The power of declarative sentences — Thanks, Mitch

Declarative sentences are memorable
Senator Elizabeth Warren. I don’t know who to credit for the graphic.
I haven’t written about this earlier, under the principle that when your opponent is shooting himself in the foot, you don’t take away the gun. But Senator Mitch McConnell’s decision earlier this week to use declarative sentences in his denunciation of his colleague Senator Elizabeth Warren is just too delicious to pass by.

First, a definition, from EnglishGrammarRevolution.com:

“A declarative sentence (also known as a statement) makes a statement and ends with a period. It’s named appropriately because it declares or states something.”

I’m sure my current readers all know exactly what Senator McConnell “declared” or “stated” about Senator Warren. But blog posts have a long life. So for those of you reading this years from now, long after the generation of women who’ve had the last sentence tattooed on various parts of their anatomy have died out, I’ll recap.

Speaking on the Senate floor during a debate about the nomination of a Notorious Racist (and current Senator) to be our Attorney General, Senator Warren began to read a letter written three decades ago by civil rights icon Coretta Scott King. King was not impressed with the character of the notorious racist—perhaps because of his notorious racism—and she said as much. Back then, he had been nominated to be a federal judge; that nomination failed. But potato/po-tah-to: what’s disqualifyingly racist for a judge in the 1980s is apparently just the right attitude for the Attorney General in the current Republican administration.

So Senator Warren was reading this historical document into the record when she was shut down for breaking an obscure Senate rule about speaking ill of a colleague. Fun fact: the rule was apparently created back in the early 20th century to protect a senator who—incidentally—favored lynching black people when they tried to vote. I don’t know about you, but I could do with a whole lot less irony in politics today.

If you’re saying something idiotic, don’t use declarative sentences

Anyway, to the declarative sentences in question. McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, was called upon to explain why his colleagues brought this dusty old lyncher-protecting rule out of the closet. He replied:

She was warned.
She was given an explanation.
Nevertheless, she persisted.

Politicians obfuscate all the time. They specialize in what my virtual colleague Josh Bernoff calls “weasel words”:

“an adjective, adverb, noun, or verb that indicates quantity or intensity but lacks precision.”

I’ll bet Mitch McConnell wishes he’d obfuscated the Warren explanation. Obfuscated prose doesn’t end up on tattoos or T-shirts or protest signs. “Nevertheless, she persisted” is going to hang around McConnell’s neck for a long time, like the stinking, decomposing albatross in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner“—the daily reminder of a selfish, pointless act.

Seriously, if you’re going to say something idiotic, don’t say it in the most memorable way possible. Not just one declarative sentence, but three in a row. And don’t use such a poetic cadence—short sentence building to longer sentence, building to the final sentence with its four almost equally accented syllables: a drumbeat of declaration.

McConnell could not have offered a clearer example of how to make your message stick.

“Strict Father” says

But look at McConnell’s words again. They’re not just any declarative sentences, they’re the declarative sentences of a father chastising a misbehaving child. Why are you grounding me? That’s so unfair!!! And the father answers, “You were warned. You were given an explanation.” Okay, so I don’t know any fathers who’d find “nevertheless” tripping off their tongues. But you get the idea.

McConnell spoke that way because that’s how Conservative Republicans speak. That’s how they view the world, how they process information.

Political linguist George Lakoff has been writing about this for years—Republicans adopt the language of the strict parent; Democrats that of the nurturing parent. It’s why we don’t understand the other side’s arguments, why we can’t talk constructively.

Of course, Senator Elizabeth Warren is a fully grown adult; a Harvard Law professor; head of the panel that created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; and, since 2012, one of McConnell’s colleagues in the United States Senate. She’s also a woman, the nearest analog to Hillary Clinton left in the political arena. So they silenced her, and then offered an explanation that treated her like a miscreant child.

You might call it “dog-whistle sexism”—people who ascribe to the strict father school of government will hear the echoes of a parental rebuke in his words. They’ll absorb the message that Warren is too childish for her opinions and actions to matter.

Some might say that Warren’s silencing was driven by the Senate rules, not by sexism. If that’s the case, then why were several male senators allowed to read Coretta Scott King’s letter, in whole or in part, without interruption?

The “strict father” shtick stops working when Mother recognizes she has power and agency, too. “Nevertheless, she persisted” will help us there. In fact, it already has. Thanks, Mitch.


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Mangled translation – one of my pet peeves

When words threaten to lose their meaning, those of us who care about such things have to be scrupulous about our use of language. Mangled translation has always been one of my pet peeves.

So when I got an email from the smart folks at TED Talks with this in it, I socked it into my idea file for a future blog posts. The future has arrived.

mangled translation leaves people with the wrong idea about Descartes' most famous saying

There’s a reason cogito, ergo sum is “routinely translated as ‘I think, therefore I am.'” It’s because that’s what René Descartes meant when he wrote those words.

Funny how that works.

Go back to the source and you’ll find Descartes actually wrote, Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.

Geary’s mangled translation relies on an alternative meaning of agitare—one that makes absolutely no sense if you return to the source.

But let’s go back to the original original source—because Descartes wrote and published his Le Discours de la Méthode in French before he translated it into Latin; he wanted his work to reach the widest audience possible, and no one much spoke Latin outside of academia or the church. The French is not as compact, not as bumper sticker-ready as the Latin. But bumper stickers were not in wide use in 1637:

…si je doute, je pense, et si je pense, je suis.”

If I doubt, I think, and if I think, I am.

Shake things up with mangled translation

James Geary may be peddling mangled translation but I like the point he’s trying to make. Why were we put on this earth if not to shake things up? Here’s how I would rewrite to preserve both Descartes’ intent and Geary’s point:

The three most famous words in all of Western philosophy—Cogito, ergo sum—are routinely translated as “I think, therefore I am.” But it’s possible to read that another way, too. Because the root of the Latin word cogito is the verb agitare—which does indeed mean “to put something in motion” or even to shake. So you might think of cogito, ergo sum as meaning, “I shake things up, therefore I am.” In fact, that’s the meaning I’m going to adopt today. I don’t expect much pushback from Descartes about this; he’s been dead for 367 years.

You get to the same point. But you bring truth along with you. And especially these days, truth should travel with us wherever we go.


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Passionate Communication – is it enough?

No doubt about it, passionate communication is really the only kind of communication that sticks.

You can stuff your draft full of rhetoric and metaphor and pull out all the tricks of the writing trade. You can write a speech so good it would make Lincoln throw down his stovepipe hat and tear up the envelope on which he wrote the Gettysburg Address. But if you don’t deliver your speech with conviction—if it sounds like you’re reading somebody else’s words—that beautiful literary confection will fall flat as a soufflé in a refrigerator.

Nick Morgan, writing on Forbes.com, makes a strong case for passionate communication:

“Passion is both authentic and charismatic. We don’t fully trust people until we’ve seen them get emotional — angry, sad, ecstatic — because these moments allow us to take the measure of their values.”

Passion builds a bridge that allows the audience to connect with you.

Now, I’m not talking about Pentecostal preacher-passionate. Unless you happen to be a Pentecostal preacher you’re going to look and sound pretty ridiculous if you try to mimic that. In fact, don’t aim to “mimic” anyone. True passion can only come from one place: inside you.

More from Nick Morgan:

“I worked with a speaker who was telling a personal story to a large audience and revealing information that had not been public before. There was a lot of tension on his staff before the big night. We talked with the speaker about many ways that he could indicate his passion to that audience, but in the end we settled on simplicity. He stood very still and told his story very quietly. The passion came through.”

Passionate communication and the speechwriter

Nick Morgan’s bio on Forbes.com identifies him as a “communication theorist and coach.” If you’ve never encountered that job description before—”communication theorist”—you’re not alone; neither have I. A sentence or two later we learn that Morgan  helps “people find clarity in their thinking and ideas – and then deliver[…] them with panache.”

I’m a big fan of panache. And of clarity. Panache and clarity may grab an audience, but there’s no guarantee they’ll hold their attention. For that, my friends, you need a story. And, ideally, a speechwriter.

Because a speech needs to be more than passionate. It needs to take the listeners on a journey. It needs to show them the road forward, leave them with a clear call to action. With a writer shaping the passion and a coach encouraging the panache, you’ve got two of the three ingredients you need for a memorable speech. The third, and most important ingredient—passion—can only come from the speaker.

Morgan advises his clients to

“…prepare, just before the communication, not only what you’re going to say but how you feel about it: strongly, fully, and with all your physical being. That, after all, is where passion originates.”

I like the advice, but it skips over one key element. I’d reword it slightly:

Having prepared what you’re going to say, take a moment before delivering the communication to think about how you feel about your message. Feel the emotions strongly, fully, and with all your physical being. That, after all, is where passion originates.

Preparation is not the enemy

Too many speakers—and, apparently, speaking coaches—seem to feel that preparation signals a lack of authenticity. You won’t be surprised to learn that I disagree.

In my book, preparation signals a respect for your audience. And for the importance of your message. Yes, preparing with a speechwriter takes time. I recommend a minimum of half an hour on the phone or in person to give the writer the personal details that fuel your passion for the subject. (More, if it’s a long or significant speech.) And yes, that does add to the speaker’s already busy schedule. It’s an extra layer of complexity, for sure.

But do you want to speak with “panache” or do you actually want to say something and be remembered? No matter how passionate you are about a subject, you have to turn your passion into a call to action. Doing something like that might not be in your wheelhouse. But it is in a speechwriter’s.


Would you like specific tips to help you create more focused, more memorable speeches? I’ll be happy to send you my e-book Make Them Listen (to You!) 5 steps to create focused communications that get you heard, noticed, and remembered.

Rhetorical techniques & monkeys

I read this piece from CNN about rhetorical techniques a couple of weeks ago and I immediately slapped it in my file for blog posts. But it’s a hard subject for me to focus on, so I haven’t written about it. Now I’m on a cleaning jag—decluttering my closets, my storage space, and—yes—even my browser tabs. So here we go.

If you clicked on the link, by now you know that the article in question deals with how the current GOP nominee “uses” rhetorical techniques.

Now, I don’t pretend that he uses rhetoric as deliberately as, say, he uses women. But enough monkeys given enough typewriteeven a monkey at a typewriter can stumble on rhetorical techniquesrs will eventually reproduce Shakespeare. And occasionally this yellow-haired beast strings together an idea that an ancient Greek philosopher might recognize. Although if said philosopher were alive to witness the circus that passes for politics in this election cycle, he would promptly kill himself. And curse the forces that reanimated him, lest they do it again.

So when Trump says something like, “I could talk about X, but I’m not going to,” he is employing a rhetorical device. CNN identifies it as:

“‘paralipsis’ (‘to leave to the side’), a tool employed by the great Roman debater Cicero and Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift that allows a speaker to effectively say two things at once.”

A brief lesson in rhetorical techniques

CNN found a linguist, Dr. Jennifer Mercieca, “an expert on political discourse at Texas A&M University,” to analyze Trump’s rhetorical flourishes. Here’s some of what she said:

“‘Donald Trump uses paralipsis, repeatedly, and he does it in combination with another rhetorical figure, which is called argumentum ad baculum — or threats of force….I’ve never seen anyone in public life use paralipsis the way he does,’ Mercieca said. ‘It’s a clearly demagogic move. It allows him to recirculate information without being held accountable for it.'”

Last March, The Washington Post published an op-ed Mercieca wrote about this very issue. She observes that his retweets represent a more modern form of paralipsis. When George Stephanopolous pressed him about having said Ted Cruz wasn’t fit to be president [oh! how young and foolish we were back then]…

“Trump dismissed Stephanopoulos’s question with ‘it was a retweet’ — as if to say that retweeting someone else’s claim meant that he wasn’t responsible for the content.”

Or, as Mercieca puts it,

It’s a response that can be reduced to I’m not saying it, I’m just saying it.

Look, I don’t want to give rhetoric a bad name here. Ethical speakers communicate honestly. And they use rhetorical devices that allow them to amplify that honesty. But, like most things, rhetoric can be used for good…or for—well, I’m not saying “evil,” but…


Use your words courageously. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Saturday October 29th at 12 noon Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific.

Winston Churchill, standup comedian

“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”

For the record—no, Winston Churchill was not actually a standup comedian. He was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II and again in the 1950s. A great writer as well as a great leader, his stirring oratory helped insWinston Churchill, not a standup comedianpire his people to survive the darkest days of the war. Later, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In other words, Sir Winston Churchill knew his way around a sentence. I don’t know when he said the sentence at the beginning of this post—some sources suggest it’s a false attribution—but he died in 1965, so it’s at least half a century old.

Old Winnie probably got a big laugh when he compared a speech to a woman’s skirt. His listeners probably enjoyed the opportunity to think, even for a moment, about the delights of the “subject” a skirt covers.

Oh, those jolly Mad Men days. They didn’t have a monopoly on sexist behavior in the 1960s, but at least they had the decency to veil it in innuendo. Makes today’s political discourse seem like teatime at the convent. But I digress.

Winston Churchill in the 21st Century

Churchill’s quip came to my attention recently when someone I know wrote about it. She’d heard it delivered from the stage (without attribution) last week.

Do I need to add that this happened at a tech conference?

Or that the person writing about it was one of the very few women at the event?

Churchill’s audience probably had a similar composition. Back then, society hadn’t yet embraced the presence or the talents of its female members. (Although one of its female members became Queen during Churchill’s second stint as Prime Minister.) But today is different. Or should be different.

Yet when I Googled the quotation, I found that many editors and aggregators still think it’s relevant and useful. You can find it on a site called “coolfunnyquotes.com” and in an article called “5 of the Smartest Things Ever Said About Public Speaking.” The author of that article? A woman!

[Shaking my head.]

[Nope, still shaking my head.]

Do I need to explain “humor” to you?

Humor remains an important element for any speech. But make sure it’s relevant to the topic. No one-liners. And do not insult, stereotype, or objectify anyone or any group. Ever. Whether or not you think your audience is 100% free of members of that group. Because speakers should lift people up, not pull them down.

During World War II, Churchill rallied his country not by trash-talking the Nazis, but by celebrating the great, courageous character of his people. That’s the kind of stuff that won him the Nobel Prize, folks—not his sexist “joke” about short skirts.

And one other thing: Speeches only need to be short if they’re boring. Write a good one, deliver it well, and you can keep your audience’s attention. Even without making them think about sex.

Advice from a master showman — Penn Jillette in HBR

“No one cares about what you write or say. They’re looking for any excuse to not read or listen. You have to make sure they don’t have one.”

Master showman Penn Jillette in 2013
Penn Jillette, photo by Angela George (Creative Commons license)

Master showman Penn Jillette—the talkative half of Penn & Teller—credits this advice from a substitute teacher with changing his worldview.

Jillette may seem an unlikely subject for a profile in Harvard Business Review (October 2016 issue)—he doesn’t run a billion-dollar company or manage thousands of employees. But Jillette has spent more than four decades capturing and keeping people’s attention.

Be yourself—without hesitation

Regular readers will recognize many of these ideas; I write about them frequently. But here, listen to what a master showman has to say:

I’ve never been able to get an audience interested without being interested myself. I find that if someone is talking about their passion—whether it’s horizontal oil drilling, Spanish nurse porn, or stamp collecting—I get sucked in.”

In other words, authenticity can make even the most arcane subject fascinating.

And start strong. As Jillette’s teacher said in the quotation at the beginning of this post, never give the audience an excuse not to listen to you:

“No one wants to hear your stupid speech. So if you stutter, or ramble, or if the sound system is bad, everybody in the audience is relieved; they think, ‘Oh, good, we can go on daydreaming.’ When you go out on stage, you’ve got the opening two minutes to get the audience thinking, ‘This is the most important thing I’ve ever heard” or “This is grabbing my heart and changing my life.’ So it’s passion and mechanics. If someone is phenomenally skilled, we watch. And if someone has unbelievable passion, we watch. Very rarely do we get people who do both at once, but when we do, they’re remembered forever.”

Of course, maybe you don’t want to be “remembered forever.” But if that’s the case, why even bother to leave home?

Truth or consequences – the shrinking power of words

Words have consequences. And those of us who use words—whether we write them or speak them—must take responsibility for what we say.

Language only remains meaningful if we use it in integrity, but that has become increasingly rare, across the political spectrum. The orange-faced politician tells his supporters to monitor polling places “in certain areas”—and everyone understands that to mean areas that aren’t likely to vote Orange. And twenty years ago, a Democrat taught us to distrust even the simplest words. The truth, he famously said—under oath!—”depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”

Once upon a time, facts could stop an argument. Now a muttered “Not true” will neutralize any issue—even if there’s documentary evidence. Yes, you did say that, sir, and here’s the videotape. We’ve been playing games with language for too long; the linguistic chickens are coming home to roost.

A few months ago, The Guardian published an article that asked:

“What happens when political language fails?”

The writer, former BBC director general Mark Thompson, offered an answer that gives me chills:

“From the fall of Athens to the rise of totalitarianism, observers from Thucydides to George Orwell have associated a breakdown in public language – or rhetoric, to give it a more traditional name – with the failure of democracy, loss of freedom, civil strife and, ultimately, tyranny and murder.”

Words have always had consequences; perverting the language makes those consequences quite dire.The headline on Thompson’s piece promises to examine how the breakdown of rhetoric contributed to the Brexit vote in the U.K. and to the rise of Donald Trump (thusfar) in the U.S. But English is not the only language in which “rhetoric” has gotten a bad name. Thompson notes that politicians routinely

“…deny that they were in the rhetoric business at all. If they mention the word, it is only in the context of the detested public language of the establishment. ‘If there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s rhetoric,’ that Trump-before-the-fact Silvio Berlusconi once remarked. ‘I’m only interested in what needs to get done.’

Italians actually elected Berlusconi—he served nine years as prime minister despite having significant ongoing legal problems, and possibly even ties to the Mafia. He also has an eye for the ladies, but—hey!—at least he’s honest about his hair: no comb-over. Read more about this political paragon here.

The consequences of rhetoric abuse

But back to rhetoric. Thompson writes,

“One of the advantages of noisily rejecting any notion of rhetoric is that, once listeners are convinced you’re not trying to deceive them in the manner of regular politicians, they may switch off the critical faculties they usually apply to political speech and forgive you any amount of exaggeration, contradiction or offensiveness. And, if rivals or the establishment media then point this out, your supporters may dismiss it as spin.”

The passage I boldfaced just horrifies me. The consequences of abusing rhetoric appear to be that there are no consequences to abusing rhetoric. The more people candidates lie or ignore facts, the less people come to care. But don’t take my word for it; listen to an actual voter:

“Here is Florida voter Yolanda Esquivel, quoted by the BBC in November 2015, rejecting criticism of Trump for his outspokenness: ‘I’m looking at what candidates can do, not the picky little things they say that people want to make a big deal of.'”

Like the lady says, it’s about what candidates do, not what they say. But by definition non-incumbent candidates can only talk; the doing can’t begin until after the election.

We can’t talk our way out of this

If they can’t use words, how can candidates convey specifics about what they have not yet done, but want to do? I ask as a citizen, not as someone who creates the dreaded Rhetoric for a living.

If speeches don’t work, what will? Because we need something that does. I mean, assuming we want to avoid the fate Thompson says awaits us. Remember? I quoted it at the beginning of the article—”failure of democracy, loss of freedom, civil strife and, ultimately, tyranny and murder.”

People who believe words mean nothing close themselves off to new sources of information. How do we then change their perceptions of the world? How can we right the sinking ship of state and find the civility we need to make democracy work?

Words got us into this mess. What in the world can get us out of it?

Malcolm Gladwell on Conversation & Speaking

This morning I heard an interview Malcolm Gladwell did for Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics podcast. In discussing his analysis of Anders Ericsson’s “10,000 hour rule”—that it takes that many hours of practice to become an expert—Gladwell talked about his own evolution as a public speaker.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time studying others. Because I thought that what people respond to as an audience is authenticity.”

Readers of this blog will recognize that as my favorite A-word. Gladwell continues:

“So I spent a lot of time thinking about …what is the image I’m trying to project about the kind of person I am, the way that I see the world. And I finally realized that what I am is someone who’s not too formal or studied or…I’m conversational.”

I have heard this from so many speakers who insist on going into a speech armed with nothing more than a list of bullet points. “I want it to be conversational.”

So how does Gladwell achieve that conversational tone in his speaking? Let’s listen in:

“That meant that I had to, I really had to memorize everything. I couldn’t use slides and notes and it couldn’t seem like a classroom lecture; it had to seem like a conversation with me.”

In other words, he treats each speaking engagement like a TED Talk.

Most speakers don’t have the time to memorize a speech—especially if they speak on many different subjects at different venues. And, to be fair, it is part of Gladwell’s job to speak well. At this point in his career, his appearances command a hefty fee.

But communicating is part of an executive’s job, as well. Speaking can help raise the profile of the organization they lead, sell more of its products, increase its prestige. I encourage my clients to think of speech-giving not as something that takes them away from their “real”responsibilities, but as another facet of their job as leaders.

Being conversational doesn’t mean speaking off the top of your head—please, please never do that. But it does mean practicing. A lot. And as you practice, you will find yourself memorizing parts of the speech naturally.

I don’t share Gladwell’s aversion to looking at notes from time to time. Unless you’re an actor in a play, no one will fault you for having a script in front of you. But don’t  deliver your speech to the podium—if you glance at your notes, stop speaking and don’t open your mouth again until you’re looking at the audience. If you haven’t practiced your speech, those silences can seem interminable. Practice enough and your audience reads them as thoughtful pauses.

Conversational and thoughtful. Not a bad way to present yourself.