Make those words stand out…
Did the graphic get your attention? Did it shock you? Did it make you stare? Did it make you pull a face?
Don’t worry it’s not me after a night on the town and it is paint not blood!
Point I’m making, is that pictures grab your attention, they provoke an emotional response. Powerful allies for any Public Speaker or Presenter.
In order to harness that power you have to turn your abstract ideas into concrete images using words not paint. You have to create word pictures.
Here’s an example:
At the end of his career, General Douglas MacArthur returned to West Point, to address the cadets. He spoke as a soldier of one era to the soldiers of another….
“The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished – tone and tints. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen, then, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll.”
This is a great example because it uses two senses. We see the “wondrous beauty, watered by tears..” but we also hear the “faint bugles blowing reveille..”. If you read that and you aren’t moved… check your pulse!
A more well known example.
This is an exerpt from Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.
“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
A passage full of images that not only drive home the message, but make the message easy to remember.
In his book “Lend Me Your Ears” Professor Max Atkinson says…
“…. something all effective speakers have in common is a capacity to use imagery in interesting and imaginative ways.”
Good speakers know that people remember pictures far longer than words. They know the images will be remembered when the words are long forgotten. So let’s take a look at the various techniques you can use. Techniques that will make your words stand out… like a varicose vein in winter.
Similes make it clear that you are comparing something to something else. They use the words “like” or “as”. “Her smile lit up the room like a thousand suns” is a simile.
Muhammad Ali’s catchphrase is a great example of a couple of similes… “I’ll be floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.”
You can use similes to make a serious point, add a touch of humour or add a few rhetorical flourishes to your speeches and presentations.
To make a serious point
The Archbishop George Carey used a simile, which he developed during his eulogy at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
“Like the sun, she bathed us in her warm glow. Now that the sun has set and the cool of the evening has come, some of the warmth we absorbed is flowing back to her.”
To add a touch of humour
Short sharp similes are a great way to add humour to your speeches and there are thousands to choose from.
“Paying alimony is like feeding hay to a dead horse.”
“He made a noise like a pig swallowing half a cabbage.”
“Barbara Cartland’s eyes looked like two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.”
“Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”
To form a three part list
The three part list is a common rhetorical device used by speakers (more on rhetorical devices in a later post). It is often used by politicians to trigger applause. For example… “I shall fight, fight and fight again to save the party I love.” Hugh Gaitskell.
“A hippie is someone who walks like Tarzan, looks like Jane and smells like Cheetah.” Ronald Reagan
To form a puzzle – solution sequence
A puzzle – solution sequence is another rhetorical device. In the first part, you pose a puzzle to the audience, in the second part you give them the answer. For example…
“Life can seem like a blunt pencil… pointless” Blackadder
Because of their two part structure similes are ideal for forming puzzle – solution sequences.
“John Donne’s poems are like the peace of God… they pass all understanding.”
King James I
Serious point, humorous point or a touch of rhetoric, spice up your speeches and presentations with a sprinkling of similes.
Metaphor doesn’t use the words “as” or “like” it leaves it to the listener to get the point for themselves. If you say “Your heart melted”, that’s a metaphor.
Lots of metaphors were used to describe Margaret Thatcher. She was known as “the iron lady”, “Atilla the Hen”, and the “imaculate misconception”.
Metaphors don’t have a two part structure and are therefore not as useful as similes for adding rhetoric. They do however add considerable power to your word pictures and even… a bit of humour.
Pour on the power
“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”
“Opportunity eagerly stretches out her arms to us. As we open our eyes each morning, she forgets and forgives any neglect of the past. Each night we burn the records of the day; at sunrise, every soul is born again.”
“Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry”
A splash of humour
“… his whole tone was that of a disillusioned, sardonic philanderer who had drunk the wine-cup of illicit love to its dregs but was always ready to fill up again and have another.”
Not as versatile but in many ways more powerful than similes look for opportunities to weave metaphors into your speeches and presentations.
Analogies are extended similies and metaphors used to develop and flesh out a theme. For instance, you could say that business is like a game of football. You have to learn how to play as a team. You have to know when to attack and when to defend and you have to learn that you don’t always win. Of course if you’re an England supporter… you already know that.
Martin Luther King used the analogy of “Cashing a cheque at a bank” in his famous “I have a dream speech”. He developed it in a way that summed up the issues that had given rise to the civil rights movement.
“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a cheque. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned…”
To give your speech a framework to hang your points on and to help the audience remember those points, try using an analogy.
Go easy on the adverbs and adjectives
When you first start adding “word pictures” to your speeches, you may be tempted to create them using adverbs and adjectives… resist at all costs.
In his book “On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction”
William Zinsser has a few things to say about Adverbs and Adjectives…
“Most adverbs are unnecessary.
Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly – blare connotes loudness.
Don’t tell us that he clenched his teeth tightly – there is no other way to clench teeth.
The same applies to effortlessly easy, slightly spartan, totally flabbergasted.
Don’t use adverbs unless they do necessary work. Spare us the news that the winning athlete grinned widely.”
“Most adjectives are also unnecessary.
Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms, frisky kittens, hard bitten detectives, sleepy lagoons.
Not every oak has to be gnarled.”
This may be a book about writing well but the same is true for your speech script.
Let me know your favourite word pictures
Do you have any favourite similes and metaphors?
What similes and metaphors do the graphics on this post conjure up for you?
Let your comments flow… like fine wine at a feast.
My thanks and gratitude to:
Dan for Bleeding man photo on flickr
EclecticBlogs for Sunrise photo on flickr
Seyed Mostafa Zamani for Melting heart photo on flickr
Vramak for Football photo on flickr
And the following authors whose books I have used as references and quoted throughout this article.
Professor Max Atkinson – Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know About Making Speeches and Presentations
Rosemarie Jarski – The Funniest Thing You Never Said: The Ultimate Collection of Humorous Quotations
William Zinsser – On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
P.G. Wodehouse – Wodehouse Nuggets: An Anthology
Robert Baldwin and Ruth Paris – Book of Similes
Please note – links to books are Amazon affiliate links