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.

Five architect’s jewels for your next presentation

by Peter Paskale

Dramatic business presentations don’t require drama. They’re better off without it. Drama is showy and blowy and overstated. It instantly puts the audience on their guard.

Award-winning Canadian architect Sanjit Manku recently described a project that he’d undertaken on behalf of the French jeweller and perfumer Van Cleef & Arpels. His description pulls us gently into a lost-world of couture and design. We start to believe that we’re actually there, amongst a  glamorous global elite. Manku, as you’ll see in the video, uses two tools to achieve this. One of them comprises, to be sure, some impressive post-production work on the video itself, but the second is a good basic use of some concealed jewels of presentation technique.

Manku uses five of these techniques. For future presentations, think of yourself as the central jewel in the middle, and of these techniques as being the setting-stones that can make you shine.

Don’t shout it from the rooftops

Never shout. Manku uses a quiet delivery that draws us into his words and into his world.

The louder your voice, the more an audience will lean away from you. Experiment with reducing your volume just slightly, and you’ll notice how audiences lean-in, and become more focussed.

Use repetition

“Something that we love to do and that we love to explore in our own work.”

“..always evolving….always about creativity……. always about making something”

Repetition techniques are the foundation of public-speaking. On one level, it’s always good to repeat your main themes, but on another level, little micro-repetitions create rhythm and soundbites.

For example – “…government of the people, by the people, and for the people” came to be Lincoln’s most famous quote because of that repetition on the phrase  ‘the people”.

Criss-cross your terms

“…the lives of some of the women who have touched Van Cleef, and how the artists of Van Cleef have touched other people’s lives”

The heart of this phrase is ‘people who have touched Van Cleef and how Van Cleef has touched other people’. It’s the same structure that you might recognise from ‘I work to live – I don’t live to work’.

The phrase picks up its memorability from the cross-over. If I was to create one right here and now, I might say something like “I write for enjoyment, and I hope that you are enjoying my writing”.

Can you create something similar for your next presentation?

Say what something’s not

“…..they’re not objects – they’re emotional pieces.”

“…we hope that we don’t make walls or ceilings or objects either….”

The technical term is apophasis, and it’s when you define the topic by defining what its not. This is especially useful if you need to re-frame somebody’s view of the world. For example: “You’re not looking for the product that is the fastest nor the strongest nor even the most powerful – you’re looking for the optimal balance between all three.”

Overdo the ands and ors

In that previous example, we heard about “walls or ceilings or objects”. There’s one more ‘or’ in that sentence than is quite normal, and it’s a deliberate technique called polysyndeton. By replacing the commas in your lists with lots of ands or ors, then you make the list seem bigger – more powerful.

So, instead of telling your client that you’re going to “improve speed, power, and performance”, tell that that you’re going to “improve speed and power and performance”.

Powerful presentations don’t blast away at the audience like miners dynamiting a cliff. Great presentations finesse the audience, and that depends on the occasional phrases you choose, and the volume at which you use them.

Janet Yellen’s Double-Bluff of Darkness

by Peter Watts Paskale

Speaking slowly and clearly is the best way to help someone to understand you, right?

Wrong. Speaking slowly and clearly, and especially speaking slowly and clearly in a monotone, is the best way to throw someone’s concentration off. And that’s the technique Federal Reserve Chairman, Janet Yellen used this week when attempting to throw Senator Elizabeth Warren off-balance during a financial hearing.

What the Fed Chairman was attempting to bury was the fact that the Federal Reserve is struggling in its duty to audit the disaster-contingency plans of major banks, their so-called “living wills”.

Listen to Chairman Yellen’s responses to Senator Warren’s questions and you’ll hear long multi-syllable words. She never misses the chance to use a complex phrase when a simpler one would have done just fine. You’ll also hear lengthy pauses – there’s a hint of “I’ll say this slowly so that you can all keep up”. We’re seeing a double-bluff approach to slipping something past the audience. One part of the bluff uses language designed to confuse, while the second attempts to make the audience feel dumb about not understanding.

The technical term is “skotison”. It comes from an ancient Greek word that means to darken something, or to obscure, and it’s a perfectly honorable part of a public-speakers weaponry.

It’s the same approach that you’ll have heard described as – “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit”, and the technique that delivered Donald Rumsfeld’s immortal “known knowns…. known unknowns… and unknown unknowns…” By the time the press had finished disentangling the syntax, Rumsfeld had invaded Iraq.

Elizabeth Warren however, responded in the only way that you can to a skotison – she challenged it:

“I’m sorry Chairman, I’m just a little bit confused….”

The skotison strategy relies on the assumption that your opponent will be either too proud or too intimidated to admit to their confusion. Elizabeth Warren however, is neither, and proudly admits that the argument has lost her completely. It’s interesting to wonder what the effect might have been had the Washington press corps shown the same instincts at that Rumsfeld press conference.

The more senior an individual, the more we can reasonably expect them to know how to make themselves clear. If therefore we find ourselves confused, there’s a high probability that it’s because the other party intended us to be so.

It’s one of the oldest rhetorical tricks in the book. If your opponent is using the skotison double-bluff, then remember the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes, state “Hang-on a moment, I’m a little confused”, and it will be miraculously revealed that your opponent has no argument.

When the right words create the wrong message

by Peter Watts Paskale

Addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition, Governor Chris Christie accidentally dropped a geographic f-bomb that left him apologizing to the gathering’s sponsor, leading GOP cash donor, Sheldon Adelson.

And all that poor Governor Christie had done, was to use a perfectly correct term. What went wrong? How is it there are times in public speaking when using the correct words can be fatal to your message?

The political goal of speaking at an RJC event is a simple one: Impress your pro-Israeli credentials on Sheldon Adelson, and the event held at Adelson’s Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas attracted multiple Republican hopefuls. John Kasich of Ohio was there, as was Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Jeb Bush put in an appearance at the fringe, and of course, Chris Christie was center-stage.

Christie gave a passionate speech. Everything was going wonderfully, until an unfortunate reference to “the Occupied Territories” accidentally slipped a non-Kosher item onto the buffet of his pro-Israeli credentials.

Check your editorial style guide and you’ll find that this is the correct term for much of the land disputed between Israel and the Palestinians. Its the correct word. Why therefore did an audible hiss arise from the room, and why did Governor Christie find himself having to apologize for his hideous error?

There are times in public speaking, when the correct term can be decidedly the wrong message.

A speaker’s first goal is to move their audience, and to move the audience in the direction of their argument. They have three tools with which to do this – the logic of their argument, their use of emotion, and their ability to convince listeners that they, the speaker, see the world just as the audience do. This last tool is known as “ethos” – persuading the audience to trust your viewpoint.

It’s here that Governor Christie slipped. For ethos, choice of language is crucial. If your audience uses a specific term to refer to a specific entity, then you had better use either the same term or a close approximation. By using the term “Occupied Territories’ in front of an Israeli interest group, Chris Christie did the opposite.

Good speeches use distinct language. There’s a category of rhetoric called Distinctio which states that when a term is vague, the speaker should clarify it. There are exceptions though, and by using the perfectly correct phrase “Occupied Territories”, Governor Christie obeyed an important law of rhetoric, but forgot an even more important rule of political messaging: “Reflect the interests of the audience.”

During his 2012 presidential run, Mitt Romney fell into the same trap. His attendance at Nascar was a good attempt at ethos: I like Nascar, therefore I’m an ordinary guy like you. His statement while at Nascar however, that he had friends who “owned Nascar teams”, was an example of how it can all go wrong.

Rand Paul meanwhile is highly accomplished at using ethos. His speeches are tailored precisely to the audience. Close attention is paid to turns of phrase. His recent appearance at Berkeley was a case-study.

Paul also obfuscates. He occasionally rambles off in what appear to be artless loops, but those loops are specifically placed to charmingly blur the focus of the audience. Whenever Rand Paul rambles, you can be sure he is acutely aware of a contentious topic lurking nearby. Paradoxically it’s this apparent deviation from message that helps him to remain on message.

How would you refer to the lands contested between the Israelis and the Palestinians? Unless you have a close involvement with the topic, I’m sure you might use phrases such as “Gaza”, or “the West Bank’, or maybe “Palestine”. The phrase  “Occupied Territories” doesn’t exactly trip-off the tongue. It has the same tenor as Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – the sort of name that could only be created by committee.

That’s why I’m sure this wasn’t a case of Chris Christie mis-speaking. I’m sure that this was scripted, and scripted by a speech-writer who first did their due diligence by confirming precisely the right phrase, but then blew the speech out of the water by forgetting who the audience was going to be.

Yes there is always a correct way to refer to something, but no it isn’t always a good idea to use it. In all types of speaking, whether place names or industrial jargon, the first base needs to be finding out not which words the dictionary uses, but which words the audience use.

Make those words your own, and the audience will follow.

 

Immigration reform: Nancy’s hurling lemons – here’s how John can make lemonade

by Peter Watts Paskale

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Speaker John Boehner might want to remember that advice when Nancy Pelosi unveils her discharge petition for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill at a press conference tomorrow morning.

Immigration reform is a difficult topic for John Boehner’s caucus in the House. That’s exactly why Nancy Pelosi is so dramatically raising it and is also precisely why Mr. Boehner wishes that she wouldn’t.

It’s not all bad news for Boehner though. There are specific communication measures that he can take to escape from the political corner Mrs Pelosi is attempting to push him into. Here’s what to look for in a considered GOP response:

Step One: The Silent Judo Throw

In rhetoric there’s a technique called concessio. This basically means “agree with your opponent”. It’s very hard for somebody to stay on the offensive when the other side just agreed with them.

Debaters think of this as a judo throw because just like in the martial art, it takes your opponent’s momentum and uses it against them, so that they overbalance.

The question is: Where exactly should John Boehner agree with Nancy Pelosi?

Step Two: Find the Common Ground and Agree With It

In whatever Nancy Pelosi says at tomorrow’s press conference, there will be areas where John Boehner can agree – even if it’s only in a single sentence. For example, if somewhere Pelosi makes a statement such as “Immigration policy is a mess”. That’s a sentiment that Boehner can readily endorse.

Concessio will have been achieved, and the Pelosi momentum will have been temporarily checked.

Step Three: Understand the Hidden Common Ground and Appear to Ignore It

The next step would be invisible to the watching public, but John Boehner’s areas of agreement with Nancy Pelosi might go deeper than we think. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Pelosi has three main goals:

  1. Re-energize the stalled debate about immigration reform
  2. Put John Boehner into a difficult position with his own caucus
  3. Provoke Tea-Party types into some potentially vote-losing statements

John Boehner won’t be in agreement with points one and two, but point three could be quite interesting for him. The GOP has several primaries coming up where the Tea Party are challenging establishment figures – Mitch McConnell for example. Something that provokes those candidates into regrettable statements that render them unelectable could be just what John Boehner quietly welcomes.

Rather than causing a GOP headache, Mrs. Pelosi’s strategy could go some way to removing a couple of them – if the response is properly handled.

Step Four – Attack the Stratagem, not the Policy

There is a large difference between the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill that Mrs Pelosi is promoting, and the means by which she’s doing it. The GOP response can move into it’s attack phase by disagreeing not with the policy itself, but with the stratagem of using a discharge petition, which is after all, something of a procedural firework aimed at the media.

Step Five – Seize the Initiative

Unlike for Nancy Reagan with her anti-drugs message of “Just say No”, the same statement is regrettably not an option for John Boehner when it comes to immigration reform. If the Republican’s have any new ideas about immigration, then this would be a good time to indicate them. Nancy Pelosi will have provided the news platform – John Boehner will then have the opportunity to take advantage of it.

Step Six – Carefully Consider the First Responder

Speaker Boehner himself might not be the best person to lead the response. The immigration debate is a highly charged one, so it would be smart to use a speaker who is already seen as being positively invested from the GOP side. Marco Rubio could be a good choice, or even GOP elder statesman John McCain.

Tomorrow’s press conference need not be the Boehner-trap that it first appears. The damage done will depend entirely on how he directs the response – and that is directs the response, not delivers it. If handled correctly, the GOP lemonade stand can come out of this with increased credibility on a difficult topic. If handled badly though, the party, and Mr Boehner, can expect to be spitting out lemon pits from now until the mid-terms.

The question is, can John Boehner and his top-team avoid taking a great big bite from the lemon that Mrs. Pelosi is about to so gleefully offer them?

With the right communication plan, it’s completely possible. We’ll find out tomorrow.

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