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Technique of the week

Speaking like John Bercow

1.68 m. John Bercow is a short man with a tall personality. He got elected as the Speaker of the UK House of Commons in 2009 and became well known across the globe thanks to the 2019 Brexit debates. What is his rhetorical legacy?

Substance

Presiding the House of Commons is not an ordinary job, and Bercow knows his role inside and out. When he addresses universities in the UK and the US, he regularly regales cohorts with anecdotes about decapitated predecessors and decisive precedents. Everything he says - including jokes about his height - is connected to his function and mission as you can hear in this year’s speech at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Even an umpire can get personal. Journalists have described both John and his wife Sally as marmite people or maverick phenomena due to their modern personalities. Despite coming from different parties, they rarely dodge questions but try to answer with yes or no. They have also championed issues which are close to their heart, such as helping other parents of autistic children.

Structure

The first Jewish Speaker of the House of Commons sings from a well-prepared hymn sheet. The speeches from the past seven years include similar stories and fun facts, which still captivate the audience. Bercow usually starts with a humorous anecdote, which appears irrelevant at first. He then reveals the link to the event and highlights achievements of the institution or host. As soon as he has connected with the audience, the body of the speech focusses on the role and his priorities. He concludes by stressing the importance of making democratic institutions more accessible.

A simple structure does not suffice to make presentations crystal clear. Bercow’s choice of words belong to the premier league but it appears still easy to follow him because he only utters 70-80 words per minute and is a master of pausing and intonation.

Style

Few presidents of parliaments have gone viral. Bercow’s put-downs are legendary because they are peppered with rhetorical devices. In speeches, he particularly takes alliterations to the next level. To provide two prominent examples, he complimented President Obama‘s ”[…] duty that you discharge with a dignity, determination and distinction […]”. He also paid tribute to the Queen by saying that “[t]hese will be moments striking for the sincerity expressed as much as for the scenery encountered. “ The ease with which he comes up with powerful phrases may be a product of perennial practice in Conservative debating clubs.

The Speaker has understood that style builds on substance. He does not refrain from being the hero when he tells stories, for instance when he presented at the trade unions’ congress. If you worry about hubris, just emphasise why the changes (not the one championing them) is in line with the organisation’s mission and how they have contributed to the greater good.

5 lessons for public speakers

  1. Research the past and present of your current position and be bold.

  2. Add personal elements to your speech so that people connect.

  3. Avoid monotony with the help of zeugmas and by emphasising prepositions.

  4. Create catchphrases with consonances and other alliterations.

  5. Share success stories where you played a significant role but do not forget to explain how the society has benefitted.

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Ben Wilhelm