Speaking tips from Taylor Swift


Photo credit: Sarah Barlow / Billboard.com

Taylor Swift’s new album ‘1989’ contains three ideas to stir-up your writing and your speaking.

Listen to the songs and you’ll notice that Swift doesn’t just sing those lyrics – she acts them. There are nuances and inflections that she milks with the precision of an actress. That scope for drama, and irony, and occasional comedy tells us there are things going on inside the words of the songs that are worth a closer look.

Swift uses metaphor and simile but what makes her lyrics interesting are three unusual techniques designed to make things sound weird — to mix things up.

Clashing Contexts

“‘Cause darling I’m a nightmare, dressed like a day-dream”

It’s my favorite lines from ‘Blank Space’. How often do you see the words nightmare and daydream so close together. They’re a clash. They don’t belong in the same sentence.

Here’s another one, this time from ‘I Wish You Would’:

“Band-aids don’t fix bullet-holes”

Little tiny band-aids — good for covering a paper-cut — but worthless when set beside a bullet-hole!

And finally, another personal favorite, once again from ‘Blank Space’:

‘We’ll take this way too far,

It’ll leave you breathless

Or with a nasty scar’

Those first two lines contain gushing, emotional language – ‘way too far’ and ‘breathless’. You would expect the words that are used to describe that scar to be just as rushing. Words like ‘livid’ or ‘vicious’ or ‘lethal’. But no – it’s a ‘nasty’ scar.

That’s how you describe an injury to a small boy! “Ohhhh… what a nasty cut. Where’s that bandaid?”

Mixing phrases up creates surprise in your audience, and surprise always grabs attention.

Flipping Cliches

Cliches are tired, over-used phrases and pop songs are packed with them. You can tell it’s a cliche if you offer someone the first few words and find that they can complete the phrase.

For example, complete the two following cliches: ‘Built to…….’  and ‘Fade………’.

You probably came up with some variant on ‘Built to last’ and ‘Fade away’. Taylor’s versions through give us ‘….built to fall apart.’ and ‘Fade into view.’ She’s taking cliches and giving them unexpected endings. Those endings spike our interest.

It’s a simple technique to copy. Find a list of cliches online and play with the endings.

For example, could a lazy person be described as ‘Up at the crack of lunchtime’?

Cliches delivered straight, are boring. Cliches modified are fun!

Confusing Senses

Swift’s final musical twist takes our senses and churns them up. It has us hearing colors, or seeing sounds, as in:

….screaming color’ and ‘Kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats’.

It’s called synesthesia, and takes a little getting used to but is worth the effort. The next time you want to describe a sound for example, ask yourself what color the sound might have been. If you want to describe a smell, ask what yourself texture it had. If describing a texture then wonder what flavor you would associate with it. When you play with your senses, you play with your descriptive power.

Over the months to come as tracks from ‘1989’ continue to be released you’re guaranteed to hear people humming the tunes. If you enjoy playing with words and ways to arrange them, spend some time with Taylor Swift.

 

Re-printed from my article of February 13th, 2015, in the Huffington Post

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