Amplification rhetoric. Getting words to go LARGE!

by Peter Watts Paskale

Scale, as any filmmaker will tell you, is all about the optics. And good storytelling, as any thriller-writer will tell you, is all about scale.

Treating words like camera-lenses and arranging them in a specific sequence plays directly with an audience’s perception of size. Whether you want the audience to perceive something as being bigger or smaller, the ability to manipulate perceived scale is as much a part of the presenter’s arsenal as it is the filmmaker’s.

Picture the scene. It’s bedtime, and your children are eager for a story. Which description of the villainous giant will get the kids more rapt:

“Jack fought a big giant”, or……

“Jack fought a giant. Not a big giant. Not a massive giant. Not a vast giant. He was a ginormous giant.”

In that second version, the giant is super-scale. He looms in the children’s imaginations, and that’s because you’ve guided them to observe the giant through a telescope of enlarging adjectives, and your subject now appears magnified at the end of it.

Couldn’t we have saved some time and just gone with “He was a ginormous giant”? No we couldn’t, because in this example, ‘ginormous’ itself is also being magnified through all the adjectives that lead up to it. By itself, ‘ginormous’ has no comparison point to lend it scale. It just becomes another random description.

Scale in speech and writing really is all about the way that you arrange the optics of your words.

Here are two examples – the first of which is from British comedy series “BlackAdder”:

“This is a crisis. A large crisis. In fact, if you’ve got a moment, it’s a twelve-story crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour portage, and an enormous sign on the roof, saying ‘This Is a Large Crisis.”

And here’s one from Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, describing an unfortunate couple of weeks for the US House of Representatives:

“What has happened…. has been less a stumble than a pratfall involving the legislative equivalent of a banana peel, flailing arms, an upended bookcase, torn drapes and a slide across a laden banquet table into a wedding cake.”

The same technique works for numbers. President Obama, justifying a high-cost investment, once asked an audience to consider what America’s infrastructure needs would be “a year, two years, five years, ten years from now”. The audience, looking through an ever increasing series of numbers, would have then subconsciously carried the trend forward… “20 years, 50 years, 100 years”. The president’s budget request, put against such an unstated timeline of 100 years, would have seemed all the smaller by comparison.

Whether you’re writing or speaking, when you want your audience to visualise something, borrow from the art of the filmmaker. Ask yourself what scale you want the audience to assign to that object and line-up your shot with care.

Get the right verbal optics and giants can become midgets while midgets become giant.

 

Re-printed from my article of January 30th, 2015, in the Huffington Post

How to do Chiasmus

by Peter Paskale

It’s not the men in your life that matters, it’s the life in your men

One of Mae West’s celebrated phrases. Along with “Come up and see me some time“, to read these words is to hear the sinuous drawl in which they were delivered.

West was a Queen of the soundbite. She was also a Queen of chiasmus — a little rhetorical device that adds style to any presentation or piece of writing.

Mae West isn’t alone in her crush on chiasmus. Take a look at these:

  • With my mind on my money and my money on my mind
  • I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me
  • I meant what I said and I said what I meant
  • All for one and one for all

That’s with thanks, respectively, to Snoop Dogg, Winston Churchill, Horton the Elephant, and the Three Musketeers — and I’m willing to bet that this is the first time in recorded history those four names have ever appeared together on the same list.

Chiasmus is when two lines of text, or two adjacent phrases, are symmetrical — “I meant what I said – I said what I meant“. The human brain just loves things that are symmetrical. The more symmetrical a thing, the more we see it as intrinsically attractive. It even reaches to our assessment of human beauty — the more symmetrical someone’s face, the more beautiful we believe they are.

So symmetry captures the eye, or the ear, of an audience, just as a radio advert did to me yesterday when I heard the slogan of a tax advisor “working hard for hard workers“.

Building chiasmus into writing or speaking provides an instant style-boost, but the technique looks difficult. When you first try to create your own chiasmus, confusion creeps all over you. I know. I’ve been there. So, a few ideas to de-mystify the tool of chiasmus:

Chiasmus needs only to be roughly symmetrical
Chiasmus is essentially two phrases, side-by-side, where the second phrase loosely reverses the first. Loosely! It does not need to be a mirror-perfect reflection. So, whilst “Tea for two and two for tea” might be a letter-perfect model – it’s not one to copy.

Keep in mind something more like “‘Instead of landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock would land on them.”

The reflection is loose. It’s flexible rather than perfect — in fact it’s perfectly flexible.

Chiasmus can agree, or disagree. It really doesn’t matter
Make a web-search for chiasmus and you’re going to meet JFK’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country“, and this can lead you to believe that as well as mirroring each other, the two phrases must also counter each other.

Not true. The two sides of a chiasmus can agree or disagree — it doesn’t matter. “Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he“.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery
The best route to a confident chiasmus is to copy! Copy and mangle and do it with happy abandon.

Let’s take Horton the Elephant and see what we can build out of “I meant what I said and I said what I meant”:

  • I like what I do and I do what I like
  • If you read what you love, then you’ll love what you read
  • See the friends you enjoy and you’ll enjoy the friends that you’re with

Keep a lid on it
Beware of inflicting a chiasmus-overdose on your audience. Limit it to just one per article or speech.

Have a go!
Chiasmus looks scary on first sight and that can stop us from experimenting with a fabulous tool for fabulous soundbites.

Don’t be afraid to start-out by copying chiasmus examples. It’s the best way to start and will guarantee that your speeches get noticed, which is important, because in the words of Mae West:

I’d rather be looked over, than overlooked.

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