How to use contrast to make your presentations more persuasive

May 10, 2018

You won’t persuade anyone to your point of view or proposed course of action unless you grab their attention and keep it with you.


If you want to persuade then blending into the background is not an option. As a speaker you should be looking for contrast – to stand out from other speeches and presentations and block out the other demands competing for your listener’s attention.


Here are five opportunities for contrast when giving a persuasive speech or presentation:


1. Contrast in the opening of your speech

A polite, but innocuous platitude, such as “Hello, thank you for inviting me …” wastes those precious opening seconds when you need to make an impact and connect with your audience (the first step in persuasion).

A pause. A smile. Both are hard to pull off when you’re nervous, but dramatic in their impact. Everyone warms to a genuine smile. And a pause draws attention from whatever people are thinking about to focus on you and wonder what you will be sharing with them.

To keep their attention, open with a startling statistic, a personal anecdote (we all love a story), or a relevant quote from someone significant to your audience e.g. an industry expert.


2. Contrast in content

In most business communication, the goal is to persuade your audience to adopt your call to action. This might be to buy your sales pitch, affirm your recommendations, recommend you to others, etc. Effective persuasion requires contrast in content.

Evidence-based information, e.g. statistics, track record or citation of a reinforcing expert quote drive credibility, authority and recognition of your expertise. However, these alone are not enough to persuade. You need to contrast this ‘rational’ and ‘functional’ information with more emotive content that helps to build trust and relationships; connections with your listeners. Here, storytelling and anecdotes come into their own. They are your chance to demonstrate your passion and enthusiasm for the case in hand.

Juxtaposed, these two types of information can bring even greater potency to your message.


3. Contrast of language and words

Rich and colourful vocabulary stands out. They work well in a speech or presentation in a way they might not in an everyday conversation. We need to avoid words that are obscure. However, when we use rich language, it stands out as different and erudite, enhancing our credibility and authority. For instance, instead of ‘say’, try mutter, mumble, shout, whisper, etc. They all communicate much more than just ‘saying’.

Over and above words, we have rhetorical devices to contrast from everyday speech, for instance:

  • Alliteration, e.g. colourful contrasts communicate, startling statistic
  • Metaphor, an expression that describes a person or object by referring to something regarded as having similar characteristics, e.g. the city is a jungle, broken heart, bubbly personality
  • The rule of three pervades formal speeches, fairy stories, film titles, comedy. Examples proliferate and you probably have your own favourites. One example I like is from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

“The rule is: jam tomorrow, and jam yesterday, but never jam today”

Rhetorical devices like these give emphasis and colour, creating engaging and contrasting content.


4. Contrast of voice and body

I’m sure you’ve experienced the misery of the monotone. It’s hard to stay focused on a voice that drones on relentlessly, without any kind of variety of pitch, pace, volume, etc. A voice that goes faster and slower, louder and quieter, harsher and softer, higher and lower is interesting. That colour and contrast brings meaning and interest to our words and makes a greater impact. For instance, if you say “the words tripped lightly off the tongue …”, you will render them more memorable if you use a short, staccato, light enunciation, using a faster pace that, combined, suggest the movement of the words themselves.

While you are talking, think about how you can use contrasting body language and gestures to give emphasis to your words. If your hands and arms are constantly flailing around, you deny yourself the opportunity to use gestures. For example: to indicate height, position your hand to the relevant height, to indicate inclusion, use an all-encompassing sweep across your audience or wide arms coming together in a large, encircling gesture


5. Contrasting stage positions

It is, without doubt, important to take a solid stance on stage because it conveys confidence. A speaker shuffling about makes us feel uncomfortable and nervous and much less likely to be persuaded. That’s not to say that you have to stay fixed in that position. Different parts of the stage can represent different locations, different points in time. For instance, audience left for the past and audience right for the future. When you change position, the audience travels with you to that time, place, etc. The point is that these contrasting positions should always be taken with purpose, to reinforce your message.

Contrast provides subtlety, light and shade. It gives interest and the difference that makes your presentation stand out and helps your audience better remember your message. To hold attention and persuade make use of contrast.


About the author

Lyn RoseamanLyn Roseaman is from Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organisation’s membership exceeds 352,000 in more than 16,400 clubs in 141 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. There are more than 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7,500 members. To find your local club: Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.



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