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.

Comments

  1. I am fasciated by the subject of rhetoric and this post is helpful putting the “theory” into practical and relevant advice for public speaking/presenting. I am reading Jay Heinrichs word hero at the moment and it’s a fantastic book. Thanks Peter for a well thought out and researched post.

    • We’re both fans of the same rhetoric author! How wonderful is that🙂 Jay Heinrichs has a light touch with a potentially heavy subject and I loved reading “Thank you for arguing” Thanks for the mention of “Word Hero”. It’ll be next on my list for the reading pile.

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