Words are sticky. Words are powerful.
Carefully crafted together they can alter perception and understanding
They can be used to motivate, to demonise, and to manipulate our opinions.
When Totalitarian regimes feel threatened, fairly quickly they resort to burning books and banning gatherings where people can meet and share words that might be ‘dangerous’ to the regime.
On a more local level I am sure we are aware that, despite all childhood chanting to the contrary, even more than sticks and stones, words can indeed have a lasting and devastating effect.
But then on a more positive note, it is the uplifting and encouraging words of great political and spiritual leaders that offer inspiration and comfort to millions of people across the earth.
How is this relevant to us as public speakers?
Usually, when we deliver presentations we are also urging, inspiring or motivating our audience to some form of action.
(- because if all we are doing is just passing on information, we could always do that via an email and we probably do not need to be there in person)
The words we choose matter and the best words create lasting pictures, pictures that resonate.
Students of any form of positive thinking and positive mental attitude will know that there are no ‘problems’, only ‘challenges’; no ‘crises’ only ‘opportunities’
The choice of word changes the picture and therefore the attitude.
The old joke goes that in 1812 after the battle of Borodino as Napoleon’s decimated army withdrew from Russia, one of his generals asks him:
‘Is this our retreat from Moscow?’
And Napoleon replies
‘I prefer to regard it as an advance on Paris!’
That clearly never happened! - but the point being that the terms you use to express your ideas will strongly influence how your message is received, interpreted and remembered.
Express your ideas clearly
Government ministers are very good at drawing out the grain of encouragement from a series of disastrous economic figures, trying to convince us in the process that ‘it is all going very well’.
As good speakers, we want to come up with evocative stories and pictures to engage our audiences, but the true power of our presentation is not just what happens during the presentation but how ‘sticky’ the message is and how easily it can be embraced by each audience member and repeated.
Therefore we should always be looking for simple clear images and short resonant phrases that sum up our meaning in a way that our audience can easily grasp and take away to spread further.
That may be as simple as summing up a student’s work using the three w’s of positive feedback,
‘what went well’
or the current slogan for passengers to respond to problems on the trains,
‘See it. Say it. Sorted!
or every bloggers favourite,
‘top 10 tips’
Even more effective are those simple little phrases that not only neatly sum up the speaker’s message but in the process redefine and overwrite the audience’s view of the subject
When Boris Johnson kept referring to Sir Keir Starmer as Captain Hindsight, as well as asserting his view that Sir Keir’s criticisms of government policy having no genuine insight as anyone can be ‘wise after the event’
he was making sure that from now on that every time Keir Starmer’s name cropped up in conversation before any other image emerged in our head, we had this little ‘pop up’ phrase, ‘Captain Hindsight’ invading our head space, calculated to undermine our feelings about Sir Keir.
This can be likened to the language of the school playground, where a clever and usually cruel put-down has the effect of bonding itself so well to the victim that we cannot think of one without thinking of the other.
Another modern master of this technique is of course Donald Trump
It is hard to raise an image of Hillary Clinton in our mind’s eye without the picture being high-jacked by Trump’s moniker ‘crooked Hillary’.
And then there is ‘sleepy Joe Biden’ and Ron DeSantis as ‘Ron de Sanctimonious’.
Mean little put downs, but their rhetorical power is in the way they worm their way into our heads and form then on colour our response to that person.
Tony Blair used the same technique to a more positive end when he referred to Princess Diana as ‘the people’s princess’
Thus in a couple of words not only has he summed up the significance of the woman, but crucially as a technique of public speaking he has created a simple phrase that is easy for us to remember and easy to repeat.
A little Alliteration
Tony Blair’s two words become all the more effective with the simple rhetorical use of alliteration.
It is simple but it works.
There is a reason that Thomas the Tank engine is easy to remember, Harold the Helicopter, Peppa Pig, or for that matter Benjamin Bunny, Sinbad the Sailor and Mickey Mouse.
However, for one of these images to really resonate when used in a speech – whether positively as with Tony Blair or negatively as with Donald Trump, it has to do more than alliterate, it has to have a perceived core of truth in it.
This is why Rishi Sunak referring to Sir Keir as ‘Sir Softy’ somehow does not seem quite as effective as Trump’s acerbic comments.
And even if there is an element of truth in the label, ‘softy’ is not quite as damning or judgemental as ‘crooked’ ‘sleepy’ or ‘sanctimonious’.
The power in these phrases lies firstly
- in their sound, - neat, rhyming or rhythmical, and therefore easy to retain and repeat
- in the clarity of visual image they conjure up
and then to be even more penetrating,
- if the image is humorous, preposterous or in some way ridiculous,
and yet still contains a seed of truth.
I remember experiencing an example of how these sticky little phrases can inadvertently backfire.
I was working with a group of teenagers and as part of a round of introductions, I asked each of the students in turn to:
- stand up,
- say their name, and
- tell us something they loved and something they hated.
One student stood up:
‘My name is Sabrina..
(I cannot remember what she said she loved)
…and I hate it when people call me ‘Sabrina the teenage bitch’
(for those who are not aware, there was a popular TV series called ‘Sabrina the teenage witch’)
Unfortunately, with the same sticking effect of ‘Ron de Sanctimonious’ I was not able to think of her for the rest of the day without the words’ ‘Sabrina the teenage bitch’ popping up into my head.
Rhetoric in everyday speech
I hope you understand I am not necessarily suggesting we should try to fill our presentations with a neat 2 or 3 word moniker, rather my intention is to stress the power of uncovering apt words and phrases, that can capture the essence of the presentation’s message and at the same time embed themselves into the listeners mind.
We do not need to look much further than marketing and advertising to regularly see this in action:
‘Glorious Goodwood’ – are 2 easily remembered alliterating words that encapsulate everything the sponsors want to say about their horse racing meetings: conjuring up images of fun, good weather and excitement.
When Toshiba first launched in the UK, their name was unknown and so the first advertising campaign was designed to embed this new name into public consciousness along with the association that they produced goods that everyone would want to have:
‘Hello Tosh, got a Toshiba?’
What does ‘Krispy Kreme’ say to us about that product?
or on a broader level, the simple visual invitation to ‘Make Money’?
We hear these little phrase so often, we appreciate their neatness, but maybe we are no longer conscious of why they are so effective
If you come away from a financial presentation and your friend asks you what it was about, rather than informing them in a bookish way that it was about ‘generating more income’, you can simply and easily respond, with the infinitely more catchy and sticky
It was about ‘making money’
Easy to say; easy to remember and the message is contained in a clear positive picture.