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The Small Changes to Your Speech That Will Have a Big Effect

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So if you have read Jim’s earlier piece on how to become a more charismatic speaker, you will know what you are supposed to be doing – but how exactly do you do it? Concrete examples, that’s what we need. And that’s exactly what Jim gives us in this article. Just as a reminder, those 12 techniques, based on research by Professor John Antonakis at the University of Lausanne, are as follows:


Verbal tactics


Non-verbal tactics

  • Convey your emotional state, whether positive or negative, to demonstrate passion and obtain support for what is being said
  • Use powerful body gestures, and unambiguous facial expressions for emphasis
  • Use an animated voice tone

In this post I’ll show you how you can apply five of the verbal elements simply, in your everyday work, to make your words resonate more with the people that you meet. These are referred to by the term figurative language and are literary devices that go beyond the literal meaning of the words to appeal to the sense of the reader and give new insights, thus making your speech more effective, persuasive and impactful.

In my next article I will cover the remaining four verbal tactics which cover the more abstract ideas of expressing conviction, connection and confidence.

Individually, each of these are small steps, but small changes to your everyday preparation can have a big effect on the way you are seen, heard and remembered. Following on from these two articles, we’ll explore simple ways to express those charismatic words with real power – the non-verbal tactics.


1) Use metaphor

‘I have a dream’

We speak in metaphor all the time. Our natural approach to telling a story is to use the age old rhetorical tools unconsciously, to add colour and impact to the tale.

Metaphors and similes are both what’s called figurative language, or figures of speech. Metaphors and similes are literary devices used to compare one thing to another. They add understanding, dimension, and vividness to our words in writing or in speech. Trouble is that when we prepare a presentation most of us take the colour out.

Metaphors say directly that one thing is another (“love is the drug”), connecting one to the other. Similes compare one thing to another using the words “like” or “as” (“Like a bat out of hell” ).

In all of the greatest speeches in history, the metaphors and similes are left in. Why? Because the speaker knows that it is the metaphor that will be remembered when the rest of the content is lost. If the metaphor is right for the audience and the message, it will multiply the speaker’s impact. You’ll stick. Your message will land. You’ll be remembered.

Martin Luther King’s ‘Dream’ speech is a very good place to start. The dream itself is a metaphor. He’s not describing a ‘dream’, he’s describing a future where,

“One day, on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners, will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.”

He goes on to describe how, one day, Mississippi will be transformed from a state of oppression into an oasis of freedom and justice. He continues providing concrete examples of equality, mentioning specific states and political figures, in order to provide context for his audience.

There is no ‘dream’ – and there’s no such thing as a ‘table of brotherhood’. The dream is a description of America, in a faraway future, with equality for all people no matter the colour of their skin. He’s describing his hopes, his plans and his measures as if they were a dream. And the message is much more powerful because he uses that metaphor. Why?

Because who can argue with a dream? It describes something that hundreds of millions of people could aspire to and identify with. It’s a dream, after all. And the image of that dream rose up out of the steamy August heat that day and touched people all around the world. The dream created the possibility that the hundreds of legal, technical, judicial, social and political changes needed to deliver equality might be possible. It was a dream, not a plan.

Useful metaphors simplify and reduce ideas to their base metals. This one was gold. And it works exactly the same way in business. Find the right metaphor and the idea will stick like honey to a badger’s snout.

How to add metaphor

A metaphor is often, as in the Martin Luther King example, really useful to grab your audience’s attention right at the start of your speech. You can use metaphor to simplify and elevate your ideas above the practical, and to the emotional. Particularly in business, where so much of what gets said is dead. Free of emotion and meaning. Here’s an example to illustrate.

I was working with a woman at a big law firm in the UK. She was leading a massive programme of change in a very conservative business. It was hard, and her team of 50 were getting frustrated with all of the work they were putting in without seeming to be making progress.

She’d written a presentation for the team ‘off-site’, and it was a worthy and detailed presentation about all that had been done, and all that was left still to do. But it lacked impact. It lacked that central ‘Big Idea’ that we talk about so much on here. It would fail to do what she wanted to do, which was lift the teams spirit, heads and eyes to a more hopeful future.

We chatted about how she might do this, and then, as so often happens, in conversation, she said this:

“You know, it’s like we’re all on one of those old Roman Slave ships. Where the people in chains are rowing, and the slave master bangs the drum, and we all pull in time…”

She hesitated, and laughed,

“..but on this ship there’s 20 slave masters banging different drums, and all of us on the oars are facing in different directions…”

I laughed. It was  brilliant image. I could see it clearly in my mind. It came naturally from her, and it represented everything to her about the challenge ahead and the feeling of powerlessness, wasted energy and pointlessness that had begun to overwhelm her and her team. That’s the metaphor that she used to frame the whole presentation from there on in.

That metaphor was a simplification, and an exaggeration, but it worked for that team, in that occasion and as she started her speech she said,

“I was thinking of all the work you’ve done, all the effort you have put in over the last year, and I started thinking about how it feels to be a part of this team today. You remember the Roman Slave ships…”

She had them at the word ‘slave’. They laughed and nodded, and listened as she explained the metaphor just as she had done to me, but she went on to say,

“But there’s a major difference here. We’re not slaves, and we can do something about all of this, and in my talk today I’m going to show you how we can turn this ship around…”

And she did. Every sensible, practical bit of her presentation showed what she and her team could do to ‘turn the ship around’ but suddenly the overarching theme, the metaphor, brought it all together. It was inspiring. Her people laughed, groaned and engaged with their leader because, right at the start, she showed them that she understood.

In most cases, the right metaphor for the moment is right in front of you, in the words that people use about themselves and their lives. You don’t have to make them up for yourself, you don’t have to force them to fit. If you’re connected to the people in the room, the right image will come to you. All you have to do is notice.


2) Use stories and anecdotes

‘If you think you’ve had a bad day…’

The purpose of a speech is to move people to action. You point an audience to a place where they want to be, a distant hilltop, a better future, a more stable company, a more ‘connected’ life. You make them dissatisfied with where they are now and tempt them with a ‘golden tomorrow’ – and then you’ve got to show them how to get there. Or at least, you do if you want to be great.

A dream is abstract. it doesn’t exist anywhere outside of the speaker’s imagination. To make it real we have to go deeper than the abstract. The very best way to do this is to use examples of what we mean. So many business presentations are about abstract concepts like ‘growth’, ‘change’ and ‘quality’. People will hear the words and have a vague idea of what they mean, but everyone defines each of those kinds of word in different ways. Quality means very different things in medicine, than in manufacturing. Accuracy means different things to a chef than to a publisher.

Most presentations are far too abstract. Too many long words and phrases, strung together to form impenetrable sentences and paragraphs. Abstraction is the curse of the business presentation. It can sound good, sometimes, but mostly it sounds bad and means nothing.

I was listening to a woman present about her ‘thing’ last week. She was a brilliant and engaging personality, but as I watched her I realised that I wasn’t listening. I started to wonder why, and realised that it was her words that were the problem.

“We can offer you an extensive suite of products designed to add rigour to your comp & benefits planning. From quantum to qualitative, from top to bottom, we have a tool to help you take control of your payroll..”

Her words were all abstract, and I didn’t even understand the quantum to qualitative bit. I spoke to her afterwards and she asked for a bit of feedback from me.

I said that she sounded like someone who had learned her words from senior colleagues, and that she sounded like she was talking to like-minded professionals in her own business rather than business people in the real world. Her words were too technical, jargonistic and abstract for a production manager in a manufacturing business or a CEO of a software company, i.e. her clients.

She agreed with me, and said that that was, indeed, how all of her senior colleagues spoke, and that she had thought that it was the way to speak about their work. So we talked about what she could do to make her words more concrete with examples and anecdotes to bring the jargon to life, and she added simple things to her words and was transformed.

“Our job is to help you ensure that your pay and benefits do exactly what you want them to do. Reward performance, encourage your top talent to stay with you, and be competitive in your industry. In one case we helped a client reduce their overall payroll, retain their most important performers and reshape their pay grades for the good of the whole business…”

A good story can help to make the meaning of even the most abstract concept clear; to show the audience exactly what you mean by ‘freedom’, ‘equality’ or ‘change’.  Here’s a brilliant example of how the potentially meaningless concept of a ‘bad day’ can be redefined by a true, short story from a young man’s life.

How to add stories and examples – Show don’t tell

Telling stories

If you’re going to use stories and examples to make your presentations come to life then you might find these simple rules helpful:

  1. Make them relevant to the audience – test them on a sample of the audience before the event
  2. Make sure that the story or example means something to you – because then you’ll tell it with sincerity and simple honesty
  3. Follow the simple rules of story structure to make sure that the audience understands

Using examples

Here are three simple ways that you can use real life examples to empower your presentation:

  1. Share a case study of a similar change programme in a similar organisation: one that shows the journey they took, the place where they finished and real people talking (video works really well for this to bring real words to life).
  2. Give a single example to make your whole case. I once heard a spellbinding story, as the introduction to a sales pitch for a bar code reader used in hospitals to eliminate human error from drug dispensing. The example told about a woman left paralysed in hospital after the medics gave her the wrong spinal injection because the nurse misread the drug label. I have never forgotten it, or the product designed to stop this kind of tragedy ever happening again.
  3. Demonstrate the product, the tool or the tactic to show people what you mean. Product demonstrations, the mainstay of TV shopping channels, really help show the audience what is possible. Here’s a dramatised example for the film ‘Joy’ with Jennifer Lawrence playing Joy Mangano, a penniless American mom, who made millions from her miracle mop.



So if you’re talking about a product or a service, why not demonstrate it in the room with real people for much greater impact.


3) Use simple specific rhetorical devices, including contrast (to frame and focus the message)

‘200 years ago today…’

In his ‘Dream’ speech, (full text here) Martin Luther King uses a classical rhetorical technique right at the start, to engage the audience and set out the injustice that the rest of his speech would seek to address. He created a deliberate contrast between what the ‘negro people’ had been promised 100 years before and what they had actually received in the 100 years since. Here are the words – the highlighting is mine:

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

That ‘shameful condition‘, the difference between the promise and the reality, is a fantastic example how we can use contrast in our own speaking and writing to create a gap for the rest of our words to close. How might we use that same technique in the world that we inhabit.

  • In a sales presentation you need to create a contrast between the audiences state now without your product or service, and their state once they have what you, or your product, can do for them. That’s why perfume commercials are so full of beautiful people doing beautiful things in a rose-tinted world. They are deliberately trying to make you dissatisfied with your current state and imply that buying their scent will give you a little bit more of that kind of life and a little bit less of your own. Create a gap and fill it with your product.
  • In the iPhone launch in 2007, Apple created a landscape that described mobile phones as ‘dumb or smart; hard to use or easy to use’ and created a gap between ‘dumb and hard’ (most of the competitors) and ‘smart and easy’ (the iPhone, of course). They then spent the rest of the hour and 16 minutes, proving their point. Watch the first few minutes to see.

There are many different ways to create contrast (now vs future, problem vs solution, better vs best, etc), but you’ll find that most convincing speeches are underpinned by contrast as a principle because it’s a key part of storytelling. When you make a case, you’re taking people on a journey from where they are now to a better place and that’s contrast.


4) Use lists (to give the impression of completeness)

‘Three steps to heaven…’

Lists close the gap created by contrast. In the same iPhone launch, Apple created the gap as above, and then they used a three part list to show how their new product was ‘the smartest and easiest-to-use smartphone on the market.’

When they unveiled the iPhone they summarized it as ‘Three products in one. It’s an iPod. It’s a phone. It’s a Browser…‘ and they repeated that message verbally and visually throughout the whole pitch. They used a list to close the gap, simplify their much more complex product into three key components, and to create a sense of certainty in the audience that this product was all that they said that it was.

Here’s the prologue to see how they used contrast and a list to do that.



Lists create certainty in the minds of the audience. For example, “We’re going to take you from A to B and there are three steps on our journey“. But if we’re going to use lists we should take care:

  1. Use the rule of three – three is a magic number.
  2. Beware of lists longer than three points – they become less effective for every point you add to the list.
  3. Look at these examples of lists and their uses to help you use them well


5) Use rhetorical questions (to create anticipation and puzzles that require an answer or a solution)

A rhetorical question, one that is asked without expectation of an answer, is often used by a speaker, to emphasize a point that the speaker wants to make (‘What single change can we make to our sales approach, that would make the biggest difference to our business today?’) or just to get the audience thinking (‘Have you ever wondered what would happen to this business if there wasn’t a finance department?‘).

They are useful tools to grab the audiences’ attention (‘What is the point of marketing?‘), or to frame a debate (‘Should we turn left or right, and who cares?‘).

They can be used at the start of a presentation, in the middle (‘So we have seen how we got into this mess, shall we look at three ways we can get ourselves out and back on the road?‘) or right at the end to frame the closing parts of the speech (‘So we’ve had a look at the product, we’ve seen how good it is, now what are we going to charge for all of this?‘)


Use the tools and see what happens

These tools are tried and tested approaches to add power to you and impact to your words. So if you’d love to leave a more lasting impression on your audiences every time you stand up to speak, and if you would love to feel the thrill that you get when you have made a difference to the crowd as you leave the room having made your presentation, then why not try these practical, simple tools the next time you’re on stage?

In my next article I will be exploring the remaining 4 verbal tactics prescribed by Professor John Antonakis’ research.

Jim Harvey

Jim Harvey

Managing Director at The Message Business
Jim is a serial entrepreneur and the MD of The Message Business, a company which helps international and FTSE 100 companies sell themselves, and their products more effectively. Jim has many years of experience speechwriting, presentation coaching and motivational speaking, all over the world.
Jim Harvey
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