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

Auxesis and Meiosis. Because size matters

Presentation word choice impacts how customers perceive scale.

by Peter Watts

Will your customer be satisfied with the solution, happy with the solution, or delighted with the solution?

Is the cost involved for the project significant, reasonable, or modest?

We are creatures of size. Whenever something is described, our minds apply a level of scale, from small to large and onwards to gargantuan.

Effective sales presenters take control of that sizing process through their choice of words.

It’s all about your adjectives; the descriptive flavours in your speech.

Let’s take an example. Having had an accident slicing onions for the previous evening’s meal, you walk into the office with a dressing on your hand. A colleague asks you what happened. How do you describe the onion-slicing accident: Was it a nick? Was it a cut? Or was it a gash?

If you chose to use the word “nick” then you are making your injury appear smaller. The technical terms is meiosis. You are using smaller, less punchy words in order to intentionally downplay the significance. Your colleague smiles at you, and walks away.

If you choose the word “gash” however, then you are using the technique of auxesis. Dramatic adjectives make things appear bigger. Your colleague looks horrified and enquires about stitches and hospital visits.

Same injury, different descriptive terms, different audience reaction.

This process of scaling goes on in every human interaction. When presenting, there will be times that you consciously want to influence the direction of that scaling, towards either smaller or larger.

Next time you plan a sales presentation, take a moment to experiment with one or two new adjectives. When you want to make something stand-out in lights, look for a bigger, bolder adjective to do it with. When you want something to recede and appear smaller, use a quieter and more mouse-like adjective.

If you’re stuck for ideas, do a Google search for “adjectives”. There are endless lists out there on the web. Here’s two that I found:

Keep and Share

A good basic list of adjectives that has been divided into topics.

Daily Writing Tips

This website for writers has flashier options, including the fabulous “crapulous” (which contrary to my first instinct appears to mean “immoderate in appetite”). Be a little careful with some of the more unusual adjectives.

You want the audience seamlessly scaling, not reaching for a dictionary.

The Queen’s first speech

by Peter Watts

You’re young, inexperienced, female, and taking over an empire when the only women in the boardroom are usually taking shorthand.

No pressure, but here comes your first major speech.

In her Coronation Speech, the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II displayed royal power combined with technical mastery in how to portray it. When we zoom into one just one small section of the speech, we see the mechanics used to establish that power.

Assertive in a time of change

Society after World War 2 was changing. Old certainties were gone. At just 26 years old, the new Queen needed a speech that would stamp her authority without appearing to be stamping her foot. Any hint in the speech of stiffness or autocracy could have spelt disaster for her reign.

To achieve her goal, the Queen used an amplification technique that would gently yet assertively stake her claim to royal respect.

Amplifying the right to rule:

From Wife, to Mother, to Grandmother, to history, & on to God

The amplification chosen by the Queen came in three phrases:

“Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust. In this resolve I have my husband to support me.
He shares all my ideals and all my affection for you.”

Establishing herself and her husband as new parents to the nation, the Queen describes how they are full of “ideals” and “affection” for their subjects. She is co-opting the terminology of a parent. Looking at the young Queen and her husband who were indeed young parents at the time, it was a metaphor instantly understandable to all.

The Queen then moved to the middle section of the amplification. It is short, but crucial. In it, the Queen tackled head-on the challenge presented by her youthful accession to the throne, neutralising it by emphasising her descent from two supreme examples of feminine Royal power:

“Although my experience is so short and my task so new,
I have in my parents and grandparents an example which I can follow with certainty.”

Whilst her father and grandfather had both been much loved, the immediate association is not of the two Kings, but of the two formidable Queens,Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, who had ruled alongside them.

Today many of us remember Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother as an elderly lady with a penchant for sky blue frocks and matching hats, but the 1950’s knew her as the Queen who refused to abandon London during the war-time bombing of the Blitz. They knew her as the woman who welcomed the bombing of her Buckingham Palace with the words “I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East-End (of London) in the face”. They knew her as the woman so able to mobilise the nation’s passion that Hitler described her as “the most dangerous woman in Europe”.

Queen Mary, meanwhile, had been the Queen’s grandmother. A formidably imperial dowager Queen and Empress, she held the empire together through the chaos of the abdication crisis, when her eldest son gave up the throne for Wallace Simpson.

Dying just weeks before the Coronation, her death-bed command was that the crowning of her granddaughter was not be delayed under any circumstances. Queen Mary was in the hearts of the nation as Elizabeth took the throne.

In mourning for King George VI. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Queen Mary, and the uncrowned Queen Elizabeth II

In that one short line, “I have in my parents and grandparents an example which I can follow with certainty.” the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II marshalled powerful matriarchal guns behind her throne.

The final phrase of the amplification brought her claim to the boil:

“There is also this. I have behind me not only the splendid traditions and the annals of more than a thousand years,
but the living strength and majesty of the Commonwealth and Empire; of societies old and new;
of lands and races different in histories and origins but all,
by God’s will united in spirit and aim.”

These short phrases pile on top of each other to a crescendo combining history, the Empire, and the peoples of the world, before all being topped-off by union with God Himself.

The Queen’s claim to majesty had now been securely laid before the Empire. Starting with the human statement of a wife and mother, the Queen transformed step-by-step into a hereditary monarch as ordained by God.

A classic amplification.

Understated and modest. Crafted and confident.

Fit for a Queen.

%d bloggers like this: