max-atkinsonMax Atkinson claims there’s no magic to it. There’s no need to go to a quote book. Follow rhetorical principles and you can create your own quotable soundbite.

Twenty-five years ago Max Atkinson was an Oxford academic – his area of research was conversation analysis. Then he coached Anne Brennan, a woman with no speaking experience whatsoever, to win a standing ovation at the Liberal Democratic Party annual conference by using rhetorical techniques. Overnight, Max became an in-demand presentation coach and eventually left academic life to teach rhetorical presenting techniques to business people. In his book, Lend Me Your Ears he shares those techniques.

These techniques were first developed by the great Greek and Roman orators. Politicians have used them extensively throughout history. What Max does brilliantly in his book is to show how the techniques can be adapted for business presentations.

Max’s research shows that the use of contrast is one of the most powerful ways of prompting applause in political speeches. Many long-lived and memorable quotations use contrast. Here’s a couple you’ve probably come across:

It is more blessed to give than to receive. (The Bible, Acts 20:35)

I come to bury Caesar,
not to praise him. (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)

Let’s dive into the anatomy of different types of contrasts so that you can create your own.

1. Contradictions: ‘not this but that’

One of the most famous examples of this type of contrast is from Martin Luther King:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

The technique works just as well on more prosaic topics. A participant on one of our courses developed this sentence to describe a new organization-wide filing system:

The new filing system is based not on where you sit, but on what you do.

2. Comparisons: ‘more this than that’

Take this very ordinary sounding sentence:

The various points I have outlined in this presentation point to the need for us to do even better in the future.

Max shows how using a comparative contrast it can be transformed:

So the important thing
is not how good we are today
but how much better we need to be tomorrow.

3. Opposites: ‘black or white’

Max writes:

The fact that there are so many words with opposite meanings provides us with immense scope for producing stark and dramatic contrasts.

Here’s a political example of using an opposite:

What the electorate gives,
the electorate can take away. (Tony Blair)

Other rhetorical techniques

Contrast is just one of the rhetorical techniques that Max covers in Lend Me Your Ears. He also covers puzzle-solution formats, metaphor, rhetorical questions, and three-part lists. He shows how you can combine these techniques to produce powerful soundbites. For instance take this plodding sentence:

Recent years have seen a widespread proliferation in the incidence of medical negligence cases, in which Health Authorities have incurred increased costs as a result of the greater legal sophistication with which cases are being argued.

Max applies the magic of metaphor, a puzzle-solution structure and a three-part list to transform it:

Health Authorities are faced with a new kind of epidemic.
A once-rare disease has turned into a plague of litigation.
Medical negligence cases are now more frequent, more expensive, and more expertly argued than ever before.

When to use these techniques

These techniques can be very powerful in the right context. But they come with a risk.

The risk is that your presentation will become a performance rather than a conversation. The techniques rely on careful phraseology. That means that you either have to memorize the lines, or have a script in front of you as you speak. Unless you’re skilled at remaining conversational – you might start to speechify (that means coming across as if you were making a very formal speech).

So to begin with I recommend that you use these techniques sparingly – for just a sentence or two in your presentation. In my Presentation Planning Guide I suggest that a presentation be focused around a key message. That’s the ideal sentence to apply these techniques to. The use of contrast, in particular, will make your key message stand out and resonate with your audience.

Once you feel you can maintain a conversational and authentic style whilst using these techniques, they are a powerful tool to add to your toolbox. And there’s no better teacher than Max Atkinson and his book Lend Me Your Ears.

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