Author Dan Pink's latest book, To Sell is Human argues that everyone is a salesperson. And it's true. Whether you're negotiating an acquisition, recruiting new talent, trying to ink an elusive client, or even just asking for a raise, you need to be well versed in the powers of persuasion.
So no matter your industry, no matter your title, no matter your years of experience, learning to persuade others through the spoken word is crucial to success. But how can you actually do that? Naturally, it all starts with language. By shaping your speech with a few rhetorical devices, you can capture your audience's attention and wedge your ideas in their memory.
Keep in mind that all of these strategies are useless if you don't understand your audience and what it values, or what your ultimate goal is. But once those details are hammered out, you can use the following strategies to better accomplish your purpose and win over your audience. Here are some of the most common rhetorical devices and how to use them to your advantage:
1. Similes and metaphors. Similes and metaphors are the bread and butter of persuasion. Simply enough, comparing a new concept to a familiar one quickly illuminates the new concept. Look at Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which uses a metaphor of birth to describe both the formation of the U.S. ("conceived in liberty") and the road of reconstruction following the Civil War ("that this nation ... shall have a new birth of freedom"). The comparison underscores the fragility of the nation and the time and effort required to care for freedom more so than if Lincoln just explained the logistics of rebuilding. When you're looking for buy-in to an unfamiliar, disruptive idea, try to package it with familiar concepts, especially ones that have seen success in the past.
2. Parallelism. Parallel structure arranges words or phrases on equal footing, often while creating a rhythm and a repetition to which the brain clings. Consider, for example, the final words of the Gettysburg Address: "... government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Or for a more recent example, consider Steve Jobs introducing the world to the iPhone, coyly suggesting he's introducing three new products: "So, three things: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone and a breakthrough Internet communications device. An iPod, a phone and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone ... are you getting it? These are not three separate devices; this is one device, and we are calling it iPhone." By grouping together several different forms of government, three different products, or whatever else you might list together, you can paint a picture of a broader whole based on several representative parts.
3. Repetition. The more an idea is repeated, the more it's accepted as fact. Look, for example, at the Weather Channel's controversial decision to begin naming winter storms. While a number of meteorologists balked at the idea, The Weather Channel went full steam ahead in the buildup to the massive blizzard that slammed the Northeast earlier this year, peppering the name "Nemo" across its website and TV broadcast until the name was trending on Twitter and working its way into headlines. Look also at the number of times Steve Jobs uses the words revolutionary (12), and breakthrough (6), and variations of the phrase "reinvent the phone" (5) throughout his iPhone keynote. Through the power of repetition, he's reminding us what to think about the product he's revealing. So whether you're building a brand or selling a product, repeat your key messages and watch them take hold.
4. Antithesis. This rhetorical device pulls together two opposing forces or concepts to emphasize a particular contrast. One of the more powerful examples is from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. His line "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" sets "the color of their skin" in opposition to "the content of their character." This antithesis drives home the breadth of the gap between the current reality and the realization of King's dream, as well as emphasizes the contrast between the two ways of looking at a person, stressing how trivial "the color of their skin" ends up being. These types of comparisons can highlight differences between the past and the present, the present and the future, or two different ways of interpreting a situation.
Bottom line, your words matter, but how you arrange them matters even more. So next time you're preparing a presentation, a sales call, or even just a pep talk for a weekly meeting, try planting some of these rhetorical seeds and watch them take root. You don't have to be a salesperson to sell. All you need is language.
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