Public Speaking Tips for creating Contrast
‘President Barak Obama; the first black man in the White House.’
It is a striking phrase because it manages to express the significance of Barak Obama’s achievement within the simple contrast between ‘black’ and ‘white’, where black refers to the individual’s heritage and white refers to the national seat of authority. The words ‘black’ and ‘white’ register with us first, and then we start to appreciate their greater relevance and meaning.
One major difference between a speech and a written essay or, for that matter, a novel is that an essay or novel has been written to be read and re-read sometime in the future, whereas a speech is designed to be delivered at a specific moment for a specific occasion.
An essay or novel only starts the moment you pick it up, you can pause while you do something else, then pick it up again later and if, as I am inclined to do, you go off into an occasional dream in the middle, you can always go back and re-read the bit where your mind wandered.
A speech is more like a live concert. It starts at a set moment in time. If you are late, you miss the opening and if your phone vibrates in the middle, you are going to miss something.
These days there are ways of recording, and even pausing apparently live events, however when Cicero was standing in the Roman forum, not only did he not have the benefit of a sound system to record his words, but he also had no hand-outs for his audience to take away, he certainly had no PowerPoint to lean on and he knew that in order to get his message across in a memorable way, he had to use all the techniques and schemes available to a speaker to would ensure his audience retained his key words and message once the speech was over.
One of the most effective schemes and one that is easy to use - because it is easy to recognise - is ‘antithesis’, which simply means drawing contrasts, finding opposites, or placing opposing ideas or images next to each other.
- hence the quote about Barak Obama above.
The fact that he became the first African American to hold the position of president of the United States of America was obviously a very significant moment in history, but its significance is made all the more striking and memorable by placing him in our minds in front of the White House, the seat of government, and by framing it within the contrasting words ‘black’ and ‘white’ with all the social and political association those words imply.
In fact, you might even make a case for a further implied visual contrast between the small ‘humble’ man of flesh and blood and the large, imposing building of bricks and columns.
Similarly, Betrand Russell’s observation that
‘War does not determine who is right only who is left.’
gains its force by placing the words ‘right’ and ‘left’ next to each other. And the contrast becomes even more engaging as we realise that not only is he placing those two opposing words next to each other, but that he is playing on the double meanings of ‘right and wrong’ and ‘right and left’.
This forces the listener to pause, acknowledge the truth, the aptness as well as the surprise contained in those words, and as a result they become more deeply embedded in the listener’s memory.
Therefore, when the listener is asked by a friend the following day, what was Bertrand Russell talking about last night, the theme and the message of the talk are easily remembered, because they can recall a clever use of language that not only summed up what the speaker wanted to say but did it in a way that was striking and memorable.
Tips for using contrast in a presentation
Us and Them
The best way to set out what you believe, what you stand for, or who you are is to compare or contrast your position with ‘theirs’.
If you want to stress your honesty, then you might draw attention to their lies;
if you want to emphasise track record, you might contrast that with their inexperience;
if you want to stress humanity you might contrast that with their callousness.
As I write this, the England Women are about to play the Spain Women in the football World Cup final in Australia, and sports reporters are making a big play on the unity and togetherness of the England camp, as opposed to the disunity and conflict in the Spanish camp.
Ronald Reagan made a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in America in 1983, citing the Soviet Union as the ‘evil empire’. He understood his audience because evangelical Christians are probably very familiar with concepts of ‘good and evil’, ‘saved and damned’ and so Reagan was using language that knew would resonate with his audience.
When he claims the Soviet Union is the ‘evil empire’ – by implication and contrast, what does that make us?
Similarly, in the run-up to the 2024 US Presidential elections, the totally committed Donald Trump supporters are so convinced of their man’s innocence and virtue, that anyone opposing him is to be characterised as prejudiced and corrupt.
Mark Bezos delivers a popular TED talk on his experience as a volunteer firefighter and therefore the value of contributing to society. He describes a scene where a group of volunteers arrives at a fire to receive their assigned tasks. He identifies another volunteer as his ‘nemesis’ – so there is a contrast set up already, and to reinforce that he says:
’Let’s call him… Lex Luthor.’
For those of you who do not know the Superman stories, Lex Luthor is Superman’s nemesis.
So if Mark Bezos’ ‘nemesis’ in this story is being called ‘Lex Luthor’, who does that make him?
This is done with humour and is deliberately exaggerated for effect, but by doing so Bezos is able to capture that sense of life-and-death competitiveness that we sometimes get caught up in even on minor occasions.
And to exploit the contrast further and to let us know whose side we should be on, he describes Lex Luthor as some ‘lawyer or money manager’ – i.e. a type of job that is guaranteed to remove any sympathy we might have for him! Therefore, as the story unfolds, we know we are totally on the side of Mark Bezos and unquestioningly against ‘Lex Luthor’
Dramatise the contrast that is already there
Anyone who has heard the pre-match build-up to a cup football match between Manchester United and a non-league opponent will not have to wait long for a reference to David and Goliath. We will be told that one player on the Manchester United substitutes bench cost more than the whole non-league first team, that Manchester United flew to the match on a private jet, while the non-league team came on public transport; that when the game is over the United multimillion pound centre-forward will go back to his mansion and have a day off before training on Tuesday, while the non-league centre-forward will go back to his rented flat and will be back at work delivering letters early the next day.
If there are contrasts already apparent in your subject, develop them, dramatise them.
Use of language
Stress the contrast by using the simple language of opposites: big v small (in fact why not ‘enormous’ and ‘tiny’?), black v white, right v wrong, true v false, ambitious v lazy, active v passive, best v worst.
How much more compelling will a speaker’s argument be if rather than proposing:
‘We could probably do this, which I think I favour, or we could do that’,
‘The best thing we can do now is…while the worst thing would be…’
On most occasions a presentation should provide clarity and direction, therefore we can set out that path through clear contrasting imagery.
Use of structure
The structure within a presentation can be used on different levels. We could be talking about the overall structure of the presentation, where you might set out the ‘bad’ in the first half of the presentation and the ‘good’ in the second half of the presentation; or you could pair up your contrasts as you go through for more dramatic impact.
Ecclesiastes in the Bible tells us:
‘To everything, there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun….
…a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance….’
and the list goes on!
Is it any surprise that many great speakers have church backgrounds?
Compare and Contrast
Anyone who remembers back to their school English language exams will remember the dreaded essay title:
‘Compare and contrast…’
When Abraham Lincoln told us:
‘You can fool some of the people all of the time
and all of the people some of the time,
but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.’
he makes sure that the very syntax and arrangement of the words are similar to further heighten the difference in the meaning between each line
Most contrasts have suitable accompanying gestures built into them: big and small; on the one hand, on the other; we here, you there; now, later.
If I am going to deliver that line about Bark Obama, how can I use my voice to support the contrast?
I could emphasise ‘black’ and ‘white’
I could pause after ‘black man’ to set the phrase apart and use the rest of the sentence as a completion of the contrast.
I could create a contrast in my tone of voice to support the contrasting images.
As you appreciate, there are many possible approaches.
My point is: think about how you would want to say it.
Do you want to set up the contrast to such a degree that you would choose to move to different parts of the stage to represent the contrasting ideas?
Contrast the context
If you want to contrast a virtuous person with a dishonest person, you could reinforce the contrast in personality or behaviour by creating contrasting scenes to set them up against each other:
the virtuous person in the context of a simple humble home, conservatively dressed, time spent on their own or in support of a deserving other, as oppose to
The dishonest person, living in a flashy home that they have not earned, dressing to show off, surrounded by hangers on and only interested in themselves.
You could even choose to contrast the weather, the time of day, the time of year.
Consider your audience
Ronald Reagan probably knew he was on a winner with ‘evil empire’ and evangelicals.
Would he have used the term if there was any danger that his audience could in fact have regarded America as an ‘evil empire’?
Would Mark Bezos’ nemesis be some ‘lawyer or money manager’ if he was addressing an audience of bankers?
A strong contrast is brilliant for clarity, but it is usually an oversimplification.
When the UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman characterised ‘Just stop oil’ protesters as coming from:
‘the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati'
could that be seen as a crass oversimplification?
Probably, but amongst her supporters she made her point.
The rhetorical term antithesis
- look for contrasts to highlight and dramatise
- make clear whose side we should be on
- support the contrast with syntax, voice and gestures