Tina Stowell Associates

Brian Hanrahan and what made his report from the Falklands stick

December 20th, 2010 | Posted in Uncategorized

Jon Rentoul on Twitter led me to Max Atkinson’s blog post about what made Brian Hanrahan’s famous phrase so memorable: “I counted them all out and I counted them all back.” Max’s main argument is this:

Indirectness v. Directness I still think, however, that part of the answer to why rhetorically formatted lines are so effective at grabbing the attention of audiences is that they tend to be less direct ways of saying things that, if said directly, would hardly have been noticed.

Consider, for example, whether Hanrahan’s line would have been so widely reported and remembered if he’d selected a more direct way of reporting the same thing, such as “All the planes returned safely”?”

I’d argue a different explanation. I believe Brian Hanrahan was very direct that day. I don’t know what made him say it in the way he did, but he didn’t make us work harder he made it easier for us to remember: he illustrated his message with something concrete (the counting) and he made it emotional (by making it human).

I’ve explained in more detail below what I mean, but I should say first that I’ve just finished reading a fantastic book, “Made to Stick” by Chip & Dan Heath, and my view is based on their theory. The Heath brothers offer six principles to help communicate ideas and messages so they become memorable: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, stories. Check out their website for more info. It includes excerpts of their book, and I’ve pulled out a few quotes to support my own assertions about this brilliant phrase by Brian Hanrahan:

“I’m not allowed to say how many planes joined the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back. Their pilots were unhurt, cheerful and jubilant, giving thumbs-up signs.”


“How do we find the essential core of our ideas? A successful defense lawyer says, ‘If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.’ To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion….”

Brian was clear what he wanted to communicate: all aircraft had returned safely


“How do we make our ideas clear? We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information. This is where so much business communication goes awry. Mission statements, synergies, strategies, visions — they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images — ice-filled bathtubs, apples with razors — because our brains are wired to remember concrete data. In proverbs, abstract truths are often encoded in concrete language: “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea will mean the same thing to everyone in our audience.”

Brian then translated that simplicity into something we could relate to: he made the safe return of all aircraft concrete by telling us he counted them out and counted them all back.


“How do we get people to care about our ideas? We make them feel something….. Research shows that people are more likely to make a charitable gift to a single needy individual than to an entire impoverished region. We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions. Sometimes the hard part is finding the right emotion to harness. For instance, it’s difficult to get teenagers to quit smoking by instilling in them a fear of the consequences, but it’s easier to get them to quit by tapping into their resentment of the duplicity of Big Tobacco.”

And he made us feel, when he made it human: “Their pilots were unhurt, cheerful and jubilant, giving thumbs-up signs.”

I didn’t know Brian Hanrahan, but I met him a few times when I was a junior member of the Number 10 Press Office team usually when on overseas trips. He was always a pleasure to deal with (and I wouldn’t say that about all BBC foreign correspondents I can tell you).

Iain Dale tweeted earlier today that Brian Hanrahan should be remembered for more than just one phrase and of course that’s right. But what his famous phrase illustrates is his effectiveness as a communicator and that surely is a fitting tribute for a journalist.

My sincere condolences to his family and friends at this very sad time.