I deliberately used the term remarks. Remarks is an Americanism and that’s what DC’s speech to the Labour conference was – a lesson in American political rhetoric. But that’s not a bad thing. “Building a Future for All” is the best New Zealand political speech I’ve read.
Consider this: the plural pronoun “we” appeared 107 times. The possessive determiner and the possessive pronoun “our” and “ours” appeared 57 times. Contrast that against the use of the first person pronoun “I” which appeared 19 times. “Me” appeared a measly 5 times.
These are deictic expressions. The effect is that DC is speaking on behalf of the audience, not to it. The technique is used to build a relationship with the audience. But it also goes further: DC is speaking as if everything he says is issued by “us”, the people. The heavy use of inclusive language opens the speech to the audience and lets them impose their own interpretations on it.
But everyone knows that a speechmaker should prefer we over I. A more interesting technique is the use of syntactic and lexical parallelism. The first is a repetition of the same structures, the second is a repetition of the same word categories. The other syntactic technique that emerges is parataxis which describes phrases that are equal (e.g. an equivalent set). Take the following:
“We need to reimagine the future. To rebuild it. To reclaim the Kiwi dream for all New Zealanders”.
That’s the rule of three in action, which DC uses heavily, and an example of syntactic and lexical parallelism. Now consider another:
When National thinks about growth, they think about growing volume. Milking more cows, digging more mines or drilling more holes.
They haven’t got a fracking clue.
Note the equivalent set in the first sentence. There are words belonging to the same word category: milking, digging and drilling. Parallelism is used as a chorus to build to the crescendo. Parallelism is used as an adrenalin shot, in other words.
It’s not a technique that’s used widely in New Zealand politics and it shows. The rhythm is off. Parrallelism works best with poetic language rather than the prosaic. Poetic language invites the audience to fill the gaps. The audience can impose their own interpretations on the meaning of the speech when the language is left open.
American politics instructs its politicians and speech writers to approach political writing like didactic poetry. DC’s speech writers – and I wonder who they were – seem to have taken parts of that cue. The language isn’t poetic (per se) but the structure is. The speech is roughly organised into stanzas or verse. It makes the speech more accessible. Unlike Shearer’s speeches which were organised sentence to sentence without any bridges.
DC’s speech is a long way from being an Obama or even a Miliband. But it’s a level of sophistication unfamiliar to New Zealand politics. We’re conditioned to dry language, poor delivery and low expectations. Off the top of my head the last political leader to reject that was Lange. I’m hoping DC’s remarks represent a shift back to the language of Lange, Kirk and the other great orators of the Labour Party. Or even an emulation of the American style. Remarks are more interesting than speeches.
Post-script: the more common techniques are present too: foregrounding and backgrounding, alliteration and assonance, antithesis and so on. There are mixed metaphors too. Example: “map without a compass” and a couple of sentences later “off key and out of tune” (pun alert).