Hyperbole: A tool of jest, not of anger

by Peter Watts

Hyperbole is a rhetorical weapon best used with tongue-in-cheek, and that’s a public speaking lesson Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana appears to have missed.

During yesterday’s press-pack of the nation’s governors, Jindal broke free from the agreed statement in order to launch an outburst all of his own when he referred to President Obama’s plan to raise the federal minimum wage as “waving a white flag”.

Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy briskly intervened, taking the microphone and mocking Jindal’s comments. Other governors concurred. Jindal meanwhile, choosing not to heed the old guidance to quit digging when you’re already in a hole, could be heard continuing his rant off-camera.

So what went wrong? From the point of view of public speaking, Jindal committed a basic error involving the technique of hyperbole, and where not to use it!

Hyperbole is a well known tool of speech. You’ll have used it yourself. How about the last time you heaved a fully packed suitcase into the trunk of a car and muttered “Wow, this thing weighs a ton!” Well, it didn’t weigh a ton, and if it actually had then you wouldn’t have been able to lift it in the first place!

How about when approaching a deliciously laden buffet table. Who amongst us hasn’t occasionally said to a friend “I’m starving! I could eat a horse.” Again, you’re neither starving nor expressing serious intent to scoff down an entire equine. Your friend however, will smile along with you because we all understand the tongue-in-cheek mechanics of hyperbole. It’s a far-out exaggeration performed in a spirit of jest.

Of all the rhetorical forms, hyperbole is one that we use every day, and as a result we all have a fairly good idea about how it works. This is why Bobby Jindal sounded just a little bit crazy when he started on about white flags.

A white flag indicates abject surrender, which is far from the current state of debate. His white flag reference is therefore hyperbole being used in anger and not in jest. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of going onto a shooting range with one of those little toy pistols that drops a flimsy flag saying “BANG!”. Not only is it completely the wrong tool for the job but it sounds downright childish, and this is exactly what it was.

Hyperbole used in anger is the child’s pose of rhetoric: “If you don’t do what I want, then I’ll never ever speak to you again!” Hyperbole circa second grade.

It’s no surprise therefore that Governor Malloy responded with a parent-to-child response, saying to Jindal’s face that his statement was “the most insane comment” he had ever heard.

Hyperbole has a valid role in debate, but only used in jest, and never in a tantrum.

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.

Proving you can do it

by Peter Watts

Thought is language, and language is thought. We think in words and that’s why the special speech-patterns used in rhetoric can be so powerful.

They help you, and your audience to think in whole new ways.

One of my favourites is a pattern called “Argumentum a Fortiori”. It means argument from strength. It’s a form of logical proof.

To convince an audience that something is possible, think of the most extreme situation in which your case has triumphed, and make the argument:

“If we can survive / endure / triumph / function in those circumstances, then we can achieve anything.”

Here’s why a Fortiori is so wonderful. To use it, you have to recall your victories, and thereby build not only your audience’s confidence, but also your own.

This week saw a superb example of a Fortiori.

The backstory to this quote is the widely condemned decision of the Indian Supreme Court to re-instate an 1861 article of the Indian penal code, making it illegal to be gay in India.

In a New York Times article of December 15th, an Indian activist called Gautam Bhan used the most wonderful a fortiori argument. When asked if he was daunted about now having to fight the Indian Supreme Court, Bhan responded:

“Do you know what’s daunting? It is that moment when you are 15 and you are terrified of who you are. If we have survived that, the Supreme Court does not know what fear looks like.”

Now that’s a Fortiori!

Stocking Inspiration: Your Holiday Party Speech

by Peter Watts and Gavin McMahon

Will your Holiday speech be a Holiday stocking, with tempting surprises and interesting shapes?
To help you to write one that has your team rocking,
We’ve prepared a short list of some toys we’ve been stocking.

As you plan your speech for the office party this year, wouldn’t it be great to have a team of speech-writing elves on hand to do the heavy lifting for you.

Well you do! Your own specialist elves, Gavin and Peter, have prepared a stocking full of festive ideas.

Choose just three or four of these professional Yuletide speaking techniques, and you’ll have Jolly Holiday oratory to be proud of.

For supporting your theme

Anaphora: A Christmas tricycle

A three wheeler bike gives perfect support no matter how fast you might ride. No wobble for you; there’s a wheel at each corner. Holiday messages get that same solid stability when you include the same phrase in consecutive lines of your speech:

This year we’ve delivered service that is the best in the market.
We’ve been able to give our customers a product that is the best in the market, and that’s because we have a team of people who are the best in the market!

Let’s celebrate a successful year past
Let’s celebrate a successful year ahead
Let’s celebrate  an incredibly well earned holiday

For linking ideas

Anadiplosis: The train-set

For one step further on the tricycle theme, try a train-set!

Just as train-sets link together with the rear of one car connecting to the front of the car behind it, you can string phrases together with the last word of one line becoming the first word of the next.

It’s a stylish technique that connects themes, and sounds superb.

I wish you happy holidays. Holidays full of excitement. Excitement that brings you back refreshed next year.

 Make it a priority this holiday to find some downtimeDowntime allows time for reflection, and reflection gives rise to new ideas; new ideas that lead to new opportunities.

For really hammering home the holidays

Metanoia: Candy cane pencil with eraser & sharpener

What better way to write your Holiday speech than with a candy cane pencil. Only for this technique you’ll also need an eraser and sharpener because you’re going to turn the usual bland Holiday greetings into something far sharper!

First think of a nicely classical Holiday greeting, such as “I wish you all happy holidays.” Now take your eraser and audibly rub-out the bland, replacing it with something far sharper:

 I wish you all happy holidays. No, I wish you all sensational holidays!

 This has been a good year. No, strike that. This has been a fantastic year!

For listing accomplishments

Polysyndeton: Eight tiny reindeer

Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer and Vixen, On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Donder and Blitzen.”

Each name stands-out brighter than a Santa suit in a snow-drift. This is because each is emphasised by the stressed word that appears before it. Imagine if the line went: “Now Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen.” They’d all become one long stretch-reindeer blur.

For lists of accomplishments, make each stand proud by replacing commas, with the word “and”:

This year we’ve launched products and won clients and expanded the business and been more successful than ever before.

 We’ve grown the team and increased our service levels and developed the business.

To pack items into a list without those items blurring, remember the old saying:

Many ‘ands make lists work!

For encouraging miraculous achievements

Argumentum a Fortiori: A Charlie Brown Tree

Charlie Brown conjured the holiday magic from the unpromising foundation of that poor little Christmas Tree. The last one on the lot, and missing all it’s needles. It was a Charlie Brown Tree, and everybody laughed at it. But Charlie Brown’s indomitable spirit made that tree glitter.

Where have your team conquered seemingly unconquerable odds. Emphasise those moments. Celebrate those moments. Conjure the magic of past achievements, and your team will conjure magical achievements to come.

We’ve grown the business. If we can grow the business in a recession year like this,
then think what we can achieve next year.”

“We’d all agree that project ABC was the most demanding assignment we’ve ever been asked to do.
It was a tight deadline. It was a challenging client. And they kept changing the specs. And still we achieved it!
If we can meet that sort of pressure, we can meet anything!”

For defining ideas

Analogical reasoning: A drum kit & Snakes and Ladders

There are toys children love to receive but that parents hate them to be given. Drum kits for example. Why do parents hate Holiday drum kits?

It’s because drums are to family friction as games are to family fun

Analogies create the illusion of cause and effect: A is to B, as C is to D. It makes your case sound logical and your logic sound vivid. Where things are vivid, they are always remembered!

Make them seasonal: Santa is to Christmas as the Bunny is to Easter

Make them businesslike: Creativity is to success as oxygen is to breathing

Make them funny: Holiday time with the family can be to relaxation as a canal-root filling is to massage

For tackling painful memories

Litotes: A lump of coal

A lump of coal in the stocking means someone’s been bad. There are times though when it isn’t someone who’s been bad, but something that’s been bad, such as hard times or tough decisions during the year just passed.

In a Holiday speech, your team will expect you to reference those times, but with this being a celebration you don’t want to collapse the party spirit.

Negatives need acknowledging without re-animating, so use a “not……but…” structure:

This past year has not been without it’s challenges, but……

There have been times when this past year has not been the easiest, but…..

We’ve had to make decisions that have not been happy ones, but….

Follow that “but…” with an uplifting statement. You will have nodded to the tough times, but immediately re-directed your audience to better times to come.

To create a sound that sounds superb

Alliteration: A Suzy Snowflake snowglobe

Seasonal sound-bites often use words that start with the same letters. Let’s take “Suzy Snowflake”, and “Dominick the Donkey”, and then of course there’s the phrase itself: “Happy Holidays”.

Doesn’t “Delightfully delicious” sound so much more delicious than “delicious” alone? Instead of a “peaceful holiday”, how about a “perfectly peaceful holiday”?

Doubling down on opening consonants doubles the delight of delivery.

To avoid it all becoming a just little too sugary….

Oxymoron: Sour candies

Christmas Rhetoric-05

There’s a way to double-up on the double-sound technique, that’ll make your Holiday audience pucker-up with pleasure.

Like the most mouth-watering of Holiday candies, this treat starts sour, and then turns sweet!

Take two words that start with the same letter, but have more or less opposite meanings. Now try colliding them together. Make sure the first one’s nasty, and the second one’s nice!

Fearsomely festive

Disgustingly delightful

Fiendishly fun-filled

Horribly happy

It’s a tasty little contradiction that offers sweetness with a twist.

To add festive colour

Epithets: A box of crayons

Whilst plain speaking might be admired, a speech that is plain is a speech that will fail.

Your Holiday speech needs to move, to inspire, and above all, to be remembered. It needs to have colours. The colours of a bright box of brand new crayons.

Google search for a “Christmas Word Cloud”. There are lots out there to choose from and sprinkle some of it’s sparkling adjectives throughout your speech. Go with an approximate ratio of 1:50. For every 50 words of plain speaking, make sure you have at least one bright splash of festive colour.

May your Holiday speech be bright. May your Holiday speech be memorable. And may your Holiday speech be fun.

If you have fun in it’s writing, then you’ll have fun in it’s delivery, and if you’re enjoying it then you can guarantee that your audience will as well.

Happy Holidays!

 

For even more ideas about writing and delivering Holiday speeches, try this article as well: “Unaccustomed as I ham”

Halloween horrors of putrid PowerPoints

It’s the time of year for poltergeists, potions, and possession by the cadaverously candy-crazed.

But possession by PowerPoint??

‘Tis true. ‘Tis hideous true.

Forget Sleepy Hollow. Cast your gaze, and cast it nervously upon this creepy little Halloween number from my good fiend, errr.. friend, Gavin McMahon over at the Make a Powerful Point blog.

It’s cruel, AND unusual.

Playing with audience perceptions of size

by Peter Watts

Size is relative to the words you use. Those words will make your subject appear either dramatically bigger, or pathetically smaller.

Rhetoric works by using word patterns. Whether you intended to do it or not, if you trip one of those patterns during a sale or a presentation, then a sizing spell kicks in and you shrink your positives or enlarge your negatives.

Here’s an example of a recent conversation I had with the receptionist of a hotel that I was checking into:

“Good evening Mr Watts. Welcome to our hotel. We want you to be very comfortable, and it is our pleasure to offer you a complimentary upgrade. We will therefore be upgrading you to one of our Executive Rooms”

Delighted, I asked what made an Executive Room special, and received the deadpan answer:

“Fruit bowl”

My sense of privilege dropped lower than a dachshund’s belly. A fruit bowl? Really? This was their idea of an upgrade?

Now when you’ve come off an international flight, and it’s too late for dinner, then a complimentary fruit bowl sent to the room is a nice touch; something fresh and healthy to snack on. The receptionist however had unwittingly shrunk this gift by presenting it at the end of a series of upwards steps:

Be comfortable…. Complimentary upgrade…..  Executive Room…….

My imagination could then take over and continue climbing those steps:

Bigger room…. King size bed…. Club Floor…..

When he dropped the sucker-punch of “fruit bowl” it had the effect of bowling me right back down to the bottom again. By comparison to where my imagination had been a few moments before, that fruit-bowl now seemed almost humorously insignificant.

This is known as anti-climax. You build, build, build the power, and then drop it back down again. The effect makes your subject appear pathetically tiny. It invokes an almighty contrast between what could have been, and what actually is!

For a more subtle way to super-size either benefits or consequences, try this approach. It’s called a Step Augmentation. It follows the same path as anti-climax but without the deliberate crash at the end.

Examples of Step Augmentation:

“We have to recruit now because finding the right person could take us days, weeks, months!”

“With this infrastructure our network can extend into new districts, new cities, new states.”

“Consider how your needs will be change one year from now, five years from now, ten years from now.”

“The loss of opportunity would sad, it would be tragic, it would be heart-breaking.”

By arranging terms in a sequence of increasing strength, the audience finds themselves looking at the topic through a telescope; they put their eye to the small end and see the subject matter magnified out of the big end.

To shrink the apparent size of the subject, simply flip the telescope around. By starting with the most dramatic term and then running the sequence backwards you effectively place your audience’s eye to the big end of the telescope and have them perceive the subject radically reduced. Try looking through a toy telescope or binoculars backwards and you’ll see the effect for yourself.

When done this way, it’s called a Step Diminution. You lead your audience down the steps, instead of up them.

When building a case for something, we naturally string together little lists of adjectives and adverbs, causes and consequences, and then run them either in random pairs or groups of three. Listen to others presenting and you’ll hear how common it is.

The secret to size is to make this natural descriptive behavior into a conscious descriptive behavior. Arrange your terms from small to large if you want to enlarge your topic, and from large to small in order to shrink it.

Always be aware of which end of the telescope you’re asking your audience to look through.

For more ideas on shrinking and growing your audience’s sense of scale, check out this post: Because Size Matters

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