10 Power Language techniques to use in your next talk or presentation
September 06, 2017
How To Use Powerful Language For Leadership Communications
Great leaders use Power Language. It adds interest and colour to what they say.
You will recognise ten core techniques that great leaders use to make their talks and presentations more powerful. Using the same techniques, you can make your public speaking more engaging, memorable and persuasive.
Remember that these techniques are specific to spoken language, It’s not the same as written language. 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.
So, refer back to these ten Power Language 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:
- Present a puzzle or problem
- Choose phrases with alliteration
- Group information into sets of three
- Use rhetorical questions
- Use rhyme (sparingly)
- Repeat and restate your messages
- Use contrasting pairs
- Explain new concepts by using metaphors, similes and analogies
- Stick to short words or phrases
- Replace impersonal pronouns with ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’
Power Language Technique #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. Why? Because 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.
Power Language Technique #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 to take 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, like the insults created by former Vice President Spiro Agnew for those he disagreed with:
“nattering nabobs of negativism; pusillanimous pussyfoots; hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history…”
Power Language Technique #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 is easy for an audience to process and remember. Any more, and we struggle to hold all the ideas in our head.
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.”
Power Language Technique #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.”
Power Language Technique #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. (An apple a day keeps the doctor away)
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.
Power Language Technique #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.
Power Language Technique #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.
Power Language Technique #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.’”
Power Language Technique #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 see you as being confident, intelligent and capable. 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.”
Power Language Technique #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.”
Add life and colour to your public speaking by using Power Language
Power Language techniques are like butterflies in a garden, adding life and colour to your message. They draw your audience back from their thoughts and into the present moment.
Read more about how to speak like a leader
Make your talks and presentations stand out
Using powerful language in your talks and presentations is just one element of mastering public speaking. At Benjamin Ball Associates, we help leaders to look, sound and act impressive. CEOs and Senior Executives consistently rate our award-winning training as the best they’ve ever had.
Find out how we can transform both the content and delivery of your talks and presentations to make you stand out. Call Louise Angus on +44 20 7018 0922, email her via email@example.com or fill in our enquiry form.
You may also be interested in our free ebook, Five Steps to Improve Your Leadership Talks: an introduction to The Powerful Presentation Process.
Other valuable resources to improve your talks and presentations
How to start your speech and presentations
The So What Test – an essential tool
Transform your fundraising presentations
How do you make boring topics more interesting?
How to give high-impact presentations
Presentation structure – a quick guide
About Benjamin Ball Associates
At Benjamin Ball Associates, we help clients to pitch, present & persuade.
Over the last 12+ years the award-winning BBA team has supported thousands of executives globally to present powerfully. You get access to a transformational toolbox of techniques to help you become a clear, confident communicator.
We’ll help you create a powerful first impression that hooks and engages your audience immediately and we’ll transform you to deliver clearly, confidently and with impact.
Speak to Louise on +44 20 7018 0922 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more and discuss your upcoming talk or presentation.
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