Review: New book from former Whitehall speechwriter Simon Lancaster explores the language of leadership

Written by Oliver Rowe on 19 August 2015 in Culture

Images of journeys, food and friends work wonders in speeches – but phrases like “accelerating reform” are a definite turn-off. Oliver Rowe reviews Simon Lancaster’s Winning Minds: Secrets from the Language of Leadership

An image of the word leadership being constructed

What is clear right from the start of Winning Minds is that this book is all about drugs. Not the illegal kind, but rather the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, and the hormones cortisol and oxytocin. 

These chemicals are released in people when listening to speeches and result in increased self-esteem through praise (serotonin), induced fear (cortisol), making connections as a result of a leader's storytelling (oxytocin) and receiving a mental reward at the end of a speech (dopamine). The effects are intrinsically linked to the "secret contract upon which great leaders trade” – the simple quid pro quo of leaders meeting the emotional needs of employees, the electorate, or followers in return for their support.

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Author Simon Lancaster was speechwriter for Labour cabinet ministers Alan Johnson and Patricia Hewitt before leaving Whitehall to set up his own speechwriting and training agency in 2007. He is a considerable expert in his field – readily demonstrated in the chapter on the use of metaphors. It is probably obvious that computer, and particularly car metaphors (“accelerating reform” or '”hanging gear”, for example) have a depersonalising effect on those listening. They work well for leaders when thinking about their organisations “in a detached or impersonal way”, but they “debilitate and depress” the people who need to be inspired. 

Much better, Lancaster argues, are metaphors involving personification, journeys (such as Barack Obama's 2008 victory speech), climate and nature, food and sustenance, and families and friends (think David Cameron's effective use of the “painful divorce” metaphor to describe what the break-up of the UK would have meant in the run-up to the Scottish independence vote).

Winning Minds also takes a look at the common rhetorical devices: rule of three, rhyme, alliteration (much loved by chancellors) and techniques such as asyndeton as used by David Cameron in his very short sentences creating a sense of anxiety – "Broken homes. Failing schools. Sink estates."

While Lancaster has written primarily on speechmaking and its effects, this is also a book about how leaders communicate more broadly. It’s a serious read, but also punctuated by considerable humour. An important guide for leaders, those who write for them and those who advise them.

Winning Minds: Secrets from the Language of Leadership will be published by Palgrave Macmillan on August 31, priced £19.99


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