Cathy McMorris Rogers and the SOTU response. Yoda or Jindal?

It’s the most unenviable job in politics: delivering the response to the President’s State of the Union address.

A high-wire act performed over circling sharks, the number one goal is simply to avoid coming out of it as chum. To emerge merely a chump can be considered success.

The problem is that everybody remembers when it all goes wrong, but few remember when it goes OK. Bobby Jindahl’s train-wreck in 2009, and Marco Rubio’s water-bottle moment in 2013 both leap to mind, whereas Mitch Daniels workmanlike performance in 2012 has fallen off the radar.

If delivering the SOTU response is a plum handed to rising stars, then it’s a Hunger Games of a plum. Most of those chosen are going to wind-up pulp.

Delivering a successful refutation is never a job for the angry. An angry, fired-up politician with an axe to grind and a name to make, Bobby Jindal for example, will fall straight into the trap of attempting a sweeping refutation of everything that the President just said. Striding to the microphone, they’ll hurl the metaphorical bowling ball of their indignation down the alley and hope for a strike that sends the President’s pins a’flying.

The problem is though, that until the President actually speaks, nobody knows for certain where those pins are going to be placed, or on which facts they are going to be based. This means that unless the respondent is very, very lucky, they’re going to send that bowling ball straight into the gutter, where it will land with a dull and heavily press-coveraged thud. It’s not quite the sound of tumbleweed, but dreadfully close to it, and precisely what panicked Marco Rubio into groping for that water bottle last year.

So instead of bowling pins, let’s talk sweaters. Woolen ones.

The President’s State of the Union, will be presented as a perfectly stitched garment of arguments that knit together into one broad theme.

A successful SOTU respondent does not need to shred that sweater. They merely need to pick lose a single thread and then tug just enough so that the news networks scent an opportunity and finish the unravelling before the President is even back in the West Wing.

That thread will be found in one of two seams. It might be a dubious fact that can be directly challenged, or it could be in a slightly too sweeping phrase. All the respondent now needs to do is to get a hold of that thread and use a wonderful little toy called The Yoda Argument.

Remember the famous line from Star Wars?

“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering, and that way lies the dark side, young Skywalker”

A leads to B. B leads to C. C leads to D.

For a rebuttal, you use the same structure: “If A is wrong, then B is wrong. If B is wrong, then C must be wrong, and if C is wrong, then D is wrong, and that way unravels the sweater, Mr President.”

The respondent does not need to go for a kill stroke, they just need to find that thread.

It’s a big thing to ask though. The respondent needs to resist the all-or-bust temptation of the furnace-blast rebuttal, and that’s why Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers could be such an interesting GOP choice for 2013. Despite being a highly ranked Republican, they don’t let her out to speak a great deal. Her style is generally cool, and tends towards the forensic. For so long as the Tea Party demanded speakers who came with a certain spittle-flecked fundamentalism, her cooler style didn’t always fit. Hence the low profile. Her choice for tomorrow night’s performance could therefore prove to be a smart one.

Will Cathy McMorris Rogers remain forensic enough to start the SOTU unravelling, or will she fall into the trap of ages, and make a complete Jindal of it?

A presentation pointer for Chris Christie, and he can take this to the bridge

by Peter Watts

When there’s an underlaying bogey or accusation lurking behind your presentation, and you’d rather  not have that bogey become smeered all over the screen as the main talking-point of the day, should you:

a) Make your announcement, and then quietly and concisely move on, or

b) Make your announcement and then immediately mention the accusation before vehemently denying it’s existence?

A few examples:

  • “Redundancies are not an indication that the company is in trouble.”
  • “The product recall is not a sign of engineering issues in our other product lines.”
  • “The legal action does not represent a worry for our shareholders.”

No matter how firmly those denials were made, your audience just heard:

  • “Company about to fold”
  • “Complete product recall of everything”
  • “Dump shares before Feds arrive”

In the world of rhetoric, to deny something is to confirm it.

Governor Chris Christie has been having a spot of trouble with a bridge recently, and amongst other unfortunate statements during today’s press conference, we were treated to this:

“I am not a bully.”

Hands-up all those who now suspect that the Governor is precisely that!

There is a technique in public speaking called Paralipsis, which is to put something into the mind of an audience by denying that you want to speak of it. It’s often used in politics, for example, “I would not stoop to mentioning my opponent’s history of spousal abuse, drunk-driving, and tax evasion.”

Fair enough, but while you wouldn’t “stoop to mentioning it”, your audience are now all thinking about it! Used well it can be devastating against one’s opponents, but Governor Christie’s usage demonstrates how to neatly slam the technique into reverse and then backfire it all over your own message.

If somewhere beneath the bonfire of your presentation, little kindling flames are delicately smouldering their way across the bridge of your Presidential ambitions, then the thing you really shouldn’t be doing, is blowing on them.

What you deny, you will affirm!

Dirimens copulatio and LBJ’s War on Poverty Speech

by Peter Watts

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the speech in which President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty.

Listening to a section of it on my car radio this morning, I heard the phrase:

“Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty but to cure it – and above all to prevent it.”

That’s dirimens copulatio, which is the “not only…. but” figure.

Rhetoric is a tangled heap. The past 3000 years have allowed the magic word spells we call rhetorical figures to be defined and re-defined so many times that you often find multiple definitions for the same thing. Dirimens is the ultimate example because 2000 years ago Cicero was already disagreeing with Aristotle about exactly what it was.

I’m going with Cicero’s definition because frankly, it makes more sense. He said that the purpose of dirimens was to amplify a topic, making it seem larger and more striking. Hence the format:

  • We’re not only going to do x, but we’re going to do y as well.
  • Not only do people suffer from x, but they have to suffer y as well.
  • You’ll not only win x, but we’re going to throw in y as well.

Instead of dirimens copulatio, maybe we should call it the game-show figure, because it’s exactly what a game-show host would say to rouse the thrashing zombie-mob in the audience to even wilder applause:

“And tonight, not only will you win this car, but we’ll even throw in a free year of gas”

Next time you’re making a presentation, try a dirimens copulatio. Not only will it emphasise your point, but it’s straight-forward as well.

But be careful how you Google it. It’s surprisingly easy to mis-spell!

For impact: It’s diacope baby, diacope”

by Peter Watts

Oh dear. It wasn’t my intention but I appear to be channeling Austin Powers, which for a British blogger is mortifying. Utterly mortifying. And I also seem to have gotten myself lost in a loop of this week’s topic: the diacope, which is a wonderfully useful rhetorical tool for creating  impact and soundbites. Fabulous soundbites, such as:

“Yeah, baby, yeah.”

It’s  just two words, put together in a structure of A-B-A (sorry, couldn’t resist attaching the YouTube clip).

“Bond, James Bond.”

Once again, supremely memorable, and just two words: A-B-A.

How about “Drill, baby, drill”. Suddenly it’s the 2008 election all over again, and even though Sarah Palin didn’t actually coin this particular phrase, that A-B-A carried her to fame if not to elected office.

Diacope is an easy way to slip a soundbite into your presentation. Let’s take the word “service” as an example. Here’s some differing diacopes that could land a service message:

  • “Customers demand service. Exceptional service”
  • “Our core value is service. Award-winning service”
  • “Our focus is service. Timely service”

A-B-A creates a soundbite without an overt sense of  drama, and the first time you try out a new technique, that’s a great place to start. After a little successful experimentation though, you could try diacope’s  splashier big cousin: A-A-B-A.

In “White Christmas”, Danny Kaye uses the phrase: “The Theater, the Theater, what’s happened to the Theater?” Fans will recognize that as the opening line of “Choreography”.

Kenneth Williams meanwhile, playing Julius Caesar in “Carry on Cleo” used diacope for the fabulous: “Infamy, Infamy; they’ve all got it in for me.”, thereby abusing Shakespeare while simultaneously demonstrating that diacope can play with word sounds as much as with the words themselves.

Here are a few possible A-A-B-A business samples, this time playing with the theme of “strength”:

  • “Strength, strength, industrial strength.”
  • “Toughness, toughness, rock-solid toughness.”
  • “Muscle, muscle, absolute muscle.”

As you read these examples, you might think  they look painfully awkward on the page, and that’s because like many rhetorical tools, diacope is more intended to be said than read. It needs the inflection of human voice to breath  life into the words. Also don’t forget that you’re  reading these in isolation and normally they would be blended into a longer phrase:

Bandwidth, bandwidth, affordable high-capacity bandwidth. We want to put streaming video and voice services within the reach of the regular subscriber, not just those willing to pay through the nose for premium services. That’s our goal with these new high-capacity, low-cost, high-bandwidth products.”

When folded into a phrase, the A-A-B-A format gives a power-lifter lift-off to your message.

Yeah, Baby, Yeah!

(Sorry. Last time I’ll do that. Honest!)

Antithesis: An easy way to sound profound

Naughty gets you straight into presentation heaven, and antithesis proves it.

Antithesis injects poetry into your presentation. In the words of Mark Forsyth, author of the fabulous “The Elements of Eloquence”, it lets you sound profound even when stating “the bleeding obvious”.

In the world of rhetoric, antithesis is fracking; unsubtle but highly effective.

To create antithesis, take two loosely opposing statements and yoke them together. For example, from Mr. Charles Dickens:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” 

Let’s apply that approach to something simple, such as the weather. Right now I’m looking out of the window of a New England coffee-shop. It’s snowing:

“It was exciting weather, it was depressing weather.”

Profound, if confusingly vague. You might be wondering what use is a technique so muzzy to a business presenter, so let’s step it up a gear:

“Some solutions work perfectly. Other solutions do not.”

As Mark Forsyth suggests, this is indeed “the bleeding obvious” but it’s a wonderful jumping-off spot from which you can now talk about how your own solution belongs firmly in the former category.

“Some initiative are destined to soar, while others are doomed to sink.”

“There are days when it all goes smoothly. There are days when it all falls apart.”

Now try taking commonplace sayings and using poetic license to cheat your way to something witty:

For example,

“A stitch in time saves nine. A stitch in 19 suggests paranoia”

“To forgive is divine. To want payback is human.”

….and our entry point:

“If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, is the path to heaven paved with naughty thoughts?” 

These final examples aren’t the world’s strictest examples of antithesis, but they have a certain fun quality to them. They take a commonplace saying, from which everybody assumes a certain sentiment (smugness and/or condescension), and then flip that sentiment on it’s back for a surprise ending. Surprise endings are good. They keep the audience engaged and make things memorable.

Presentations remembered use techniques like antithesis. Presentations forgotten, do not.

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