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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