The Guardian editorial "In praise of ... the rule of three" reminds me of a memorable lesson I had at school about linguistic devices used in political speeches. (It was probably this kind of lesson which prompted me to later do a degree in Linguistics.)
Here's a quick list of the patterns I remember:
- Alliteration (matching initial sounds)
- Tricolon (think I learnt this as 'triplets') - amazing how powerful this is.
- Repetition ("Education, Education, Education")
- Opposition ("They say X, we say Y")
- False dichotomy ("If you want then do X, but if you want then do Y")
- Swearing (for a really good analysis on why this is effective, see the chapter in Stephen Pinker's book The Stuff Of Thought)
- Humour (this is the one that's hardest to get right)
These devices are all widely used by politicians and campaigners - and the surprising thing is how effective they are. Some might say that it's a symptom of the 'Soundbyte Culture" (this phrase has amusingly become a soundbyte in its own right) generated by rolling tv news. But I think it probably goes back further than that, and has more to do with the requirements of combative speech than of TV.
If you watch someone give a genuinely persuasive speech - the sort that you might see at TED, or in the early days of Barack Obama's campaigning - then it's far more about storytelling and narrative than simple linguistic tricks.