From Cicero to Snapchat: Why rhetoric holds the key to the politics of the future
For thousands of years, the ways that politicians communicate with the people has remained relatively stable. There have been alterations and developments to reflect social changes, but the forms of speech established by the likes of Cicero and Demosthenes in antiquity have remained with us into modernity, as strong in influence as ever.
For about as long as politics itself has existed in recorded history, there has been one dominant method of political communication: a long-form speech. Politicians speak, citizens listen, peppered with a litany of techniques that most of us can spot when they’re done badly, but which seamlessly manipulate our emotions and our rationality at their best. It is poetry disguised as prose; politics suger-coated with a layer of undeniability.
Classically, it is defined by a five steps: invention, organisation, style, memory and delivery.
These traditions have survived industrial modernisation However, they are creaking under the new pressures of Internet-era communication. Attacking each one of those five processes, and in doing so fundamentally altering the relationship between citizen and leader.
The most important driver in changing how we communicate, as in changing so many other things, is technology. The invention and subsequent prevalence of the printing press, newspapers, radio, television, recordings, and a host of other smaller changes, have undoubtedly changed the manner of communication.
But they have done so in reform rather than revolution. Technology has altered the method, but not substantially the form or the content, of communication.
Politicians could still invent and organise their speeches in advance. They would be would be listened to at length and without interruption, and they could speak in a style largely set by the speaker themselves.
The essence of the leader-citizen relationship remained the same, and even the content of speeches could essentially adapt and remain intact.
Internet-era communication, however, shows indications of becoming something new altogether.
We can only speculate about the direction our generation’s politicians will take communication, and it may be that, as so often, the potential for change is overstated.
But there are three main ways in which online communication is a clean break from the rhetorical traditions of the past: intimacy, spontaneity and flexibility.
Rhetoric has always been personal – grounding abstract political or ideological statements in personal colour gives them an authenticity that disposes us to identify with the speaker, and hence more likely to agree with their statements. But they have been personal at arms length.
Barack Obama’s 2004 DNC speech – given shortly before the inventions of Youtube and Twitter – is the quintessential example of politics made personal. He tells a story of his parents’ heritage and his own identity and values; it is intensely intimate and open in content.
But he, unlike us, couldn’t be interrogated immediately by anyone with a phone and a 3g connection. Intimacy and authenticity could be created as an elaborate illusion in a twenty minute speech – they didn’t have to be maintained and reinforced day in and day out.
Even today, the most serious political messages remain divorced from the people. They speak, in front of media or supporters, and we react on social media. The question is: what happens when we speak and listen on the same platforms?
If there comes a time (and I suspect there will) when so few people will listen to a lengthy speech, or even read a news report summary of it, then it may be become a successful vote-winning strategy to just stop giving them.
Where once the speaker was up on a stage, sheltering behind a podium, while the rest of us listened from afar, in future we might speak, listen, react and be responded to all on the same platforms.
Perhaps that will be positive. Effective speech is often designed to feel like a personal conversation with audience members, and perhaps in future it really will be one constant, equal, interactive conversation.
In practical terms that might mean higher rates of trust in politicians, higher voter turnout or party membership, and a wider range of issues and viewpoints given importance in policy-making.
Or, perhaps politicians will be drowned out. We all speak our every thought all the time but
none of us listen; the concept of a ‘leader’ ceases to have any meaning.
Mario Cuomo once remarked that “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose” but in the absence of the safety of the podium, leaders must be poets at all times.
Speeches can be planned and forethought, written days, weeks or months in advance by a team of experienced and qualified speechwriters to engineer the desired impact.
Although Cicero gives us in De Oratore a long list of talents and ingredients that go into an effective use of rhetoric, there’s only so much linguistic trickery you can fit into 140 characters… and you can hardly pre-plan a Snapchat.
Communication, as in so much of media, can no longer complacently expect to be long-form and pre-written. It must now be spontaneous, frequent and brief. But most important of all, it must still be authentic.
Finally, flexibility. So far I’ve assumed that social media and online communication will stay the same, and considered the ways politicians should use platforms like Youtube, Twitter and Snapchat.
But of course social media sites die as quickly as they’re born, and new variations in communication are developed almost every year.
In the past, it has taken a generation several decades time to master and mature a technological change in their communication.
But where radio has stayed more or less the same since its invention, online communication requires a constant evolution of learning. Sites present today will be condemned to history tomorrow, and the regenerative nature of the internet guaruntees new and innovative forms of media in future.
Politicians will have to keep up with these shifting expectations. There is nothing worse than appearing less competent at communication than your audience – Ed Balls’s famous accidental tweeting of his own name, or the cringe-inducing Hillary Clinton Snapchat (if you happened to miss that, by the way, spare yourself and don’t google it), show the problem of lagging behind on media awareness.
None of us alive now can know, or even guess, what kind of media our politicians will be expected to reach us with; this is a new and unique problem.
In essence, then, where once rhetoric in political circles was essentially limited to one form.
Now politicians need to be nimble, understanding the wide and nuanced world of online media, and be prepared to allow citizens a far more complete and intimate picture of their personal life than ever before.