What beginning (and even experienced) public speakers often forget is that the way your audience soaks up information you provide to them orally is different from the way they would read a letter or an essay you’ve written. Lawyers forget this all the time, too. They write a long legal brief for the judge, who reads the brief in privacy. In both cases, the “audience” takes up the speech visually with eyes. But when it comes time for argument in court – just as it comes time for a speech delivered at a wedding, or a presentation given at a stock holder meeting, and so on – many of us end up reading the written work product to a judge or a crowd which now has to take up the information with their ears. So it ends up being long, difficult to understand, unfocused, and as a result, the audience drifts off, gets confused, and the power of your speech scatters. As a result, there are many techniques you can use to punch up your delivery, including small ones – like the one I’m presenting to day. 

The Power of Contrast in Public Speaking

Because our ears are attuned to take up information in chunks, think of it the way you enjoy listening to music. Why do you like music? Because it rhymes, because there’s rhythm, because there are notes that are high next to notes that are low, and that’s interesting. And what’s interesting is memorable. And what’s memorable is effective.

This article deals with a very small and simple technique. Used in doses, it can devastatingly effective and memorable. It’s using contrast to highlight key messages and key points. Here are a few examples:

  • “Social workers in America are over-worked and under-appreciated.”
  • Modern Man is Obsolete.” – Norman Cousins.
  • “The future of the past.” – New York Times
  • “The United States has never lost a war or won a conference.” – Will Rogers.

All contrast does is turn heads because it puts two contrasting words close to each other, and thereby gets your attention. So when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, he said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  There’s a reason that quote has stuck in our collective memory. So when you deliver speeches, remember that you have this tiny but fun device at your disposal.

Why Bother with Contrast in Public Speaking?

For the busy professional giving a sales presentation, or a professor gearing up for a lecture, or a best man thinking of giving a toast – you may ask why you should invest in these gimmicky techniques. And that’s a fair point, but as a lawyer who is busy preparing for oral argument all the time, here is what I have found: It’s not just that making up these rhetorical turns in a phrase make a jury or a judge sit up – it’s also that this device and others help order and organize thoughts and arguments. So if you say that social workers are overworked and underappreciated – that’s a way to organize your argument to first focus on their workload and then the public perception and salary. It helps ordering.

The second reason the contrast technique helps perk up the audience and is memorable is not just that it sounds good, but also that it has a small paradox or puzzle built in. By placing two opposite words near each other, a listener will immediately be intrigued. Neil Armstrong’s quote obviously makes sense upon closer reflection, but your ears perk up because you ask yourself how something small can also be giant at the same time.

Finding Fun in Public Speaking

As I said above, for busy professionals, you may ask yourself why you should invest preparation into coming up with these small rhetorical devices. My answer is not just that these work very well. But there’s a deeper reason for doing so. That is that these devices are also playful. Too often public speakers, CEOs, professors, and lawyers forget that their job is to also enjoy what they do. If you do not take pleasure or enjoyment in giving speeches, the audience will smell it on you. I try to push these techniques and other ways of communicating effectively because I am hoping to give you the tools you need not just to make a speech more exciting, but also to make it more of a game to you. If that is how you approach a speech – no matter how important it is – you will be more creative and, as a result, have more fun with it. And if that happens for you, you’ll be more charismatic and convincing. So small tweaks have big effects, especially in your spoken work.