Public Speaking Tips for Hyperbole
The term hyperbole is one of the few rhetorical words that we still regularly use in our daily language.
‘I could eat a horse’ and ‘I nearly died of embarrassment’ are examples of hyperbole that we might use every day.
Could you eat a horse?. No – but I understand that you are very hungry.
Did you nearly die? No – but I appreciate it must have been very embarrassing.
Hyperbole is an exaggeration for effect and since effective speeches are not usually very subtle, hyperbole is a very clear and dramatic way of making ones point.
(If you really want subtle, read a good novel, don’t listen to good a speech.)
A speech is designed to make a point, to offer guidance, to move the audience to action and so the message coming out of the speech needs to be clear and unambiguous.
If I want to promote a more regular rural bus service, I will be backing up my case with examples of:
fragile older people, lacking mobility, in danger of becoming cut off from society;
or essential workers having to walk 5 miles in the rain to answer an emergency because there was no bus;
or put-upon mothers with small children unable to move freely to the shops and back.
I won’t be offering as examples, greater convenience for healthy older people who are well off and can afford a car, or partygoers who miss the last bus, who can walk the 5 miles on a perfectly well-lit road, on a warm summer’s eve, singing as they go.
There is a basic principle in presentations and storytelling:
‘I need to be part of the problem before I am ready to be part of the solution.’
If the problem does not seem very significant, then I am less likely to be motivated to go for a solution.
And using hyperbole is a good way of ‘dramatising’ the problem to get the audience onside.
However, we do need to be careful when and how we use hyperbole because it can quickly sound hysterical, inaccurate or over-inflated.
A dramatic ‘I nearly died’ is fine to make a point, but might be less convincing if you are trying to persuade me that the situation really was life-threatening.
We also need to be aware of the type of speech we are delivering and the type of audience we have in front of us. Overuse or misuse of hyperbole, rather than working in your favour as a way of highlighting a problem, can have the opposite effect and cause people to reject you and your argument as inflated and unreliable.
So let me offer you…
Millions of great ways to consider hyperbole – well - 10 actually!
To emphasise a point
If you want to propose setting up a task force to clean up the local park, it is quite likely you would say:
‘We need to take action because there is litter everywhere and no one wants to take a walk if they are up to their knees in drinks cartons and old crisp packets.’
Clearly, this will have a more impact than the possibly literal truth that sometimes the park ‘can look a little untidy’
When you are pushing at an open door
When you know that the audience is broadly on your side and you just want to emphasise a point to heighten your case. If I have a room full of local residents who are already partially motivated to take care of their environment, my hyperboles about the state of the park will focus attention and offer them a compelling picture for taking action.
If on the other hand, I was presenting my case to the local council, who are likely to push back because they interpret my proposal as an attack on them, then I would need to be a bit more precise.
‘Litter everywhere?’ they would say. ‘That is completely false. There is none on the bowling green.’
And of course, if I am a populist politician speaking to my ‘base’, I can tell them:
‘We need to curb immigration because all they want to do is undermine our values and take our jobs!’
And I would probably be cheered for saying so! If I had a mixed audience I would probably receive howls and jeers.
To heighten a feeling
In verse, we accept this as poetic licence.
‘An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;’
but it is also acceptable to dramatise an emotion in speech.
If I tell the council that there is litter everywhere, that is measurable and they can counter that with facts of their own.
If I tell the council that I was so horrified by the state of the park that I nearly ‘fainted’, that is my feeling and although it may be hyperbolic, it is not so easy to counter with facts or numbers.
To clarify a message
When the Proclaimers told us that they would walk ‘500 miles’ and then ‘500 more’ they were making sure we understood that they were willing to come a long way. This gesture may be something deep in the Scottish psyche because Robert Burns also expressed a similar message to his love:
‘And I will come again, my luve,
Though it were ten thousand mile.’
To remove ambiguity
Someone has asked for money and it seems generous and morally right to give them some, but at the same time, you are not sure whether you should.
‘No!’, your friend says,
‘Once you start it will never end. They will be back every day asking for more and before you know where you are you will be destitute because you have given all your money away!’
To inject humour
‘My son is always hungry. He clears out the fridge as soon as we have filled it.
And sometimes I get up in the morning to find teeth marks in the furniture.’
The proviso with humour in any context is to be careful that the joke is not at its core offensive or hurtful.
I don’t think any of my sons would be offended by the comment above.
If I were suggesting that they get through money so quickly that I lock all the doors at night so nothing goes missing – that would be less pleasant.
Much comedy is built around hyperbole and similes.
I imagine that the writers of ‘Black Adder’ and ’The Thick of it’
spent long days with sheets of paper headed with phrases like:
‘He is so stupid that…’
‘He is so dense light bends around him’ springs to mind
To keep it simple
All speeches benefit from having messages that are clear and simple to grasp, therefore the construction of the most effective hyperboles are similarly simple to say and easy to understand:
His brain’s the size of a pea
I have a ton of papers to mark
It cost us an arm and a leg
To leave ‘that’ lasting impression
Hyperbole is a tool in the box. It should not be used all the time. For maximum impact, used sparingly it can provide the ‘killer’ image that stays with the audience after the speech is over.
Donald Trump’s ‘mug-shot’ from the Fulton County jail in Georgia can be seen as a type of hyperbole.
Yes, he has been indicted, but that image can now be used by his opponents as making him on a level with the smallest, most dangerous, most petty criminal.
Before Brexit, Amber Rudd commented on Boris Johnson:
‘he’s the life and soul of the party but he’s not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening.’
This sparked off a full discussion on Boris Johnson’s general ‘trustworthiness’,
which of course is corrosive territory for any politician.
Both these examples gain their power from being exaggerations and yet remain close enough to the truth to resonate. They are not extreme examples of hyperbole, but slight exaggerations of the truth for effect.
And then, significantly when the dust settles I walk away with a strong image in my head;
a mug shot of a common criminal, or a predatory man who cannot be trusted.
To aid delivery
As we are considering public speaking rather than poetry a great benefit of hyperbole is that it offers a great opportunity for vocal emphasis and lively delivery
A statement like:
‘She was so angry she was spitting bullets.’
gives much greater scope for dramatic emphasis in delivery than:
‘She was really angry.’
To express a depth of passion
Passion communicates and a well-chosen hyperbole offers a vehicle to express that passion with an image that stresses the depth of emotion you are feeling:
‘I could tear my hair out when I consider the injustice in the world.’
I am passionate about hyperbole because
it can be used
to totally annihilate your opponent’s argument;
and to make the truth of your argument reverberate across the universe
..in fact.. I get so excited when I think about hyperbole that I could hug everyone on the planet.