivered.


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