photo-1431207446535-a9296cf995b1The crowd roared.

The phrase whips up images of excited football fans. Of theater-goers as the curtain falls. Of Wrigley Field during Game 7. Or, perhaps, of a supportive audience at a campaign rally.

The crowd roared.

During the 1996 presidential race, it wasn’t just Bill Clinton and Al Gore hitting the campaign trail. The candidates’ wives were close friends at the time and made regular appearances throughout the election. An enthusiastic audience wasn’t uncommon, and at many events, the crowd did indeed roar. After one event, though, an attendee was shocked as she read that phrase in an editorial the next day.

The crowd roared.

It wasn’t a ‘supportive audience’ kind of roar, she said, slightly baffled. Instead, as Tipper Gore and Hillary Clinton mounted the platform, the Republican-dominated crowd had booed loudly. A roar? Maybe. But ‘roar of disapproval’ may have painted a more accurate picture. Instead, the news outlet intentionally chose a term that would illicit a positive, upbeat response.

I’m not encouraging a dishonest use of language. But the fact remains that word choice is a powerful weapon in your rhetorical arsenal. When trying to win over an audience, the very words you choose to portray your points are important. Each word not only conveys the substance of an idea but can also evoke the desired response to it.

There’s a difference between speaking to explain, and speaking to persuade. Simple communication of facts isn’t enough to win over an audience; to get them to change their opinions and values.

Aristotle recognized the importance of word choice in his writings on the art of persuasion. “We can say that a thief ‘took’ a thing, or that he ‘plundered’ his victim.” Words are metaphors, he noted, some used to dignify, and others to throw dirt.

‘Speaking to explain’ would fall under the traditional category of logos (persuasion by logic or reason), while word choice is included in the idea of pathos (persuasion by putting your audience in the right frame of mind). While a certain word may be the most straightforward choice, an alternative pick can carry extra shades of meaning that will elicit an emotional response—or to paraphrase Aristotle, pack a much stronger persuasive punch.

The jury is still out on a person who ‘takes’ something. We, the audience, aren’t sure if this is a positive or negative. Are we outraged, or are we congratulatory? With the verb ‘plundered’, however, everything becomes clear. Obviously a villainous scoundrel, the thief should be apprehended and brought to justice at once. Our emotions have been engaged, and we are ready to hear what course of action ought to be taken next—exactly the frame of mind the speaker wants. For you, the debater, this is your moment.

Of course, in the middle of a round is not the time to begin thinking about word choice. Cultivating a habit of persuasion needs to start long before that; needs to become yet another arrow in your quiver of communication—just like vocal inflection, or volume, or any other technique you use to speak well. And just like any other technique, it requires practice.

In a fit of helpfulness, I’m giving two drills to help internalize this skill.

  1. The first drill just gets your brain moving in the right direction.

To start, come up with a list of common words: say, walk, take, let, look—you know, all the ones you were told not to use in high school English. You could even go a little crazy and include things like skinny, crowd, or suggest. Put them in one column down the middle of your paper, and add a ‘pro’ column and a ‘con’ column on either side of it. Whoever is participating in the drill begins thinking of words for the pro and con categories—words that have the same essential meaning, but that evoke very different responses.

For example, ‘suggest’ is fairly neutral. For the positive column, you could include ‘propose’. A proposal generally seems reasonable, logical, and balanced. On the more negative side, ‘contend’ carries the idea of combat, conflict, and perhaps either stubbornness or confidence.

  1. The second drill tests your ability to utilize persuasive words on any given topic.

To set this up, I pull an envelope of random topics (sometimes just a bunch of recycled Impromptu abstracts) and give one topic to each participant. They have about thirty seconds to become familiar with the abstract and decide which slant to take. Will they try to convey a positive impression or a negative one? Each student then has another thirty seconds to talk about their topic, and (without expressly stating their position) must create that positive or negative impression in the minds of the audience.

For example, one of the topics was ‘green’. A student might choose to take the ‘con’ side and evoke a negative reaction from his viewers. His approach could look something like this:

“Green algae pervades many ponds and lakes. This slimy substance can be found infesting aquariums with a creeping green coat, or clinging to the edges of your pool, or clogging waterways with a dull green sludge.” Now the idea of ‘green’ is linked with slime, sludge, and the obstruction of all that’s good, true, and beautiful in the world.

The student could continue, talking about the green of envy, or how green wood makes a fire smoke instead of burn, or the Green Goblin, a psychotic villain who likes to blow things up. Without ever saying, ‘Green is gross, useless, and bad’, you’ve given the audience a picture of green as gross, useless, and bad.

Then, flip it and do the exact same thing on the other side. Show green as a good thing—the color of life, of growth, and of money.

Two points of caution before you go off to change the world through word choice: first, please remember the purpose of intentional word choice is to persuade, not distract. Aristotle cautioned that words ought to avoid ‘meanness’ as well as ‘undue elevation’. Basically, don’t overdo it. The whole point of this idea is to emphasize appropriate, compelling communication—words that target the heart of the message you want to convey.

Secondly, of course (OF COURSE), always be ethical when persuading. There’s a difference between offering a favorable perspective on a situation, and misrepresentation. Word choice is a tool that, like any other, can be used well and can be used poorly. I’m trusting you all to use it, and use it well.

As much as I do disagree with the slant that news outlet took back in 1996, you have to admire them to a certain extent. It requires a lot of creativity to take a hostile, booing crowd, and turn it into approval. But you, I know, can do better than that. Because you can (and will) not only use words like colors on a palette, but you can (and will) do it accurately—in vivid, life-like strokes, to the chagrin of your opponents and the awe of your peers.

In fact, the crowd might even roar.

View More: Johansen is a TP and advanced speech coach in the Chicago area. During her two years in NCFCA, she competed at Nationals in eight speech events and Team Policy debate (taking 3rd place at Nationals in Original Interpretation her novice year, and IronManning at Nats the year after). After graduation, Anna moved into a teaching position at her local club, EverReady, where she discovered her passion for coaching and seeing lives transformed.

Currently, she is also working part time for an executive level recruiting company. In addition to providing targeted research and support, she works in the internal hiring sphere, screening resumes and interviewing candidates.

Anna is pursuing a degree in English, and hopes to continue teaching and writing long-term. Whether it is through editing others’ work or creating her own, teaching the tools or using them, she wants to pass on a love of speaking and writing and communicating to everyone she comes in contact with.

%d bloggers like this: