The Language of Political Speeches
“Complicated thinking, easy talking”

To convey factual arguments more effectively
To convey factual arguments more effectively | Photo (detail): © wellphoto -

In Germany the election campaign for the Bundestag has begun – prime time for political speeches. Their impact depends to a large extent on how they function on the linguistic level, says Jacqueline Schäfer, Chairperson of the Verband der Redenschreiber deutscher Sprache (The Association of German Speechwriters).

Ms. Schäfer, what are the linguistic features of a political speech?

What is striking is that the sentence structure is somewhat simple and understandable, with a lot of main clauses and rhetorical stylistic devices such as metaphors and anaphora, which conjure up images for the listeners. Frequently, political speeches also have an appellative character.

Could you give a few examples?

The former CDU / CSU party whip, Friedrich Merz, once spoke of the “echo before the call” to describe a response that was uttered before the question was even asked – for me a very successful example of a metaphor. Anaphora is the repeated naming of words at the beginning of successive sentences. For example, I tell you, we have to keep talking to Turkey. I tell you, we must not degrade ourselves. Above all, however, I tell you that if we fail at this point, it will be the end of Europe. This reinforces the appellative character.

What is the purpose of using such elements?

Every individual case is different. If it is a question of getting my team behind me at a party political conference – then I, above all, want to motivate people with my speech, and would perhaps focus on appellative elements. A speech aimed at possible voters on a market square is a different kettle of fish – namely making sure the people listening to the speech understand the speaker. The aim in this case is to differentiate and individualize through language.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

Take, for example, the concept of social justice, which is playing an important role in the current German election campaign. More social justice is one of the main demands of the SPD party’s chancellor candidate, Martin Schulz. When Mr Schulz addresses this topic in a speech, however, he is not content to simply name the term and there is a good reason for that. He couches the meaning of the term – namely advocating the interests of low-income earners – into a narrative, that is, a story. Only in this way is it possible to trigger emotions among the listeners. In this way, factual arguments can be conveyed much more effectively.

That almost sounds a little like manipulation.

Jacqueline Schäfer Jacqueline Schäfer | Photo (detail): © Hoffotografen It is true that most probably every speech is, to a certain extent, manipulative and the language is also used with this in mind. After all, every speaker wants to be convincing. However, we should, of course, draw a clear line between a speech that strives to be understood through the use of rhetorical figures and narrative, from one that uses emotions exclusively to spread lies and propaganda. That is also the difference between popular and populist. A popular speech means I talk in a way that ensures I am understood, but it is always based on facts. Complicated thinking, simple writing, that is the way the CSU politician, Franz Josef Strauss, once described it. Populist, on the other hand, means writing speeches that say only what the people want to hear, but not what they should hear.

It is precisely this type of political communication that the established political parties in Germany have been confronted with – for example, by the right-wing populist party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

This is true and it is really quite exciting to see how this situation has actually affected the language used by the traditional mainstream parties. In the speeches being held at the moment polemics is used much more sparingly than before. Defamation of the opponent’s character and spiteful remarks are also much less common. In terms of content, the topic of democracy figures strongly in the foreground, for example, by talking about common democratic values and repeatedly injecting a “We” into the speech to promote a feeling of community. This deliberate placing of importance on certain elements is also known as framing.

Are there any other examples?

Framing, in the meantime, is very popular, mainly because it actually works, as has been proven in many experiments carried out in the field of behavioural psychology. For example, in 2013 the CDU party linguistically overhauled its entire electoral program and, for example, deleted the clumsy term “Haushaltskonsolidierung” (budget consolidation), after the strategists realised that the word triggers little or only negative reactions among the voters. It was replaced by two words, “solide Finanzen” (sound finances). This is easier to understand. In addition, the adjective (“solide”/sound) awakens positive associations.

What do you think about the cliché that Germans cannot hold good speeches?

That kind of thinking is somewhat too stereotypical for me. I do not think that we Germans fundamentally have a problem. Our way of communicating differs from other cultural spheres. There are, on the one hand, historical reasons for this. Due to the experience of national socialism, a period in which political speeches were characterized by a high degree of emotionality, a certain soberness has prevailed as the standard. On the other hand, there is also the fact that we are an engineering nation – always precise and to the point. This is particularly evident when Germans are involved in negotiations. Classical trading nations, such as the British or the Dutch, use the subjunctive much more than we do. While a German, somewhat pointedly, sees little purpose in saying more than “one and one equals two”, the British negotiating partner may tend to use a longer formulation – “It looks very much like it could be a two”.

Jacqueline Schäfer initially worked as a journalist, among others for Die Welt and Deutsche Welle TV. Since 2007, she has been working as a media coach, business consultant and a speechwriter for the fields of politics and industry. She is the President of the Verband der Redenschreiber deutscher Sprache - VdRS (The Association of German Speechwriters).