Showing posts with label rhetoric. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rhetoric. Show all posts

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Being more persuasive in speech: anaphora

There are a host of rhetorical techniques known since antiquity to make you more persuasive and compelling as a speaker. Anaphora is one of them and it's in my top three convincing rhetorical techniques. It’s been used by everyone from Charles Dickens to Winston Churchill to Chance the Rapper. I’m going to tell you what it is and how you can use it.

Anaphora is the repetition of the same phrase at the start of adjacent clauses in a sentence or paragraph. Here’s an example from Charles Dickens' ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. The anaphora is in bold.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…
-Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

Another good example of anaphora is the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling, here’s an extract:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
   If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
   And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
   Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,…
-If – Rudyard Kipling

Pretty much the entire poem is anaphora which he uses to build towards his point at the end.

Anaphora works by the repetition of the same words to link ideas into a coherent and memorable flow. It reinforces the point in an elegant way.

As you've seen, anaphora is effective in writing, but it also works well in speeches too. It can have a compelling and convincing effect as we’ll see. I’m going to play you an example of one of the most famous examples of anaphora. This time, I’ll give you some context for the speech before providing the audio link.

The year is 1940. France had fallen to the Nazi hordes and the disaster at Dunkirk had just occurred. The British people expected Hitler’s armies to cross the channel and invade imminently. Britain stood alone.

The place is the House of Commons in London. MPs too expected an invasion and expected Britain to fall. They knew many of their constituents, families, and friends would die.

And the person is Winston Churchill, the new Prime Minister. His job was to rally the nation and prepare the country for invasion and an existential fight.

Here’s the most famous piece of his speech - YouTube. Listen to the anaphora.

(Image credit: WikiMedia Commons - open source)

We shall fight… we shall never surrender.

The effect of this speech was electrifying. A friend told Churchill his speech was worth 1,000 guns. Opposition politicians openly wept and pledged support for Churchill. And this speech changed the national mood from one of defeat to one of defiance in the face of disaster.

So how might you use anaphora? Let’s imagine you’re giving a talk where you’re trying to persuade your company to spend resources on training, you could say:

The research shows that investing in training gives returns on staff retention, recruitment, and efficiency.

Or you could use anaphora to say:

Investing in training leads to higher staff retention and greater employee engagement,
Investing in training makes it easier to recruit good-quality people,
Investing in training lets us do our jobs more efficiently,
It’s time to invest in training.

I’ve used anaphora in speeches and in writing. You can too. It’s a great device to use when you have multiple points you want to make and you need to link them together.

Let’s listen to how Chance The Rapper used anaphora to link his points together: YouTube. The 'Oh now' anaphora allows him to construct a series of lyrical points and link them together with the same structure to make them work together in a catchy way. (As an aside, rap and hip-hop artists make incredibly inventive use of language - something they never get credit for.)

If anaphora is good enough for Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, and Chance The Rapper, surely, it’s good enough for you too?

Reading more

This blog post is one in a series of posts on practical rhetoric. Here's the series:

Saturday, April 11, 2020

How to be more persuasive when you speak: using ‘catchphrases’

One of the most famous speeches in history used ‘catchphrases’ for incredibly powerful effect; you’ll know the speech by its catchphrase alone. I’ve seen modern American politicians use the same rhetorical technique to heighten energy and to unify and drive home their message. You can use it in your speeches too; I’m going to show you how and why.

Like many rhetorical techniques, this one relies on the considered use of repetition. Specifically, it’s the repetition of a phrase or sentence throughout a speech as a kind of catchphrase.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re an engineering leader and you’re trying to convince your team to take data security seriously. Using this technique, your speech might look something like this (catchphrase in bold).

If we lapse in securing our data, our company can be fined large amounts of money, putting our livelihoods at risk. By being secure, we prevent this from happening.

Security is our security.

If we have a data breach, our reputation will be sullied and it’ll be harder for us to win new business, with all that entails.

Security is our security,

Companies have suffered data breaches of employee data too, putting social security numbers and other personal information out on the web for the highest bidder.

Security is our security,

Speakers use this approach to draw the audience’s attention to a key theme again and again and again, they use it to unify and focus a speech. It drives the point home in a forceful, but elegant way.

My real example is by an influential African-American Christian preacher. He repeats one of the most famous lines in rhetoric as a catchphrase again and again. You’ll know it as soon as you hear it – in fact, you already know the words. Here's the YouTube link to the appropriate section.

(Image credit: WikiMedia Commons, open-source)

Here’s part of his speech, the catchphrase is in bold.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

Martin Luther King repeats ‘I have a dream’ to bring the listener back to his point and to reinforce his message. ‘I have a dream – paragraph – ‘I have a dream’ – paragraph – ‘I have a dream’ - paragraph. He unifies his speech and drives home his point. (King’s speech is rhetorically interesting in other ways too; he uses a wide variety of techniques to make his points.)

I’ve done my homework on rhetoric and searched for this method in the books on techniques from antiquity. As far as I can tell, this technique is known as epimone. It's not one of the famous techniques and I think it's very underrated.

It seems to be used a lot in African-American Christian preaching and has spread to American politics from there. (As an aside, I've looked for resources on the analysis of rhetorical techniques used in African-American churches, but I've not been able to find any good ones. If anyone knows of some good analysis, please let me know.) I've heard a well-known American politician use it and I suspect we'll be hearing it more as we head into election season. Bear in mind that politicians use techniques like this deliberately because they know they work.

Here’s my recommendation for using this technique; if you’re trying to persuade or emotionally influence an audience, use it to hammer home your message and provide a simple unifying concept for people to take to heart.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

How to be a compelling speaker: creating applause and tricolon

You can learn how to be a compelling speaker and, with practice, you can learn how to trigger an audience to applaud when you make your points. The techniques to grip an audience were known in antiquity and speakers have used them throughout history to great effect to further their interests. You too can learn these techniques and apply them in your talks.

In this blog post, I'm going to focus on one very powerful technique: tricolon. This is my absolute favorite of all the rhetorical devices. It’s almost magical how well it works; in fact, it’s closely related to something called an applause trigger that I’ll come to later. Tricolon has been used by almost all the major political orators of the last 50 years as we’ll see.

At its simplest, tricolon is a three-part list. Here’s an example:

Government of the people, by the people, for the people.
-Abraham Lincoln

(Image credit: WikiMedia Commons. Public domain.)

Tricolon is literally just a list of three phrases with similar grammatical and word structure. Here’s another example:

We can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.
-John F Kennedy

Putting your points in a list of three seems to elevate your argument and make it much more memorable. Three-part lists are everywhere for a reason. In western cultures, three seems to have a magnetic effect – for example, we give gold, silver and bronze medals; we say snap, crackle, and pop; and we learn of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, tricolon is so powerful, sometimes speakers even add ideas to lists to make three-part lists, or chop down lists of four to three.

Orators have figured out that by using three-part lists (tricolon) and managing their voice and gestures, they can sometimes trigger an audience to applaud. That’s what’s called an applause trigger. There are a handful of rhetorical techniques known to be applause triggers including tricolon, puzzle-solution, and two-part contrasts [Atkinson, Heritage]. It’s extremely hard to pull off an applause trigger and not every tricolon can work as a trigger, but it can be taught. 

A few years ago, I was at a talk on analytics and the topic turned to Microsoft PowerPoint. The speaker introduced his speech coach to make a point. The point was anodyne, but the speech coach phrased it as a tricolon, He increased the intensity of his voice to reach a crescendo on the last of his three points and the audience burst into a strong round of applause as soon as he made his last point. I knew of this technique at the time and I spotted what he was doing as he was doing it; it was really impressive to see him deliver his lines and get the applause he was looking for. Stop for a minute and think about this, a speaker got a strong round of applause by talking about PowerPoint. Do you think you could be trained to do something similar?

I know my audience for these blog posts is well-educated, intelligent, and perceptive. I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘how could something so straightforward and so simple and so easy work so well’? Because your doubt is valid, we’re going to do an exercise.

Barack Obama’s speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention ignited his presidential campaign. In the extract below, I’ve outlined the tricolon and you can listen to the audience's response. Watch the YouTube video and read the extract below - I've structured the text to highlight the tricolon.

When we send our young men and women into harm's way, we have a solemn obligation 
  1. not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they're going, 
  2. to care for their families while they're gone, 
  3. to tend to the soldiers upon their return, 
and to never ever go to war without enough troops to 
  1. win the war, 
  2. secure the peace, 
  3. and earn the respect of the world.

Listen to how Obama uses his voice as he goes through his tricolons. He manages to build up the audience reaction so they applaud at the end of his list. He clearly signals to the audience when it's time to applaud by his use of tricolon and his voice.

Of course, Barack Obama used this speech to propel him from senator, to candidate, to President.

My final example is, in my view, one of the finest political orators of the twentieth century. She didn’t get this good by accident, she was intensively trained and coached – which is an interesting story all by itself. The speaker is Margaret Thatcher. The occasion is her party conference in 1980. Let’s hear a brief burst of her using tricolon (1:34 on the audio on this page).

This week has demonstrated that we are a party united in 
  1. purpose, 
  2. strategy 
  3. and resolve
And later on (27:24):

Soviet Marxism is 
  1. ideologically, 
  2. politically 
  3. and morally bankrupt. 

If you have time, I recommend you listen to some of Margaret Thatcher's speeches regardless of whether you agree or disagree wither her politics. She was a master of rhetorical set pieces and she knew how to use tricolon and other techniques to trigger applause.

It's very hard to deliver a tricolon in a way that triggers applause, but even if you don't use it that way, it's still very much worth your while using it. It makes your arguments sound much more compelling.

In your writing and presentations, you can use tricolon to link ideas together and build an argument. For example, if I were the CEO giving a speech to rally the company, my theme might be the need to perform better than the competition.  I could just say:

The competition exists to take our market from us, we need to perform better than them.

Or I could say:

The competition exists to take our market from us, 
  1. we need to out-innovate them, 
  2. we need to out-deliver them, 
  3. and we need to out-sell them.

Which sounds better to you?


[Atkinson] "Our Masters' Voices: The Language and Body-language of Politics", Max Atkinson, 1984
[Heritage et al] "Generating Applause A study of Rhetoric and Response at Party Political Conferences",

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Presentation advice from a professional comedian

In 2019, I heard a piece of presentation advice I'd never heard before. It shook me out of my complacency and made me rethink some key and overlooked aspects of giving a talk. Here's the advice:

"You should have established your persona before you get to the microphone."

There's a lot in this one line. I'm going to explore what it means and its consequences for anyone giving a talk.

(Me, not a professional comedian, speaking at an event in London. Image credit: staff photographer at Drapers.)

Your stage persona is who you are to the audience. People have expectations for how a CEO will behave on stage, how a comedian will behave, and how a developer will behave, etc. For example, let's say you're giving a talk on a serious business issue (e.g. bankruptcy and fraud) to a serious group (lawyers and CEOs), then you should also be serious. You can undermine your message and credibility by straying too far from what people expect.

One of the big mistakes I've seen people make is forgetting the audience doesn't know them. You might be the funniest person in your company, or considered as the most insightful, or the best analyst, but your stage audience doesn't know that; all they know about you is what you tell them. You have to communicate who you are to your audience quickly and consistently; you have to bend to their expectations. This is a lesson performers have learned very well, and comedians are particularly skilled at it.

If they think about their stage persona at all, most speakers think about what they say and how they say it. For example, someone giving a serious talk might dial back the jokes, a CEO rallying the troops might use rhetorical techniques to trigger applause, and a sales manager giving end-of-year awards might use jokes and funny anecdotes. But there are other aspects to your stage persona.
Let's go back to the advice: "you should have established your persona before you get to the microphone". In the short walk to the microphone, how might you establish who you are to the audience? As I see it, there are three areas: how you look, how you move, and how you interact with the audience.

How you look includes your shoes and clothing and your general appearance (including your haircut). Audiences make an immediate judgment of you based on what you're wearing. If I'm speaking to a business audience, I'll wear a suit. If I'm talking to developers, I'll wear chinos and a shirt (never a t-shirt). Shoes are often overlooked, but they're important; you can undermine an otherwise good choice of outfit by a poor choice of shoes (usually, wearing cheap shoes). Unless you're going for comic effect, your clothes should fit you well. Whatever your outfit and appearance, you need to be comfortable with it. I've seen men in suits give talks where they're clearly uncomfortable with a suit and tie. Being obviously uncomfortable undermines the point of dressing up - to be blunt, you look like a boy in a man's clothes.

How you move is a more advanced topic. You can stride confidently to the microphone, or walk normally, or walk timidly with your head down. If you're stressed and tensed, an audience will see it in how you move. By contrast, more fluid movements indicate that you're relaxed and in control. What you do with your hands also conveys a message. Audiences can see if you have a death grip on your notes or if you're using your hands to acknowledge applause. Think about the stage persona you want to create and think about how that person moves to the microphone. For example, if you're a newly appointed CEO, you might want to establish comfortable authority, which you might try and do by the way you walk, what you do with your hands and how you face the audience.

The moment the audience first sees you is where communication between you and the audience begins. How and when you look at an audience sends a message to them. For example, your gaze acknowledges you've seen your audience and that you're with them. Your facial expression tells the audience how you're feeling inside - a comfortable smile communicates one message, a blank expression communicates something else, and a scowl warns the audience the talk might be uncomfortable. You can also use your body to acknowledge applause, telling them that you hear them, which is an obvious piece of non-verbal communication between you and your audience.

In short: think about the seconds before you begin talking. How might you communicate who and what you are without saying a single word?

Where did I hear this advice? I've been listening to a great podcast, 'The Comedian's Comedian' by Stuart Goldsmith, a UK comic. Stuart interviews comics about the art and business of comedy. In one podcast, a comedian told the story of advice he'd received early in his career. The comedian was saying that after five years of performing, he'd managed to establish his stage persona within a minute or so of speaking. The advice he got was: "You should have established your persona before you get to the microphone."

A good presentation is a subtle dialog between the presenter and the audience. The speaker does or says something and the audience responds (or doesn't). Comedians are the purest example of this, they respond in the moment to the audience and they live or die by the interaction. If communicating your message to your audience is important to you, you have to interact with them - including the moments before you begin speaking. Ultimately, all presentations are performance art.