Remember my piece on the use of Contrast in public speaking?

Here is a long and interesting analysis by Rashid N. Kapadia of different sorts of contrast in a speech, including something that sounds like a drug for a painful ailment but is in fact a Greek figure of speech, antimetabole.

Antimetabole. A word derived from Greek. The repetition of words in transposed order. Antimetabole can be used to rhetorically express irony, complexity, and make a 2-sided argument concisely, with precision and a poetic type of beauty

Contrast. An effective technique. Well known to classical writers on rhetoric. Also referred to as antithesis, enantiosis and antitheton.

He gives three examples of Antimetabole

Let us never negotiate of out fear. But let us never fear to negotiate

Mankind must put an end to war. Or war will put an end to mankind

Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.

And three examples of Contrast:

That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.

Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in the consciousness that we deserve them.

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

He then gives lots of examples drawn from Great Speeches by John Kennedy and others, and concludes:

Rhetorical devices – including Antimetabole and Contrast – as instruments of persuasion are under-appreciated and under-utilized by many leaders and presenters. Give yourself an easily obtainable advantage. Add Antimetabole and Contrast to your thinking, speaking, and writing.

Fair enough.


As you’ll have spotted from this blog over the past nine(!) years, I tend not to use Great Speeches as examples for the like of us. You do not want to sound like John Kennedy. Or even try to sound like him. That is likely to come across as bombastic and ridiculous. As Peggy Noonan famously said, hold the lettuce:

Most of us are not great leaders speaking at great moments. Most of us are businessmen rolling out our next year’s financial goals, or teachers at a state convention making the case for a new curriculum, or nurses at a union meeting explaining the impact of managed care on the hospitals in which we work. And we must have the sound appropriate to us.

Great political speeches tend to have a formality, a certain stentorian sound that is expressed in stately old formulations such as “My fellow citizens… ” and “our children, and our children’s children” and the exhortatory “Let us…”

Let us go forth to lead the land we love,” which is what JFK said at the end of his inaugural; “Let us bind the nation’s wounds,” which every president since Lincoln has said.

Let us…” is a fine old formulation, but like the others it is best left to fine old presidents. Used by nonpresidents and nonleaders it sounds silly.

So hold the lettuce. Your style should never be taller than you are.


Take the example quoted by Rashid Kapadia:

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

Imagine saying this to anyone under the age of 60 or so. Yes, it has excellent contrast. But it’s heavy and pompous (one overlong sentence) and even somehow patrician/condescending. It’s clunky to say it without reading it out verbatim.


Many of the good examples cited in Mr Kapadia’s piece are straightforward contrasts in words as described by Max Atkinson:

Contradictions: not this but that.

Example: The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of change and controversy. Martin Luther King

Comparisons: more this than that.

Example: For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer. Marriage vows

Opposites: black or white.

Example: The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones. (Julius Caesar – Shakespeare).

All fine. Maybe even trite?

Even more fine and engaging on the day for any audience are subliminal or implicit contrasts that come with taking an audience where they’re not expecting to go:

The Main Problem Facing the UN

Distinguished Guests. Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome!

* * * * *

No messing around with extended greetings/thanks. Straight to it. Contrast: a second ago you were there. Now you’re HERE!

* * * * *

Suppose you’re the new UN Secretary General.

What would you do differently?

Suppose you’re a Head of State, or Government.

What do you want from the UN?

* * * * *

Several contrasts here. Taking the audience somewhere quite (for them) unexpected, then asking a bold direct question of them.

What would you do differently? Contrast: what is <–> what might be.

* * * * *

You know? People ask me these questions. And I don’t know what to say!

* * * * *

Contrast: I’ve just asked you these questions. But I too get asked them!

Contrast: you think I have the answers? I don’t!

And so on.

Or playing with quotations. Tell them you have a superb quote on philosophy and the Meaning of Life. But it’s not from Aristotle. Or Hegel. Definitely not Wittgenstein! No – it’s from Serena Williams! The build-up creates a contrast mini-tension of surprise: they all want to hear that Serena Williams quote and ponder its timeless wisdom.

In short, a subtle interplay of the words-in-themselves, and the way those words are delivered on the day. Playing the variations:

To make any speech or presentation interesting, a speaker needs to convey ideas simply with energy and variation. Right at the heart of doing that well is the idea of contrast. Sometimes contrast within contrast within contrast.

Cleverly worked contrasts, both implicit and explicit, in the words/ideas on the page help a speaker give added human emphasis on the day through tone, intensity, body language, pauses and so on.

Note too how different ways of laying out the page make a big difference to the ease of the speaker in adding emphasis, irony, repetition on the day for extra effect. Short sentences! Play with format.

In short? Contrast is just another way of delivering the magic potion of all public speaking: surprise.

What are they expecting? Don’t give them that.

One such contrast might be between Heavy and Light. Imagine if you’re giving a speech about Tackling Inequality. You start with Rashid’s long useless sentence:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little”


That’s very grand.

I’ll translate it into English!

Three simple questions. VERY simple questions.

How do we test progress?

That those who already have – get even more?

Or that those who don’t have – get enough?

And off you go. You’ve taken a lofty idea and contrasted it with everyday direct language, to give it even more impact. The questions have got into their heads. It’s not an abstract responsibility. It’s mine!