In Speak like a leader, Simon Lancaster says that lessons learned in Roman times about effective political speeches still apply, and it is scandalous that a training in rhetoric is such a rarity. He briefly touches six major lessons in effective speaking, but he does not flesh it out beyond what is permitted in a TED talk.

Briefly, the six lessons or tools are:

  1. The breathless x 3, three short adjectives, nouns, or phrases: "Lies. Treachery. Embezzlement." as the opening to a political smear ad.

  2. The repetition x 3, three sentences repeating the same thing.

  3. The balance x 3, three balanced sentences which are taken to represent balanced thought.

  4. Metaphor, his point being that we all use metaphor and which political metaphor we use can have profound impact on reception.

  5. Exaggeration, by far the most potent tool in any communication. (Err...)

  6. Rhyme: if you've taken the time to make a rhyme, what you're saying must be true, even if you're blue.

What are the classic sources, ancient or modern, providing a foundational treatment of rhetoric, in which these six highlights were originally proposed?

  • @Randal'Thor I think that what Christos is really asking is, what were Lancaster's sources for his claims about Roman rhetorical techniques? Asking about particular sources in this way is on topic here (examples: 1 2 3). Maybe a small tweak to the wording would suffice? Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 15:35
  • Is en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhetoric#Canons not enough? Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 16:25
  • I think the question would be fine if it just asked about the classical Roman sources for those six principles. Asking for both ancient and modern texts dilutes the focus of the question.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 17:15
  • @all, I have tweaked the wording of my question to ask about ancient classics only. And I would like sources that would provide Lancaster’s six. I would note that I posted a site-recommendation question on meta.SE, containing “ancient and modern”, and was advised that literature.SE was the best fit without any advice to ask for only ancient texts. Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 12:41
  • 1
    The scope of this site certainly includes both ancient and modern literature; it's just that, within the scope of one question, it becomes a bit too broad when you ask for any good sources on a broad topic. Asking specifically for sources for those six principles is fine though. I've made a further edit to your question to make it clearly on-topic (I hope it's still OK and reflects what you're looking for properly), upvoted, and removed my vote to close :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 12:54

1 Answer 1


After I contacted Simon Lancaster, he was gracious enough to respond:

If you look at my own books, particularly Speechwriting: The Expert Guide, you'll find a ton of sources. Warm wishes, Simon

The two resources that most stand out to me so far are Aristotle's Rhetoric and Cicero's Rhetoric ad Herennium, and I plan on tackling them next.

I might mind the qualifications in the review I posted of Lancaster's title as I would situate it somewhat differently from where Lancaster situates himself. My Amazon review presently reads:

★★★★★ Gentlemen's duel? Try assassin's duel!

One part of the filtering in law school filters out some of those who are squeamish about bad argument. The pressure is to pick whatever argument that would best win the case: no argument is too slimy, or would make too disastrous a precedent in the precedent-based field of law, if it will win. That is a lawyer's job, and as best I can tell the idea of holding to solid, honest, argument falls somewhere between being quixotic, and being a category mistake.

This is a book for what will work best at its center of gravity in political and political-like speeches. While the author claims universal jurisdiction, and says of Wesley's work and an Apple product launch, "The principles are identical." (Compare the Dorothy Sayers, The Dogma is the Drama, where Sayers deliberately embraces an unpopular word and argues that the greatest story ever told is positively driven by religious doctrine.) In 90% of the exemplars of good communication are from politics (narrowly construed), and the author does not once countenance the use of solid argument; he compares the use of rational and emotional appeal as a "pea-shooter" versus a "nuclear bomb." Where he references argument, he discusses giving "the illusion of argument" in appropriate places. The dissemination of actual argument is never countenanced.

The book has a genuine place in "philosophy" under an older definition of "philosophy," as do classics like The Art of War and The Prince, but I wince when I see someone in the business world who wants to get serious and deep and reaches for the one or two volume canon of The Art of War and perhaps The Prince. What is called for is wisdom literature, a broad and deep tradition that is older than the books of wisdom literature in the Bible and newer than The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, of which The Art of War and The Prince represent a dreary sampling for people who want to get ahead in the business world.

This book is a masterful manual of an assassin's duel in the realm of political speeches. For those of us who would like to speak better, it represents all the cards laid on the table for an assassin's duel for how to draw or repel an audience and how to best convince, and there are some cards that a gentleman would draw in argument. This book also represents, more than any other modern text I've read, a meticulous exposition of unclean argument, and it has every relevance to people who want to expose and rebut shady argument (and "illusion of argument"). That is something I searched long for, and failed to find, before going on to write a dissertation on the topic at Cambridge. If I had found this book then, I would have devoured this book and begged the author for more.

I believe that SOME of this book is something I would draw on, but I also believe argument and constructive discourse is possible in communication, including speeches, and the speeches that have most shaped me have involved real and often sound arguments. I believe that this book covers a department of "philosophy," so to speak, and is not the whole, particularly as the author portrays argument as having no place in his jurisdiction. One implication is that his jurisdiction is not universal, particularly not if his jurisdiction does not include any discourse that includes argument.

The work is quite valuable, but it is parochial, and those of us who do not want discourse to always be in the image of political speeches. Speeches can be more varied, and a fortiori lectures can be more varied.

On to what motivated me to buy this book: understanding ancient and modern rhetoric while pursuing discourse that is sometimes not political speechmaking. On those grounds, I would consider this work well worth my money for its references alone.

C.J.S. Hayward, author

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.