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Ten powerful language techniques you need to know

Posted by on 24 January 2019
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Great leaders use powerful language to add interest and colour to even the blandest of topics. What's their secret? Here are THE ten core techniques that you should know to make your speech more engaging, memorable and persuasive.

Remember that these techniques are specific to spoken language, which requires different skills to written language. Words that are effective when read on a page don’t have the same impact when spoken, and vice versa.

Some of these techniques can be used to structure your talk or presentation, while others should be used sparingly. Like seasoning in a meal, they should add subtle flavour without being overly pungent.

So, refer back to these ten techniques when you are planning your next talk or presentation. Once you have identified your audience and clarified your messages, swap out any bland language and sprinkle in these powerful language techniques instead:

1. Present a puzzle or problem

Describe an unsolved puzzle or problem. You could do this in your introduction, or at the start of a new section of your talk or presentation. It creates tension in the minds of your audience, which they will want to resolve. If the puzzle or problem is sufficiently compelling, your audience will be switched on, waiting to hear your potential solution.

At the start of her TED talk, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, sets out a problem by using startling statistics:

“The problem is this: women are not making it to the top of any profession, anywhere in the world. The numbers tell it quite clearly. 190 heads of state; nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 per cent are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top – C-level jobs, board seats – tops out at 15, 16 per cent.”

On hearing this, we feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, and wait to hear what Sheryl will suggest can be done about it.

2. Choose phrases with alliteration

Alliteration is when a sequence of words share the same starting letter or sound. This gives a poetic flow to your spoken language, and makes key messages more memorable.

Alliteration can also infer balance, so it is often used in British Budget statements. For example, George Osborne’s ‘Road to Recovery’ and these three phrases from Philip Hammond’s Spring Budget 2017 Speech:

“I report today on an economy that has continued to confound the commentators with robust growth.”

“And our task today is ttake the next steps in preparing Britain for a global future.”

“And Mr Deputy Speaker, there’s one further area in which I can announce action to back British businesses.”

Alliteration comes with a health warning, however. Don’t force it by choosing long or unfamiliar words to achieve alliteration.

3. Group information into sets of three

Speeches, slogans and soundbites are full of phrases comprising three parts. As children we read about the Three Little Pigs, in our teens we watch trilogies and as adults we encounter triads constantly – in marketing (‘reuse, reduce, recycle’), in mottos (‘location, location, location’) and in politics (‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’).

Listing three items provides for sufficient substance while still being easy for an audience to process and remember. Any more, and we struggle to hold all the concepts in our head at once.

In this video for Fast Company, Harvard Business School Professor John P. Kotter answers the question, ‘How do you create a culture of innovation?’ using a list of three:

“In terms of getting people to experiment more and take more risk, there are at least three things that immediately come to my mind. Number one, of course, is role-modelling it yourself. Number two is, when people take intelligent, smart risks and yet it doesn’t work out, not shooting them. And number three, being honest with yourself.”

4. Use rhetorical questions

Rhetorical questions prompt your audience to think about your topic. They can also lead people to arrive at a conclusion by themselves. This is much more persuasive than telling your audience what to think.

Researchers found that the impact of rhetorical questions varied, depending on the strength of the speaker’s argument and the personal relevance of the topic to the audience. For strong arguments on topics of low personal relevance, rhetorical questions enhanced persuasiveness. This was also true for weak arguments on topics with a high personal relevance.

Other research found that rhetorical questions makes the speaker appear more polite and likeable (Bates, 1976) and that the mere presence of rhetorical questions signals a strong argument (Zillmann, 1972).

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg combined the use of rhetorical questions with two sets of three in this excerpt from her Barnard College Commencement Address:

“What about the rat race in the first place? Is it worthwhile? Or are you just buying into someone else’s definition of success? Only you can decide that, and you’ll have to decide it over and over and over. But if you think it’s a rat race, before you drop out, take a deep breath. Maybe you picked the wrong job. Try again. And then try again.”

5. Use rhyme (sparingly)

Occasional use of rhyme can add rhythm to your talks and presentations and make your message more memorable. One study also showed that people are more likely to believe something is true if it rhymes.

You could use a short rhyme as a slogan for your main message, for example:

  • Jack Welch’s ‘Rank and yank’ policy of firing the bottom 10% of his company.
  • Richard Branson’s, ‘Screw it, let’s do it’ approach to new projects.
  • David Cameron’s ‘This isn’t job done; it is job begun’ at his 2014 party conference speech.

You could imply a stronger link between two concepts, by using similar-sounding words to refer to them, e.g. ‘Your attitude determines your altitude’. Or you could use internal rhyme (not at the end of sentences) for a more subtle use of rhyme that makes a sentence sound more delightful to the ear.

For example, Winston Churchill said:

“Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge. Humanity, not legality, should be our guide.”

Like alliteration, rhyme is another technique to use sparingly. If more than two sentences rhyme, your audience may perceive that part of your talk or presentation as childish or contrived.

6. Repeat and restate your messages

You can use repetition in both your words and your messages.

Rhythmic repetition is a repeated word or phrase that’s used in the same place in multiple sentences. It can bring a poetic touch to your spoken language, and improves the structure and flow of your presentation. For example, think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech:

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. 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 lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

Familiarity breeds trust when it comes to repeated messages. Present your message to the audience early on, so those ideas start to feel familiar when you restate them in slightly different ways later. Comedians use this technique all the time. They tell a joke at the start, then refer back to it and build on it throughout their show. It’s a great way to bring the audience with you and make it easy for them to follow what you’re trying to say.

In 2010, Steve Jobs held an emergency press conference about the antenna in the iPhone 4. He repeated the phrase “We want to make all our users happy” several times. His slides used variants of the message ‘we love our users’, words which Jobs echoed in his conclusion. This ‘love’ was picked up and reported on by the media covering the event.

Prompt your audience’s recall. The persuasive impact of repetition is even stronger when you prompt your audience to retrieve your message from their memory. For example, you could refer to something you said earlier, but restate just enough of it for people to identify and recall the rest for themselves. Or you could show a heading or an image from a previous slide to prompt a visual flashback.

7. Use contrasting pairs

To be effective at public speaking you need to hold an audience’s attention. Creating tension is a great way to do this, as with setting out a puzzle or problem in technique #1. Contrasting pairs create tension between two opposites. You could ask ‘Are you with us or not?’ but it’s much more powerful to say, ‘You’re either with us, or against us’.

Contrasting pairs can also clarify your position by stating clearly what you are arguing against, as well as what you are arguing for.

When Richard Branson wanted to highlight the value of trying, failing and starting over, he said:

“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”

This technique can be used on a macro scale as well. In Nancy Duarte’s TED talk (at 6.45mins), she shows how many of the greatest speakers contrast ‘what is’ with ‘what could be’. This is repeated over and again, providing a subtle underlying structure to their talks and presentations.

8. Explain new concepts by using metaphors, similes and analogies

Comparing something to a different thing can help your audience to understand and visualise it. This is especially true if you are explaining something abstract or unfamiliar, or want to express a thought or feeling powerfully.

Metaphors, similes and analogies are all ways to achieve this. Even a subtle metaphor can have a substantial impact on how a person perceives an issue and makes a decision, according to researchers.

Steve Jobs used a metaphor when he referred to Apple’s switch to different processors at the MacWorld keynote speech in 2007 (0:01:03). He called it ‘a huge heart transplant to Intel microprocessors’.

And when JCPenny’s CEO wanted to explain where his company’s strategy had gone woefully wrong, he used a dating analogy. This excerpt is from his speech at the 2015 WWD Apparel & Retail CEO Summit in New York City:

“Let’s go back to high school and imagine that you dated the same wonderful girl for three years, and all of a sudden, when the prom is going up, you decide that she’s no longer good enough … so you make a play for the homecoming queen, and the homecoming queen says, ‘no thank you,’ and so you end up going to the prom [alone]. JCPenney had a customer that loved us, and we said to the customer, ‘we don’t like you anymore.’ We said we like that customer. We made a play for that customer, and that customer said, ‘we don’t like you very much.’”

9. Stick to short words and phrases

Spoken language is most easily digested when delivered in bitesized chunks. Yet our businesses, strategies and communications all tend to be complex. So when you come to deliver a talk or presentation, it’s all too easy to confuse your audience.

Simplify as much as you can. As Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. Separate out long sentences into shorter ones, and avoid sub-clauses or complex sentence constructions.

Use short, common words instead of longer ones. Although people tend to think that the use of jargon or unusual words will impress others, the reverse was found to be true.

In fact, the easier your talk or presentation is to process, the more your audience will infer you as having qualities such as confidence, intelligence and capability. That’s according to research by Daniel M. Oppenheimer, professor of psychology at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

In a Q&A with Gallup Business Journal, Former CEO & Chairman Douglas Conant demonstrated his great use of short, sharp sentences:

“The packaged food business environment is very Darwinian. You’re fighting for survival every year; you evolve and grow or you die. It’s really that simple.”

10. Replace impersonal pronouns with ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’

Great speakers involve their audience in their talks and presentations by making it personal. For example, you may recognise these: ‘We are gathered here today…’, ‘Ask not what you can do for your country…’ and ‘I have a dream’.

Researchers found that using personal pronouns motivates people to learn, and makes that learning more enjoyable. There could be a financial value, too: in another study, researchers found that using personal pronouns in a phone call increased the chance that a prospective investor would agree to invest.

So instead of talking about ‘the company’s’ targets next quarter, talk about what ‘we’ want to achieve. Instead of talking about what a new widget does for ‘people’, talk about what it will change in ‘your’ life or ‘our’ lives. Take ownership for your thoughts, opinions and stories by starting them with the word ‘I’.

Here’s an example of repeated personal pronoun use by Marc Randolph, Netflix Co-Founder and Angel Investor:

“Your idea is a bad one, your idea is wrong. You don’t know how or why yet, but until you put the idea out there and see it collide with the real world, you won’t know what direction to go.”

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