Rhetorical Devices: Syllepsis

This post is part of a series on rhetoric and rhetorical devices. For other posts in the series, please click this link.

DeviceSyllepsis

Origin: From the Greek σύλληψις (sillipsis) meaning to take together.

In plain English: When one word–often a verb–is used in two different ways, or applied to two different things.

Effect:

  • It’s a clever play on words that surprises and thus catches our attention.

Notes:

  • In its simplest form, syllepsis is a pun.
  • According to Mark Forsyth in The Elements of Eloquence, the advantages of syllepsis are also its failings. “Syllepsis makes the reader astonished and go back to check what the word was and how it’s working now. It’s terribly witty, but it’s terribly witty in a look-at-me-aren’t-I-witty sort of way. There’s a sense in which it’s a cheap thrill.”
  • It is closely related to zeugma.

Examples:

“Vegetarianism is harmless enough, though it is apt to fill a man with wind and self-righteousness.”

—  Sir Robert Hutchinson, Address to the British Medical Association, 1930

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“It’s a small apartment. I’ve barely enough room to lay my hat and a few friends.”

— Dorothy Parker

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Make love, not war.”

— Anti-war slogan associated with the American counter-culture in the 1960s

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“She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.”

— The Rolling Stones, Honky Tonk Woman

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“You held your breath and the door for me.”

— Alanis Morissette, Head Over Feet

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“You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book and a grip on reality.”

— Margaret Atwood, Rules for WritersThe Guardian, 22 February 2010

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The Science of Storytelling

PG LogoOn 1 June 2016, I announced the launch of a new digital magazine for public speaking professionals: Presentation Guru. I am proud to be one of the co-founders of the site. This post is part of a series designed to share the great content on Presentation Guru with the Manner of Speaking community.

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I have written extensively in this blog about the power of storytelling. See, for example, this post and this post. Stories are typically more memorable than data or facts because they trigger emotions and thus make their appeal to the right side of our brains.

As Dan Pink, the author of Drive and A Whole New Mind says,

Stories are easier to remember because stories are how we remember. When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.

You can learn more about the fascinating neuroscience behind stories in this Presentation Guru post by Doug Stevenson, an expert in corporate storytelling.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 238) – Alfred E. Neuman

Alfred E. Neuman (Fictitious Poster Boy for Mad Magazine)

Alfred E. Neuman (Fictitious Character and Poster Boy for Mad Magazine)

“Political speeches are like steer horns: a point here, a point there and a lot of bull in between.”

— Alfred  E. Neuman

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Analysis of a Speech by Khizr Khan

Republican DemocratOf the 204 speeches that were delivered at the 2016 Republican and Democratic Conventions in the United States—71 by Republicans and 133 by Democrats—one has stood out. I refer to the speech by Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim-American soldier who was killed in Iraq.

Mr. Khan spoke on the final day of the Democratic Convention. With his wife standing beside him, he delivered a short, but powerful speech in which he strongly rebuked Donald Trump and many of his policies. Trump has responded by criticizing Khan and, in so doing, has drawn harsh criticism, including from within the Republican party.

Given that the speech has received so much attention, it is worth taking a closer look at it. The video of the speech is below and the analysis follows.

What was good about the speech?

  • The fact that Khan was able to speak about his deceased son in front of millions of people (at the convention and on television) took incredible courage. It could not have been easy for him to maintain his composure the way he did.
  • Before beginning to speak, Khan waited almost a full minute while the audience was applauding. James Humes calls this the “power pause”. “[S]tage some silence before you speak,” writes Humes. “Much like an actor might convey a character of stature, you can enhance your credibility through the way you act. … Every second you wait will strengthen the impact of your opening words.”
  • I respect his wife, Ghazala Khan, who stood beside him but never spoke. Normally, you don’t have someone standing beside you when delivering a speech because it can be distracting. However, given that the speech was about their son and about Muslims in the United States, I thought it appropriate that she be there. Of course, Donald Trump has tried to make political gain about the fact that she did not speak, but his ploy has hurt him more than it has helped.

On that note, the reason why Ghazala Khan did not speak was because, 12 years after her son’s death, it is still too painful for her to talk about it without breaking down. So she did the right thing by not speaking. It is perfectly OK to show emotion when you speak; however, if you are going to fall apart when speaking about a particular subject, you should until you can do so while remaining in control. A good example in this regard, is Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk.

  • Before Khan spoke, the Democrats showed a two-minute video in which Hillary Clinton told the story of their deceased son. Yes, it was carefully scripted. Yes, it played on emotion with the images and music. But it is an emotional story. More importantly, the video helped put Khizr Khan’s speech into context and it spared him the need to recount the details of his son’s death, something that may well have been too hard for him to do. And, it allowed him to focus on the bigger message.

  • He made excellent eye contact with the audience and spoke without notes or a teleprompter.
  • He had some memorable lines which have been quoted thousands of times on social media and in the mainstream press, including a couple of powerful rhetorical questions (erotema) for Donald Trump:

Let me ask you: have you even read the United States constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.

Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America.

  • Khan concluded with a clear call to action for the audience. He urged people not to take the election lightly, to get out and vote and to vote for Hillary Clinton.

What could be improved?

  • Khan spoke in a strong, steady voice, which is important. However, at times he spoke so slowly that people thought his sentence had come to an end and began applauding. This obliged him to wait a moment, repeat part of the sentence and then give the missing conclusion. The clearest example of this can be seen from 1:10 to 2:05 of the speech. The sentence that Khan wanted to say was:

Tonight we are honoured to stand here as parents of Captain Humayun Khan and as patriotic American Muslims, with undivided loyalty to our country.

However, he spoke so slowly that people began applauding after “Muslims”. When he then completed the sentence, the subsequent applause was not nearly as powerful. It’s too bad, because the sentence, as written above, is powerful. Speakers should not speak too quickly, but they should not speak too slowly either.

  • From 4:25 to the end of the speech (7:10), Khan gestured repeatedly by pointing his index finger at the audience. In fact, he did it 50 to 60 times! Given who he is and what he has been through, I don’t think it detracted from his speech. However, I would not recommend the same approach with your speeches. Repetition of a gesture can be powerful, up to a point; beyond that point, the gesture becomes more diluted and distracting. And, pointing your finger is something that must be used with caution because in many cultures it can cause offence.
  • At 5:00 of the video above, Khan challenged Donald Trump to “look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law'” as he held out his copy of the Constitution. Trump will have no trouble finding “liberty,” but the phrase “equal protection of law” does not appear in the United States Constitution.

Khan was referring to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Section 1 of the Amendment reads as follows:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. (Emphasis added.)

It is equal protection of “the laws” not “law”. The misquote was minor and did not detract from the meaning of the Amendment. But if you are going to quote a person or a document, you have to get it right.

  • Khan ended his speech by urging people to vote for Clinton instead of Trump. This is what he said:

And vote for the healer. Vote for the strongest, most qualified candidate, Hillary Clinton, not the divider.

With this structure, the speech ends on a negative, telling people what not to do and giving Trump the last mention. It would have been stronger to flip it around to finish on a positive note with Clinton:

Don’t vote for the divider. Vote for the healer. Vote for the strongest, most qualified candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Your final words are important. Whenever possible, frame them in such a way as to end on a positive tone, with the emphasis on what you want.

You can read the text of Khizr Khan’s speech here.

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Aristotle’s Three Pillars of Rhetoric

PG LogoOn 1 June 2016, I announced the launch of a new digital magazine for public speaking professionals: Presentation Guru. I am proud to be one of the co-founders of the site. This post is part of a series designed to share the great content on Presentation Guru with the Manner of Speaking community.

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Almost 2,400 years ago, Aristotle wrote the classic book on persuasion: Rhetoric or On Rhetoric (Ῥητορική in Greek; Ars Rhetorica in Latin). Aristotle said that every good persuasive speech is built on three pillars: ethos (the credibility of the speaker); pathos (the emotional appeal of the speech); and logos (the logic or reasoning supporting the speech).

You can learn more about each of the pillars, and how you can incorporate them in your next speech or presentation, in this post that I wrote for Presentation Guru.

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