Syncrisis turns attack into advantage

by Peter Watts

“One man’s meat”, as the old saying goes, “is another man’s poison” and by the same token, one brand’s insult can become another brand’s praise. It’s all down to how you frame the debate.

Take “ObamaCare” for example!

Please don’t hang-up! No matter which side of the political debate you find yourself sitting on. My purpose is neither to praise nor to condemn, but to explore how the term ObamaCare demonstrates that when under attack, your best line of defence can be to enthusiastically agree with your attacker.

At the outset of the health care debates the Republican Party seized an early initiative by re-branding President Obama’s Affordable Care Act as ObamaCare, a title as catchy as the title Affordable Care Act was bland.

The President’s team initially tried to ignore the tag of ObamaCare, but the more the White House tried to ignore it, the more dominant the phrase became within the media and the country. The White House’s own deny and defend strategy started to fuel the Republican offensive.

The Obama team had placed themselves into a classical rhetorical bind that many presenters can find themselves in, where an opponent has successfully defined the terms of the debate and managed to negatively define your position. If debate were chess, then this would be check, and there’s only one route out: a technique called syncrisis.

In his book “Thank you for arguing”, Jay Heinrichs describes syncrisis as being a form of verbal jujitsu that takes an opponent’s attack and turns it on it’s head by redefining the terms of the insult.

For example, one brand might decide to attack another as being boring. On the surface nobody likes to be thought of as boring, but if however we redefine  “boring” as meaning tried and tested, reliable, and thorough then actually maybe we rather like boring. Maybe boring becomes something to be proud of!

In this way a pejorative becomes co-opted as a compliment.

Realizing that the Republican’s had stolen the media agenda the White House used syncrisis to re-take possession of the term ObamaCare. The break-out came in a 2012 speech in Denver when President Obama stated:

“The Affordable Care Act…. also known as ObamaCare. I actually like the name ObamaCare…. because I do care.”

It was the first time he had used the term in a speech, and ever since, he and his team have been steadily working to not run-away from the term ObamaCare, but to embrace it.

For die-hards on either side of the debate, ObamaCare will always be devoutly good or appallingly bad. Those folks aren’t the people that the warring camps need to influence though; it’s amongst the undecided where battles and elections are won or lost and techniques like syncrisis, that reframe an argument,  can neatly turn your opponent’s attack into your own emphatic positive.

It takes a speaker who has their wits about them, but if you find yourself, your brand, or your message attacked, then the best form of defense can often be embrace.

Presentation Ethos, Mr Burns, a Dental Nurse, and Me

by Peter Watts

Credibility in public speaking is associated with the level of ethos that you command with your audience, customer, or patient.

Ethos is founded on reputation, it’s founded on the title before your name or the qualifications that trail after it. It’s bolstered by visible accoutrements such as your premises, your equipment, or your uniform. It’s your past track record and your client list. Ethos is that diploma you keep framed on the wall. When ethos is visible, ethos is easy. Once you’ve got the titles and the trappings, then you can ride on them. Right?


Most of all, ethos is similarity. It’s can people like you? People buy from people. Are you a likable human, or a cold diploma?

Allow me to illustrate, because I just met this phenomena in the flesh in my Dentist’s office. Or rather, I met her eyes in the flesh because every other bit of anatomy was covered in surgical-wear, and a gloved hand was sticking some cold whining torture tool into my gum-line. How’s that for all the accoutrements of ethos with none of the likability?

About ten minutes into treatment, I must have angled my jaw into the perfect position for oral penetration, because unexpectedly, from under my tormenter’s mask came a creepy but perfectly phrased “Excellent”. Joann the Hygienist had just delivered a grade A impression of the Simpsons character Mr Burns.

Treatment had to stop immediately. I was experiencing an overwhelming urge to respond with a Burns quote of my own:

“Release the hounds.”

Complete strangers till 15 minutes earlier, Joann and I had just established a level of intimacy born of our shared enjoyment in a TV character. Once that connection was established, all Joann had to do was slowly steeple and then drum her fingers together for me to become instant dental putty in her hands (fellow Burns fans will know what I mean!)

In this coincidence of connection, I was experiencing ethos at first-hand. While Joann had all the visible elements of ethos, the Burns connection suddenly gave us a shared cultural reference point. It gave us an aspect of similarity, and we are most readily inclined to favor and believe those who we regard as being similar to ourselves.

Doctors are held up as a prime example of ethos, and yet, how many Doctors find themselves getting sued?

As Malcolm Gladwell explored in his book “Blink”, there is an inverse correlation between the amount of time Doctors spend on social orientation with patients, and the likelihood of their later being sued for malpractice. Malpractice suits are the ultimate expression of the collapse of ethos. Ethos is collapsing through a lack of social connection.

Joann and I connecting over Mr Burns was maybe an extreme example, but the fundamental point remains. For complete credibility, connection is as important as  qualification.

Analysis of Malala Yousafzai’s speech to the UN General Assembly


by Peter Watts

Shot in the head by the Taliban simply for going to school, Malala Yousafzai has not only recovered from appalling injuries, but has gone on to become a champion for the rights of children everywhere to be educated.

Today, before the UN General Assembly, Malala delivered a speech of substance, power, and grace.

This speech deserves to be heard. This speech deserves to be read. This speech deserves to learned. Both for it’s incredible message, and for the incredible public-speaking skills of this 16 year old girl.

Unassailable ethos

The first challenge any speaker faces is to establish their ethos, their credibility to speak. For this speech Malala wished to establish herself not as a victim of violence, but as a champion against it.

“….it is an honor for me that today I am wearing a shawl of the late Benazir Bhutto.”

We sometimes speak of somebody “putting on the mantle” of a hero, but this is the first time I can recall somebody literally wearing the mantle. The mantle of a female Pakistani leader, a champion of education, assassinated by terrorists. Furthermore, the mantle of a woman who had spoken at the UN, and would have been known by many of those in the audience.

Indeed a mantle of power, yet contrasted beautifully against the phrase “dear brothers and sisters”, which appears in almost every paragraph, and reminds the audience of whom Malala ultimately represents: the young.

A triple trilogy of power

A similar evocation of power appears later, in a trio of trilogies:

“This is the compassion that I have learned from Mohammed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ, and Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa”

To speak in groupings of three is a classical technique, and as Malala delivers this roll-call, she summons the presence of those leaders, alive and dead, to stand behind her on the stage. Malala then drops the power level, as she summons the presence of two more individuals:

“And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my mother and father.”

Once again, she evokes humility, and the fact that this is a speech about children.

Climb and Collapse

This pattern of power-build followed by drop-back to humility reappears in the fourth paragraph. Malala uses the technique of climax, where numbers are grouped so that they climb in a sequence from small to large:

“There are hundreds of human rights activists,…. thousands of people have been killed by terrorists and millions have been injured.”

Hundreds. Thousands. Millions. The incrementum leads the audience to see an ever larger and more horrifying amount. The next number in the sequence? Surely Billions! But no. Instead we hear:

“I am just one of them. So here I stand, one girl amongst many.”

This is anti-climax. Having built up an image of afflicted millions, Malala collapses it all back down, to just her, one child. She is reminding us of the many for whom she speaks, while simultaneously using pathos, an appeal to the emotions.

Step-by-step to Logos

Logos is the logic of a speech; it’s argument. Malala’s argument is contained within paragraph eight, all of which I’m going to reproduce here, step-by-step, because the passage is so dense with power that each phrase deserves to individually understood:

“Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when we were in Swat, the north of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.”

Light and darkness. Voice and silence. These paired opposites are examples of antithesis. They have a clean, binary logic that is enhanced by contrast. Malala then uses this foundation to create an analogy: “we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.

“The wise saying, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. It is true. The extremists are afraid of pens and books. The power of education frightens them.”

Here, the well known commonplace “The pen is mightier than the sword” is used to move the argument to it’s next stage: Extremists are afraid of education. The technique used is epicrisis, where a widely accepted commonplace or maxim adds weight to an argument built upon it.

“They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. This is why they killed 14 innocent students in the recent attack in Quetta. And that is why they kill female teachers. That is why they are blasting schools every day, because they are afraid of change and the equality that we will bring to our society.”

Having earlier set the argument that extremists are afraid of education, Malala then builds that argument to demonstrate the link between women’s education and society, until she concludes her argument with an anecdote:

“And I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist: ‘Why are the Taliban against education?’ He answered very simply by pointing to his book, he said: ‘A Talib doesn’t know what it written inside this book.’”

The anecdote provides a dramatic punchline to the logos, but also hints that the illiterate are more likely to become Taliban. This is the technique of adianoeta, where a more subtle meaning is hidden just beneath the surface of a comment: If Talibs can’t read, then the ultimate sword with which to win the war against the future Talib, is to teach the children to read.

Malala’s Key Message

Referring to how the Taliban sought to silence and intimidate her, Malala uses antithesis to deliver the words:

“….weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”

Strength, power and courage in the face of adversity are the key messages of Malala’s speech.

It is a speech filled with passion, with emotion, with skill, incredible belief, and daring hope.

It is a speech we all should hear, and delivered by a woman whom we all should hope we will hear a lot more of.

You can access a transcript of Malala’s speech by clicking here, or watch the speech on YouTube by clicking here.

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