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Chapter 15: Power Language: Turn Everyday Words into Persuasion


Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power.

- Paul Engle

What's the difference between a pleasant, serviceable speech and a great one? Between a speech that does the job and one that makes your heart beat faster? A speech that you listen to politely, and one that persuades you to change your thinking?

By now you know enough to go out and give a good working speech. But why stop at the basics? It's only a few steps more to a speech that has the power to persuade and influence your listeners. The difference between a good speech and a great speech is language.

But don't panic. By language I don't mean grammar or vocabulary but the way you use simple, everyday language. This chapter will show you some of the best ways to make your everyday language both eloquent and persuasive.

Avoid the Passive Voice

Choosing the active voice - instead of the passive voice - is your most important step to a powerful speech. The active voice relies on verbs. "The boy ran" is more powerful than "the boy was seen running." The active voice has a clear subject, and in speeches that subject is usually you. In an active sentence, the subject is "doing" something (for example, The boss vetoed John's idea). In a passive sentence, the subject is receiving the action - something is happening to the subject (for example, John's idea was vetoed by the boss).

Paint a picture in your mind of what you want to say, and choose the brighter, bolder image. Think of it as a movie. Here are two scenes: In the first, Tim comes into a room. He's angry. He wants to complain to someone. He takes out his pen and begins to write. In the second version, the camera pans slowly across the room and settles on a blank piece of white paper. We see someone's hand holding a pen, and words begin to appear on the page. Scene two can be effective, if that's what you're going for, but it you want the audience to get your point immediately, scene one is going to be much more powerful.

The active voice also gives the subject responsibility; the passive voice takes it away. If I use the passive voice and say, "The dishes must be washed before we leave," who is responsible for washing them? It's hard to tell. If I use the active voice and say, "You must wash the dishes before we leave," there is no question that "you" must take the action. You take responsibility by saying "I saw," or "I believe." The passive and impersonal "It has been seen that," rather than "I saw," may remove you from the line of fire, but it makes for boring speeches. If Caesar had spoken that way, his powerful Veni, Vidi, Vici" ("I came, I saw, I conquered") would have been: "The place was arrived at, was observed, and was duly overtaken."

One way to keep your language active is to eliminate verbs that end in "-ing." "I run" is stronger than "I am running." A title such as "How to Run a Meeting" is stronger than "Running a Meeting."

The active voice takes the more direct route to your destination. That doesn't mean you never want to use the passive voice. There may be times when you want to slow the action down, to paint a picture, or go get a different rhythm.

Modifiers Sap Your Strength

Powerful speeches eliminate the words and phrases that weaken language. And these little phrases are everywhere: People use "perhaps" and "I think that maybe" almost without realizing it. Powerless speakers use "It seems like" and "you know." Their language is filled with modifiers like "kind of" and "sort of." Compare the difference between saying "I hope I can get that done for you" and "I know I can get that done for you." One little word can make a great difference. If you feel strongly about something, use strong words. "I think" is not strong. It automatically weakens what follows, even though what usually follows is an assertion. "This is the best solution" is much stronger than "I think this is the best solution."

Social scientists at Duke University have been able to pinpoint a specific pattern that identifies powerless speech. Intensifiers such as very, definitely, and surely do the opposite of what they are supposed to do: They weaken the descriptive adjective that follows by not letting it stand on its own. "The car is fast" is a stronger statement than "The car is very fast."

Powerless speakers also hesitate often, relying on fillers such as "uh," "umm," and "well..." to get them from point to point. They are overly polite, and often use "sir" and "please." Obviously, politeness has its place, but if you are too polite, you seem timid and worried that what you are going to say will offend. And if you seem to have doubts about what you have to say about your subject, your audience won't be far behind.

Monitor the Misplaced Modifier

Modifiers can cause problems in other ways. Pay attention to the placement of words and phrases in your sentences. There is a wonderful old film called "The Thin Man" about a detective named Nick and his wife Nora. At one point Nora tells her husband, "I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids." Nick replies, "It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids." Obviously, the correct way to phrase the first sentence is to say, "I read in the tabloids that you were shot five times." Obviously, the writers purposely misplaced the modifying phrase "in the tabloids" to make the line funny. But you don't want to make the mistake unless you mean to.

Beware the Ponderous Trap

Modifiers may weaken language to the point of forgettable speech, but equally bad is the style of speech politicians and social scientists adopt when they're cornered or simply trying to impress. I call it babblespeak. The essence of this style is using a lot of words that say as little as possible. Unfortunately, this tendency isn't limited to specialists; many people feel they must use big words to make an impression, when, in reality, vivid language is simple and direct.

The good platform speaker avoids this babbling style as if it were poison. To avoid becoming a babbler:

Much of this cloudy language has bureaucratic sources. A plumber in New York wrote to the Bureau of Standards in Washington. He said that he found hydrochloric acid was great for cleaning drains, but was it safe? A bureaucrat answered: "The efficacy of hydrochloric acid is indisputable, but the chlorine residue is incompatible with metallic permanence."

The plumber replied he was glad that Washington thought he was right. He got another reply: "We cannot assume responsibility for the production of toxic and noxious residues with hydrochloric acid." Right, the plumber answered, it's good stuff.

Finally, the Bureau sent the plumber a note saying what it had meant all along: "Don't use hydrochloric acid; it eats the hell out of the pipes!"

The worst thing about this sort of babble is that once you start, it's very easy to fall into its trap. One complicated sentence leads to another and before long, you have a whole speech - but it will be one that audiences will have a tough time listening to.

Use the Right Words - and Words That Are Right for You

Let me emphasize a point I made earlier: Anyone - regardless of his or her vocabulary - can be an outstanding speaker. You don't have to know unusual or complicated words to use power language. The important thing is to use language that is comfortable for you and to use it in a creative, colorful way.

If you do use complicated words, make sure they're completely familiar to you. The president of a football team forgot this rule when he introduced a recently acquired player: "His influence on the state's economy will be inconceivable," he crowed. Then he thought a bit. "I mean incontrovertible. No...inconsequential. Well, here he is." Misusing a word in an attempt to appear learned has led many speakers into a Malapropism: "My wife tells me I'm an invertebrate smoker."

It's not only complicated words that get us in trouble. Politicians are well known for using the wrong word in the wrong place. Mayor Daley (again) once said, "The police are not here to create disorder. They're here to preserve disorder." Many people questioned the intelligence of President George W. Bush when he said things such as, "I know how hard it is to put food on your family," "Will the highways on the Internet become more few?" "I have made good judgments in the past. I have made good judgments in the future," and "The future will be better tomorrow." And then there is the champion of the misused word, former Vice President Dan Quayle, who once said, "Republicans understand the importance of bondage between parent and child."

Sometimes a slip of the tongue is good for a laugh. Kenneth Keating was once invited to give a speech with this charming invitation: "I hope you can come, Senator, because we would all like to hear the dope from Washington." Senator Keating turned that into a classic story and used it repeatedly in future speeches. Will Rogers was one gifted speaker who used the wrong word on purpose very effectively: "In some states they no longer hang murderers - they kill them by elocution." In both cases, the speaker used a word that surprised, and that came at the end of a sentence - a perfect combination for memorable sentences.

Watch Where You Put Your Words

Power comes from powerful phrases; it also comes from knowing where to put those phrases. Good speakers use an influential technique used by trial lawyers - people who sway audiences for high stakes. It's called the doctrine of primacy and recency, and it refers to people's tendency to remember beginnings and endings.

Given this tendency in listeners, effective speakers will put their crucial information at the beginning and end of each sentence, and paragraph, for the entire speech. Whatever comes in the middle tends to get lost. Listeners' concentration is high with the first word, wavers as a statement continues, and is high again with the last word or phrase. If you say the sentence "My boss is fair, observant, considerate, and generous," people will remember fair and generous. Evocative exceptions to this rule are phrases or lists with three parts: "I came, I saw, I conquered" uses the natural rhythm found in trinities. Listen to comics and humorists, whose deliveries often take advantage of the rhythmic properties of balanced sentences.

There is no universal agreement about which position - the beginning or the end - is the most powerful. The doctrine of primacy says lead off with your strongest statement. The recency argument says finish with your most powerful punch. Usually it's a matter of using your strongest point in one place, and your next strongest in the other.

Words That Reverberate

There are two components to creating powerful language: eliminating the words that detract from your message and adding language that, although ordinary, resonates. Great speakers use language the same way songwriters do: They use imagery to create mental pictures, repetition to make ideas stick in your mind, and rhythm to stir your emotions.

The key to power language is to recognize that words have something more than their basic meaning; they have emotional content too. And it's the emotion you're going for. Henry James said the most beautiful words in the English language were summer afternoon. Those two simple words convey a nostalgic picture to almost everyone. And the picture is universally pleasant because most people will remember one idyllic summer's day at the seashore or the ball game, rather than a sweltering journey in a crowded train or bus. The words summer afternoon simply make you feel good.

Even the sound of certain words conveys more than meaning. The word buzz not only means a whirring sound but also sounds like one. Bombastic, bamboozles, blunderbuss, lackadaisical, rambunctious, scalawag - all sound just like their definitions.

Aim for the Emotions

Fear, love, anger, compassion - they all have the power to stir anyone in front of you. If you want to influence your audience you must search for language that has emotional appeal. These appeals don't have to be blatant and obvious; in fact, the best ones are subtle. You can create emotional appeals by using impact phrases - memorable groups of words that shake listeners from lethargy and stay in their minds. Ideally, these phrases touch basic human emotions and help your listeners empathize with your perspective. A fund-raiser for the homeless says, "Think how you would feel if you had no home." An opponent of airline deregulation asks, "Remember how angry you felt the last time your plane got canceled, or you sat on the runway for hours?"

When Abraham Lincoln finished the Gettysburg Address, many listeners had tears in their eyes. But tears are not the only, or even the most important, measure of emotional impact. Laughter is also a basic emotion, and impact phrases can be humorous. Describing his own tendency to procrastinate, one speaker said, "I am rather like a mosquito in a nudist camp: I know what I ought to do, but I don't know where to begin."

Never underestimate rhetoric's ability to move an audience; it's been doing just that for centuries. Gorgias, a Greek who lived in the fourth century B.C., was renowned in Athens for using language so beautiful people thought it was magic. Three centuries earlier, Archilochus, another master of words, had a reputation for caustic phrases. After he spoke witheringly of his in-laws one day, they were so upset by his words that they killed themselves. Although the average businessperson no doubt has less severe reactions in mind, nonetheless it's good to realize that words can and do go straight for the emotions, even in the most routine presentation. Memorable speakers harness the inherent power of words.

The 12 Most Persuasive Words in the English Language

While you're aiming for the emotions, you'll find these words coming to your aid over and over again.

  1. Discover. With shades of childhood treasures, this word conveys excitement and adventure. If you tell the people in your audience that you want to share a discovery with them, you start to make your enthusiasm contagious.

  2. Easy. Many people are basically lazy and will look for a quick, uncomplicated answer. The success of books such as Richard Feynman's Six Easy Pieces: Essential of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher and Mel Klieman's Hire Tough, Manage Easy: How to Find and Hire the Best Hourly Employees are proof of this tendency.

  3. Guarantee. We are all reluctant to try something new because of the risk involved. Take away that fear by guaranteeing a sure thing, and you can sell your audience on the point you're trying to make.

  4. Health. Self-preservation is a great motivator. We gravitate toward anything that will improve our condition or make us feel better.

  5. Love. The thing we can't do without, and the one word that evokes all kinds of romantic fantasies.

  6. Money. People react perceptibly at the thought of making money.

  7. New. Having something new, knowing something new - this 'word has an intrinsic appeal. Speakers are always striving to impart new facts and figures in their presentations.

  8. Proven. Another no-risk word. Proven assures listeners that something has already been tested and given the go-ahead.

  9. Results. This is the bottom line - where you tell people about what they will get, what will happen, what they can expect.

  10. Safety. Unless your audience has a death wish, the idea of safety is very comforting.

  11. Save. Even the wealthiest people shop for bargains. It's not just money that entices; people also want to hear about saving time.

  12. You. I've saved the most important word for last. Persuasive speakers personalize their talks and use this word often. Try to avoid too many personal pronouns - I, we, our - and the anonymity of "today's session." Make it "your session today," and carry that emphasis on your throughout your presentation. You can't stir your audience up if you don't address them directly.

Power Phrases Add Emphasis

Power expressions join power words in their ability to command attention - whether overtly or subliminally. The phrases that follow pique listeners' interest and keep them listening for what's to come: "Here's how you will benefit." "Here are the results you have been waiting for." "This will answer your questions." "I have a new plan to put before you." "You will discover how you can..."

Reach for Vivid Comparisons

All impact phrases use imagery. Imagery helps your listeners understand and remember. When you want to explain an idea, draw a mental picture and then color it in. Your job as a speaker is to get people to imagine, think, and feel. Saying something longed for was as "welcome as a glass of cool water after eating a very hot pepper" conjures up taste, heat, relief, and refreshment in your listeners' minds. Speakers have many verbal tools to paint pictures with, and two of the best are metaphors and similes.

These two popular figures of speech are similar to each other, and most speakers don't find it necessary to distinguish between them. Certainly their purpose is the same: to create a striking, vivid picture with few words. Metaphors and similes transfer the image of one thing to another. "Man is still the most extraordinary computer of all," is the metaphor John F. Kennedy used to describe L. Gordon Cooper. These devices are fast and effective. Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Hitch your wagon to a star" conveys instant advice to the ambitious and to dreamers. A sports writer for the New York Times described Barry Bond as being as warm and fuzzy as a frozen pool ball.

When you do create a metaphor or simile, make sure it is appropriate to your audience and style. And do your best to make it original. A worn-out cliché - "dead as a doornail" or "white as a sheet" - is weak. We have heard it so often that it no longer has impact. Try "dead as a dissected frog" or "white as the tips of a French manicure." Original figures of speech are the ones that attract attention and make the image stick in your listeners' minds. One speaker trying to duck hostile questions at a news conference said, "I somehow feel there's a boomerang loose in the room." That's a good, original metaphor.

Try not to mix up your images. "Now that Jim is back in the saddle, everything will be smooth sailing" is a mixed metaphor that paints a confusing picture of cowboys on the high seas.

A metaphor is a more direct, less subtle version of a simile. "Power is poison" and "Room for improvement is the biggest room in the house," are short, sharp metaphors. A simile compares unlike things, usually with connecting words such as like, as, or is. "He keeps himself in the public eye like a cinder" is a perfect, ear-catching simile. Here's a vivid one: Truman Capote once said, "Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go."

People use metaphors and similes in virtually every speaking situation. Charles de Gaulle used one to make a political statement: "Treaties are like roses and young girls. They last while they last." I once heard a woman address a group for the second time; she said, "My stories are like good wine and good women - they improve with age."

Another useful figure of speech that creates magnificent imagery is hyperbole, which is purposeful exaggeration. "He could sell refrigerators to Eskimos" is a classic example. When Dorothy Parker shared office space with Robert Benchley she said they had an office "so tiny that an inch smaller and it would have been adultery."

Apt Analogies

One of the most useful figures of speech for platform speakers, an analogy lets you quickly explain a new idea by comparing it with something familiar and simple. Benjamin Franklin said, "Fish and visitors start to smell in three days," and gave a concise picture of why people should not overstay their welcomes. Writing about Frank Sinatra, author E.B. White once wrote: "To Sinatra, a microphone is as real as a girl waiting to be kissed."

Analogies are especially useful for speakers who have to present technical or scientific information. By comparing the complex with something ordinary and familiar, your listeners understand by association. One speaker effectively explained a computer by comparing it with a secretary. The essayist, Lewis Thomas explained the universe by comparing it with the life of a single cell. There are many other figures of speech that speakers use to create powerful images - parables, fables, epithets, icons, and personifications to name a few.

Other Tricks of Language

Other colorful devices can get attention. Sound makes a strong impression, and speakers often use alliteration (using several words that begin with the same letter) to implant a phrase in the collective mind of the audience. Winston Churchill was a master of alliteration: "He was a man of light and learning." "We cannot fail or falter." Listeners can remember those phrases because of the alliteration and also because the nouns and verbs are simple and direct. These phrases also persuade.

Repetition is another powerful speaking device. George M. Cohan created one of the most stirring and memorable calls to action through the exclusive use of repetition: "Over there, over there...the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming, the drums drum drumming everywhere ... So beware, so beware...." The cadence - or rhythm - of language also has an emotional pull. Churchill used cadence to create a stirring image: "Let us to the task, to the battle, to the toil."

Borrowed Eloquence

The trend in today's public speaking is much more conversational than the arm-waving oratory of old. Even so, powerful speech is often eloquent. A few select, powerful phrases in a speech can be the spice needed to make what you say memorable, rather than just easy to listen to.

One way to achieve eloquence is to quote from those who have been eloquent before you. When Sir Isaac Newton was asked how he saw things so clearly, he said, "I can stand on the shoulders of men like Galileo." Good speakers stand to great effect on the shoulders of William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Groucho Marx, Martin Luther King, even Mae West and Katherine Graham.

Using someone's eloquent statement about a subject accomplishes two things: It adds eloquence to your own talk and it endorses whatever you are saying. President Reagan rarely quoted from past speakers who might be expected to have agreed with him, such as Calvin Coolidge. Instead, he often quoted the words of Democrats such as Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. The words of these "liberal" presidents not only added eloquence to Reagan's statements but also endorsed his more conservative positions by inference.

When you choose quotations to enrich your own talk, be creative. Don't use the same ones you've heard over and over. Go to more modern sources and find a witty or elegant phrase that you can use to support your position. Remember, you're using not only the words, but also the person.

All figures of speech have the same purpose - to use a few words to create vivid pictures, touch the emotions, and stay in people's minds. Power language is aptly named; use it well, and people will tend to think you are as powerful as the language you use. As Mae West so aptly put it, "It's not what I say, but how I say it." And what you do as you say it. The next chapter will help you gain power from the nonverbal communication that characterizes you as quickly as anything you say.

Professional Projects: Powerful Language
  1. Create a simile or metaphor that describes how you feel when caught in traffic, when your plane is delayed, and when your computer crashes.

  2. Think of a complex procedure in your office and devise a simple analogy to help clarify it.

  3. Create a title for a presentation on the importance of teamwork using alliteration.

  4. Create synonyms for the 12 most powerful words.

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