Syncrisis turns attack into advantage

by Peter Watts

“One man’s meat”, as the old saying goes, “is another man’s poison” and by the same token, one brand’s insult can become another brand’s praise. It’s all down to how you frame the debate.

Take “ObamaCare” for example!

Please don’t hang-up! No matter which side of the political debate you find yourself sitting on. My purpose is neither to praise nor to condemn, but to explore how the term ObamaCare demonstrates that when under attack, your best line of defence can be to enthusiastically agree with your attacker.

At the outset of the health care debates the Republican Party seized an early initiative by re-branding President Obama’s Affordable Care Act as ObamaCare, a title as catchy as the title Affordable Care Act was bland.

The President’s team initially tried to ignore the tag of ObamaCare, but the more the White House tried to ignore it, the more dominant the phrase became within the media and the country. The White House’s own deny and defend strategy started to fuel the Republican offensive.

The Obama team had placed themselves into a classical rhetorical bind that many presenters can find themselves in, where an opponent has successfully defined the terms of the debate and managed to negatively define your position. If debate were chess, then this would be check, and there’s only one route out: a technique called syncrisis.

In his book “Thank you for arguing”, Jay Heinrichs describes syncrisis as being a form of verbal jujitsu that takes an opponent’s attack and turns it on it’s head by redefining the terms of the insult.

For example, one brand might decide to attack another as being boring. On the surface nobody likes to be thought of as boring, but if however we redefine  “boring” as meaning tried and tested, reliable, and thorough then actually maybe we rather like boring. Maybe boring becomes something to be proud of!

In this way a pejorative becomes co-opted as a compliment.

Realizing that the Republican’s had stolen the media agenda the White House used syncrisis to re-take possession of the term ObamaCare. The break-out came in a 2012 speech in Denver when President Obama stated:

“The Affordable Care Act…. also known as ObamaCare. I actually like the name ObamaCare…. because I do care.”

It was the first time he had used the term in a speech, and ever since, he and his team have been steadily working to not run-away from the term ObamaCare, but to embrace it.

For die-hards on either side of the debate, ObamaCare will always be devoutly good or appallingly bad. Those folks aren’t the people that the warring camps need to influence though; it’s amongst the undecided where battles and elections are won or lost and techniques like syncrisis, that reframe an argument,  can neatly turn your opponent’s attack into your own emphatic positive.

It takes a speaker who has their wits about them, but if you find yourself, your brand, or your message attacked, then the best form of defense can often be embrace.

Obama v. Romney: Blogging the 2012 US Presidential Debates


by Peter Watts

The ancient Romans and Greeks gave us the skills we today call Public Speaking. They also brought us the arena. For the Greeks, that arena contained the high ideals of athletics. For the Romans, it was frequently filled with something a lot more bloody.

This week, we will see those traditions of the ancient world resonate in the gladiatorial collision of the US Presidential Debates.

Watched, analysed, and regarded as more vital than the Party Conventions, the debating action might not have the physical blood of the Roman arena, but it will still be a fight to the death. As Richard Nixon famously discovered when he came up against John F. Kennedy, a poor performance means the end of not just a political campaign but the beginning of a political obituary.

This is reality TV with a vengeance, and doing justice to blogging the debates is a blogging mission bigger than any lone blogger, which is why there are two of us teaming up for it.

For the next three weeks, the Make A Powerful Point blog hosted by Gavin McMahon and The Presenters’ Blog hosted by Peter Watts will be joining forces. The day after each debate we’ll be looking at a specific aspect of the art of debating and then putting forward our own unique take on how the contenders did. We’re even going to try to score them and see if we can pick a winner.

Ah yes, a winner. In the interests of fairness, we’re also going to take it in turns to “spot” the different candidates, so here’s the schedule:

Wednesday 3rd October: Domestic Policy Debate in Denver
In Mitt Romney’s corner: Peter
In President Obama’s: Gavin

How did the candidates do at the fine art of “staying on message”? This comes down to the way they handle and frame their answers to the questions. A well turned answer will respond to the question while subtly boomeranging back around to the candidate’s chief talking points. A badly turned answer will have the Twitterverse twanging and host Jim Lehrer dragging the candidate back to the subject at hand.

Tuesday 16th October: Town-Meeting Format in New York
In Mitt Romney’s corner: Gavin
In President Obama’s: Peter

For the Town Meeting debate, we’ll be looking at the candidates’ use of language, and in particular how well they manage to move against their accepted presenter-types. Can President Obama sound Presidential rather than Professorial, and can Mitt Romney leave behind his wooden, PowerPoint-driven Management Consultant mode.

In particular we’re going to explore how the candidates use techniques such as metaphor, simile, and repetition to get their points across. This is a Town Meeting after all, and we’re looking for some down-home use of plain speaking, with just the occasional rhetorical flourish.

Monday 22nd October: Foreign Policy in Boca Raton
In Mitt Romney’s corner: Gavin & Peter
In President Obama’s: Gavin & Peter

This one’s the final show down, and someone might have their back against the wall, or we might have a one-all draw! We’ll also have had two debates behind us to get insights into how the candidates battle against each other.

Having seen how the candidates have performed to date, we’ll know where each is strong and where each is weak. Our final analysis topic will be on how the candidates manage to maximise those strengths, and to cover their weaknesses.

Each of our posts will be online the afternoon after the debate. We hope you’ll join us with your comments and thoughts on how the candidates have performed.

We’re looking forward to the debates, both on the stage, and here on the blog.

About us:

Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

Peter is a writer, trainer, and speaker on all aspects of Presenting. He coaches business executives in how to be at their best when on their feet. His bi-weekly blog, The Presenters’ Blog, examines core disciplines of public speaking and looks at how those disciplines are being illustrated by news stories around the world. You can follow his Twitter feed on @speak2all

A Note about bias. Neither of us can or will be voting in the US elections, but, like all humans, we have biases. We will try to look at the debates purely from a point of view of speaking, messaging and presenting, to see what the rest of us -— those that will never run for President, can learn.

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