A week ago Monday, as most folks know, President Obama and Congressman John Boehner gave duelling speeches regarding the debt ceiling. And believe me, they weren’t half as fun as listening to dueling pianos at Howl at the Moon.
Obama, as usual, used multiple rhetorical techniques in his speech. Rhetorical techniques are easy ways to improve your presentation. These techniques help boost interest, memory, comprehension and the general “oomph” of your speech (no not a technical term). They are one of my favorite thing to teach.
You can find a list of Rhetorical Techniques, with lots of audio examples, at American Rhetoric. American Rhetoric is a fantastic website dedicated to public speeches and rhetorical techniques. If you check the site out, just remember – you don’t need to be able to pronounce the name of the tecnnique – you just need to use it.
Today’s rhetorical tip of the day relates to a very powerful, thought provoking technique: antithesis.
Antithesis is, as it sounds, using opposites in a sentence (or two back-to-back sentences if you wish). It’s a very effective technique to pull at your listeners and their consciousness. You will see antithesis used most frequently in political speeches. Think, “ask not what your country can do for you, but ……. what you can do for your country.” And if you didn’t know the end of that one, you need to bone up on your history. JFK, inauguration speech, 1961.
Antithesis can be effectively and powerfully employed in any presentation. It just takes a little thought and creativity on your part.
For example, when teaching public speaking and oral argument, and discussing why an interactive delivery style is effective, I use the following antithesis: “it’s a dialogue not a monologue.” A friend of mine, Public Affairs genius John Davies, once used this in a speech: “Communication is speaking so people listen and listening so people speak.”
And for a more lofty example of antithesis, there is this thought provoking quote from Disraeli: “Man is not the creature of circumstances. Circumstances are the creatures of men.” Frankly, that one applies to the current debt crises issues pretty aptly.
Two more of my favorites, since I’m a total quote geek, are:
“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” – Anais Nin
“If the other person injures you, you may forget the injury; but if you injure him, you will always remember. ” – Kahlil Gibran
The power of antithesis is the power to make you think. It’s the power to capture your attention, your thoughts, and eventually your emotions. How many people can read or hear Kahill Gibran’s quote above and not feel the truth in it and not – even fleetingly – think about those they might have hurt in the past?
That’s the power of speaking and the power of antithesis.
Antithesis is easy to use because it only requires you think and be creative as I mention earlier. It is not half as difficult as eliminating the habit of saying “um” or getting away from a monotone delivery.
So, back to Obama and Boehner. Here are a few examples of Obama’s use of the rhetorical technique called antithesis:
“Most Americans, regardless of political party, don’t understand how we can ask a senior citizen to pay more for her Medicare before we ask a corporate jet owner or the oil companies to give up tax breaks that other companies don’t get.”
“How can we ask a student to pay more for college before we ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries? “
“How can we slash funding for education and clean energy before we ask people like me to give up tax breaks we don’t need and didn’t ask for?”
Obama also uses the technique of repetition during this section of his speech, starting each antithesis with either the phrase “how we can” or “how can we.” The use of antithesis here forces the listener to make the comparison and leads the listener to the speaker’s conclusion… which is in this case… ” of course, you’re right.”
Now I know that a lot of very partisan, passionate people would not be led to that conclusion. However, the fence sitters are more likely to move in that direction and the supporters are shouting “AMEN!” And that is really who Obama is speaking to in this presentation.
We had a saying when I used to run political campaigns: “you can’t do brain surgery.” So you work, in your presentation, to strengthen your supporters and win over those on the fence (when doing a persuasive speech).
Antithesis is an effective means of accomplishing those goals. Including during your closing argument or in virtually any other speaking setting. Try it, your audience will like it.