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Avoid the black hole: make your words stick

by | Executive presence, Influencing skills, Public speaking

Avoid the black hole - make your words stick. Being eloquent, memorable, and convincing.

Listening can be draining

Did you ever speak to an audience and felt that your words were being sucked into a black hole? That nobody seemed to retain or react to anything of what you were saying? Or were you ever one of the distracted or confused people in the audience, unable to remember a word of it afterwards?

Listening to a presentation and trying to make sense of it is a demanding activity. The more information, the heavier the mental load for the audience. Communication is hard work, and somebody has to do it. If the message lacks structure and the speaker is dull, the audience is left with the heavy task of organization and interpreting the information. Few people will agree to do that work for you – they will just zoom out.

In previous articles we have explored different ways of capturing and keeping audience’s interest through opening strongly, energizing your voice, and removing weak language. In this one we will look at how you can put words together and structure sentences to be more convincing and memorable.

3 ways to make your words stick

Already the ancient Greek knew that persuasion is an art. Here are three classical figures of speech that will make your message more powerful and memorable.


Repetition is one of the easiest rhetoric figures to play with. It consists of repeating the same word or phrase at the beginning or at the end of successive sentences. Use it sparingly to highlight a passage which is central to your message. There’s no rule that says where this should be, but opening or closing a speech with repetition is common.

An example of repetition at the beginning of sentences:

I’m speaking to you as a woman.

I’m speaking to you as a parent.

I’m speaking to you as a professional.”

And at the end of sentences:

“My father taught us to believe in ourselves,

to stand up for ourselves,

to know ourselves and

to accept responsibility for ourselves.


The original name of criss-cross figure is chiasmus – a Greek word meaning “diagonal arrangement.” It is used to describe two successive clauses or sentences where the key words or phrases are repeated in both clauses, but in reverse order. To come up with your own criss-cross phrases, try to rethink cause-effect relationships or flip around common concepts. Some examples:

“Let us never negotiate out of fear,

but let us not fear to negotiate.

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

“It’s not about the men in my life,

but the life in my men.”

Rule of three

To finish off this list of three techniques, let’s talk about the rule of three! Having three entities – words or phrases – combines brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern. Using the rule of three allows you to express concepts more completely, emphasize your points, and increase the memorability of your message. Some well-known examples:

“The good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

“Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”

Combining the rule of three with repetition:

We cannot predict when the wind will blow, we cannot predict how strong it will be, and we cannot predict its direction.”

It’s all about the practice

Think of a topic that you will have to present or discuss in the near future, and see where you might apply these structures. Play with words, say your sentences out loud, and test them on somebody else. A word of caution: most things are good in moderation. Overusing these figures may dilute the effect or make you sound artificial, so experiment to find the golden spot for each of them.