Essays

The ‘immoral’ teachings of Dr Max Atkinson
Max Atkinson

The scariest thing about Max Atkinson's theory of political communication is his account of how the Communist Manifesto, a manifesto that had a huge impact on millions of lives, became such a runaway success. 

Dr Atkinson made his name as a sociologist. 

He embarked on a project to analyse what prompted audiences to applaud political speeches.

His research was pioneering because he was able to use the latest video recording technology to film live political rallies. 

With the aid of a stopwatch, TV footage and a transcript of the speech, he could make detailed observations on how the orator controlled the room. 

He published a book called Our Masters’ Voices in 1984.

Ithad a preface written by David Butler, a distinguished social scientist.

The preface begins: this book is revolutionary.

The insights may be immoral. 

They describe the ‘tricks of the charlatan’.

Butler expresses horror that ‘forms of words, balance of sentences, rhythms of speech can induce an audience to applaud, almost irrespective of the intellectual content of what is being said.’

Soon after the publication of the book Dr Atkinson got an offer.

A TV producer set him a challenge like the one given to Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady.

Professor Higgins had to train a Cockney flower girl to speak like a lady. 

Max had to train a woman with no experience of public speaking or politics to make a speech at a UK Party Political Conference.

The process was filmed for a documentary called World in Action

Ann Brennan, was given coaching in delivery by a Shakespearean voice coach and had a script written for her by a tabloid journalist.

On the day, she got lots of laughs and won a standing ovation. 

It proved that Max’s theory worked.

Dr Atkinson went on to become speechwriter to Paddy Ashdown, the future leader of the Liberal Democrats.

In 2004, he published a second book explaining his theory of public speaking. 

Written in a simple and accessible style, it’s notable because he makes little reference to the history of rhetoric that goes back to Ancient Greece.

The works of Max Atkinson are part of a great tradition of books analysing public oratory.

The debate goes back to the Sophists and the idea that they could make the worse appear, the better reason. 

It goes back to Aristotle and his views on how you adapt your strategy to persuade different audiences.

It goes back to Shakespeare, and the way Iago uses textbook rhetorical techniques to dupe Othello into murdering his wife.

The criticism has always been that you can wind people up and get them to support really dumb causes, just by using rhetorical techniques.

Four years ago, Britain was convulsed when a gang of subversives made a strong emotional case against the European Union and won a referendum forcing the country to forfeit its membership. 

The Brexit voters, it was said, were conned by social media advertising, fake news and nostalgic appeals.

Maybe they were right.

The Classical theorists said, rhetoric has a ‘God-like’ power over people’s minds.

The applause theory is not confined to political speeches.

The word structures are just as beguiling on the page. 

In Our Masters’ Voices there’s an analysis of a tabloid newspaper editorial. 

When you think about it, populist speech and the tabloid press stir up the same feelings. 

Are tabloids a valuable part of our democracy educating the masses in basic politics?

Or do they offer trivial simplifications and appeals to prejudice?

Do we need to embellish ideas with humour, celebrities and catchy headlines as you find in The Sun? 

Or can truth and reason stand alone, as they’re do in The Guardian?

I’m conscious at this point that I haven't actually described in detail any of the immoral techniques. 

I haven’t told you what a charlatan has to do.

I haven't even explained the unlikely popularity of the Communist Manifesto. 

Atkinson’s theory is really simple. 

I could sum it up in one long sentence.

When I explain it to educated people they raise their eyebrows. 

And they always go back to writing the same torturous way they wrote their essays at university.

The theory says that words need structures. And even though we might all speak English in the room, the words need to be put into those structures if you want an audience to follow them.

That’s to say that while we might all speak English, there is a separate language of public speaking. To write a great speech, you need to translate your ideas into the language of public speaking.

The new language you’ve translated your script into is called ‘rhetoric’.

Rhetoric is everywhere. 

When a screenwriter tells you about a ‘three act’ structure to a film, you start to see the breaks.

When a songwriter tells you about the importance of the 'hook', you hear what the composer is doing.

When you know how jokes have a feed line and a punchline, you can get your head around how the comedian comes up with material.

Rhetoric is the linguistic scaffolding that puts words in a format that other human beings can follow easily.

Learn these structures, and you can create powerful pieces of communication for yourself. 

Max Atkinson’s ideas were revolutionary and they certainly helped lift Paddy Ashdown and the Liberal Democrats, but most people involved in politics these days don’t really seem to know what rhetoric is. 

They use it in a pejorative sense, that’s ‘just rhetoric’. 

Indeed Max will tell you how a politician approached him to become a client and announced, ‘I want to give great speeches, but I don’t want to use any rhetoric’.

For this reason, I’m curating an online festival of political rhetoric this November. 

If you want to know what the mystical techniques identified by Max Atkinson are, you’ll actually find many of them scattered through this text.