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Memorable Speech

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Barack Obama

When we are spellbound by a great speaker, it’s easy to put the effect down to charisma, which no doubt plays a part. But highly skilled orators also deliberately use rhetorical techniques to make their message memorable and persuasive.

For an excellent guide to using figures of speech in your presentations, read Max Atkinson’s book Speech-Making and Presentation Made Easy.

Here are three figures of speech that will help you sound more eloquent and authoritative.


Contrast highlights important differences. Remember the caveman vs PowerPoint examples from the opening of this workshop?

I want you to give presentations that are less like the manager’s and more like the caveman’s.

Use contrast when you want to clearly distinguish your message and call to action from alternatives that the audience might be tempted to choose.

Some famous examples of verbal contrast:

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – Neil Armstrong

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” –
John F. Kennedy

“You should eat to live, not live to eat.” – Socrates

Here are similar patterns employed by famous graphic designers:

“Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.”
— Brian Reed

“People ignore design that ignores people.”
— Frank Chimero

“Good design goes to heaven; bad design goes everywhere.”
— Mieke Gerritzen

‘A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.’
— Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Verbal contrast can be made more effective if you combine it with dramatic contrast (stories and examples) and even visual contrast (strikingly different slide images).


Use Verbal Contrast

Experiment with these phrasings:

“Not X but Y”

“Less like X, more like Y”

Reverse phrasing: E.g. “Eat to live, not live to eat.”

Three three-legged stools

Three is a magical number. We’ve already seen how structuring your presentation around three key points makes it easier for audiences to remember. Similarly, using patterns of threes in verbal communication will give your words extra impact.

As well as being memorable, threes somehow sound more complete than twos (and not as verbose as fours) – like a three-legged stool that achieves maximum sturdiness from the minimum number of legs.

Here are some famous examples:

“Education, education, education.”
— Tony Blair

“Cry God for Harry, England and St George!”
– Henry V (Shakespeare)

“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
— Jesus

“Government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
— Abraham Lincoln

And the same pattern used by well-known designers:

“Design is the application of intent – the opposite of happenstance, and an antidote to accident.”
— Robert L. Peters

“The design process, at its best, integrates the aspirations of art, science, and culture.”
— Jeff Smith

“Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.”
— Robert L. Peters


Use Verbal Threes

Experiment with these phrasings:

“X, Y and Z”

“Not only X, not only Y, but also Z.”

Three clauses: E.g. “Government of the people, by the people and for the people.”


Verbal imagery makes memorable comparisons between different things. It paints a picture in the listener’s mind that often conveys the essence of the subject better than a logical explanation can do.

Imagery is memorable but not always precise. It’s open to misinterpretation – e.g. the time Kevin Keegan told Paul Scholes to “go out there and drop hand-grenades”, which prompted Scholes to make several wild tackles and get sent off within minutes.

So you usually need the logical explanation as well. But adding imagery will add a touch of magic to your presentation – and imprint your ideas indelibly on the audience’s mind. (To use a printing metaphor!)

Some famous examples:

“My love is like a red, red rose” – Robert Burns

“I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” –
Muhammed Ali

“Being attacked by Sir Geoffrey Howe is like being savaged by a dead sheep.” –
Dennis Healey

Imagery comes in several varieties, including:

Metaphor – in which you say that one thing is another thing. (Implicit comparison.)

“ A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”
— Sir Alec Issigonis

Simile – in which you say that one thing is like another thing. (Explicit comparison.)

“Being a famous designer is like being a famous dentist.”
— Noreen Morioka

Analogy – in which you draw parallels between one thing and another. Analogy is particularly useful for describing processes and systems – the effect is like creating a moving picture rather than a static image in the listener’s mind.

“The difference between a Designer and Developer is the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it.”
— Scott Hanselman


Use Verbal Imagery

These questions will help you dream up imagery:

What is it like?

What does it remind you of?

What image will be impossible to forget?

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