Choosing the right words for the moment is fundamental to getting your point across.Bill Gates and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo choose words carefully. Both leaders latched on to the same analogy this week to describe where we are in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic.
When historians write the book on the pandemic, what we've seen so far is just part one of a three-act story. That's what Bill Gates said in an essay for Thursday's issue of The Economist. Gates said the "best analogy" is a speech Winston Churchill delivered on November 10, 1942. World War II was far from over, but Britain and its allies had won its first major victory over Nazi forces.
Churchill said: "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
On April 11, when the number of Covid-19 hospitalizations in New York appeared to have peaked, Governor Andrew Cuomo repeated the same line from Churchill's speech. "Winston Churchill is a hero of mine," Cuomo added.
According to Cuomo, Churchill used "precise" language to express himself. Cuomo's right. Churchill would spend hours writing and re-writing his speeches to find just the right words. So out of millions of words that Churchill wrote over his lifetime, why does "the end of the beginning" stand the test of time?
Well, Churchill knew how to turn a phrase, and one of his favorite rhetorical techniques was "chiasmus." Chiasmus simply means reversing the order of words in two parallel phrases. It's more common than you think. Remember the famous jingle, I am stuck on Band-Aid 'cuz Band-Aid's stuck on me. That's chiasmus. Reversing the order of "Band-Aid" and "stuck" makes the line memorable.
The technique is behind one of the most memorable lines of the twentieth century: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." John F. Kennedy and his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, knew how to craft a line for maximum impact.
Chiasmus isn't easy and it's not necessary to find one for every presentation. I am suggesting, however, that you choose your words with precision. The right words make your ideas stick.
Ask yourself the following the questions before you design your next presentation:
- Which specific story should I share?
- What analogy or metaphor makes the most sense?
- Can I tighten the copy or reduce the number of words on a slide?
- Can I find a historical quote that makes my point?
Gates and Cuomo found a specific quote to get their point across. Find the precise words that work for you.