Public Speaking Tips for Isocolon
The first question of course is:
‘What is an isocolon?’
In the simplest terms it is the use of phrases or segments of equal measure that sound good next to each other:
‘Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.’
You will hear them a lot in songs and as in this example from the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ also in prayers or communal chants, but you will also hear them in speeches as a way of summing up or setting out a key theme or message:
‘Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.’
It creates balance in sound and rhythm and is therefore very good for setting up two ideas to stand out and be examined next to each other.
Often it is two phrases of similar length, structured in such a way to highlight their difference or to emphasise their similarity
Buddy Holly simply expressed an idea:
‘The sun is out, the sky is blue’
It is four syllables followed four syllables, so the balance is there already.
And once you adopt this structure, you can start to create even more striking or memorable lines by using it in conjunction with other rhetorical ideas.
Each of those short phrases in Buddy Holly’s song contains ‘the….is…’ which increases the simple, pleasing, almost childlike rhythmic effect.
He also chooses two one-syllable words starting with the letter ‘s’: ‘sun’ and ‘sky’, which adds another charming level of neatness.
Thus the combined image is one of harmony, because in most happy landscapes, ‘sun’ and ‘sky’ usually belong together – especially when the sky is ‘blue’
And the implied sense of wonder is increased by contrasting the vowel sounds in ‘out’ and ‘blue’.
because they mimic the frequently heard sounds of wonder and delight:
‘wow’ and ‘oooh’
Now, did Buddy Holly sit down with a book of analysis to come up with that line? Probably not!
He probably had no aspiration towards literary analysis.
He probably just found the words, put them together, and noted which ones sounded good together.
He found a way to express what he wanted to say, in a way he wanted to say it.
And he did not stop there with:
‘The sun is out, the sky is blue’
because the next line:
‘There's not a cloud to spoil the view’
acts as a further isocolon to the first line.
The two full lines have a similar rhythm with the rhyme of ‘blue’ and ‘view’ at the end of each.
What are we supposed to make of this as speakers?
After all, we are Public Speakers, not poets, and too much obvious rhyme and rhythm in a speech can sound contrived.
Nevertheless, a quick neat slogan that captures your message in a way that the audience can remember after the speech is over can be very effective:
‘Feeling alone? Pick up the phone.’
That sort of phrase would be useful as a take-away message in a talk about loneliness.
You would deliver your examples, your case studies, and statistics on loneliness, and then, having defined the perils and ills of loneliness, you could neatly sum up your call to action with that simple memorable phrase.
It is a particularly useful technique for politicians who want to give their supporters a nice simple phrase to chant as they go down the road at the end of the evening:
‘No taxation without representation.’
I remember there being an element of controversy when I was involved in judging school student speech contests, because often a student would come on stage and deliver a fantastic message, all packaged and memorised in the form of a rap. However a rap or a verse, glorious as it may be, is not a speech. A speech (hence the name) should sound and feel more spontaneous and natural, like the spoken word. In the end, we had to remember we were judging a speech contest, not a poetry or performance contest.
And even though the performance was brilliant – it was not a speech!
So any contrived lines should only be used for very special moments in a speech, for the key messages, and used as a way of delivering that message memorably with resonance.
What I am asking you to do, as speakers, is to be aware of the sounds and rhythms of the words around you as you prepare your presentations, and occasionally stop and note when a particular form of words sounds good together.
Is this a neat, memorable way of summing up what I want to say?
This is happening all the time.
A lot of these neat and memorable phrases are hiding all around us in plain sight.
They are everywhere!
Certainly in poems, certainly in songs,
and most certainly in the daily bombardment of advertising.
(I won't go back to analyse it, but I hope you appreciate what I have just done in those two lines above.
They have a rhythm – a little bit of isocolon – and yet they still sound close enough to normal speech, so as not to sound too contrived – but they manage to capture my point in a neat balanced way).
Balanced little isocolon phrases are all around us.
Think of those slogans that, over the years, have wormed their way into your ear:
‘Have a break. Have a Kit Kat.’
‘For Everything Else, There’s MasterCard.’
‘Once you pop, you can’t stop.’
Some tips on isocolon
Find your key message
Most things come down to defining a key message.
What am I trying to say in this speech?
Once you are clear about your point it becomes easier to contrast what you want to say with the opposite
‘Loving your neighbour in theory is easy.
Loving your neighbour in practice is harder.’
(Loving se against easy and hard)
If I am crafting a speech around love and tolerance, this neat little isocolon nicely sums up the problems of applying tolerance on a day-to-day basis.
‘As the migration numbers go up
The people’s compassion goes down.’
I could use this as an argument for keeping migration numbers down, or I could use it as an observation that our humanity is waning under the pressures of immigration
Look for points of contrast
Find the point of contrast, ‘the fork in the road’ and use that as a way of highlighting the message.
In the first example above I have used the contrast between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ and have backed it up with the contrast between ‘easy’ and ‘hard’.
In the second example I looked for the contrast between up and down.
Look for points of similarity
By setting up the points of similarity, you can highlight the points of difference..
John and David both have three children.
John spends most of his weekend in the park,
while David spends most of his weekend in the pub.’
It is the similarity that sets up the point of contrast
Use similar word forms
Most of the examples I have given up to now have been in pairs: either – or.
Isocolon can also benefit from more than two similar phrases.
‘He loves singing, he loves dancing and he loves acting.’
The rhythm of the ‘ing’ words is more pleasing to the ear than:
‘He loves to sing, he loves dancing, and he acts a bit as well.’
Use isocolon for emphasis
I can use the John and David example above to emphasise the difference between the two men and the structure allows me to put particular verbal emphasis on the two men’s names when I am delivering it. The similarity of form gives me greater freedom to verbally stress the key difference between John and David as I stress 'park' and 'pub'.
And to finish I will leave you with a quote from Joseph Stalin, which probably neatly sums up everything about his beliefs about power and democracy and the functioning of the Soviet state:
‘Those who cast the votes decide nothing,
Those who count the votes decide everything.’