Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Foundational Phrases: Are They All They're Cracked Up To Be?

One of the basic tenets of speaking is the Aphorism - a uniquely worded, concise point made in a memorable way. These can also be termed as Maxims, or, in a worst case scenario, a Cliche.

"A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned"
"There is Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself"

"If if Doesn't Fit, You Must Acquit"

These three phrases are among the most well known in the last 200 years thanks to Benjamin Franklin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and, more infamously, Johnny Cochran, O.J. Simpson's lawyer.

If you're a student of speaking, you might recognize these particular nuggets:

"Your Attitude, Not Your Aptitude, Will Determine Your Altitude" ~ Zig Ziglar
"Formal Education Will Make You a Living, Self-Education Will Make You a Fortune" ~ Jim Rohn
"Don't Get Ready, Stay Ready" ~ Craig Valentine

As speakers, they are, essentially, the foundation upon which we build our speeches. It's Craig Valentine, 1999 World Champion of Public Speaking, who crystallized this concept for me over the last decade, referring to this concept as the 'Foundational Phrase' - a phrase on which your story and/or speech is built upon. For my Toastmaster friends waiting for it, there it is - credit where credit is due.

You can create a foundational phrase as an umbrella sound bite for your entire speech, or embed them with each point in the speech, or both.

Anatomy of a Foundational Phrase:

1. It's Short - 10 words or less, if possible. Rohn's quote above is the only one longer. Short phrases are easier to remember, and the precision of a few words will help you and your audience focus.

2. It Contrasts. Usually between 'then' and 'now' or 'bad' and 'good' or 'present' and 'future'. It can also contrast between two choices, as in 'get ready' vs. 'stay ready'. In my 2006 speech at the World Championship of Public Speaking, my phrase was 'What if we knew now, what we knew then?' - a question to get the audience thinking about an old concept in a new way.

3. It Simplifies. The phrase doesn't always have to take you from point A to point B - it can also simply be a repeated theme throughout your speech. 'Win Anyway' is my primary phrase, which allows for a fair amount of variation, such as 'Lead Anyway', 'Dream Anyway', or 'Love Anyway'. It can also be built upon, such as in the phrase 'Life is Tough, Win Anyway'.

4. It Rhymes - sometimes. A rhyme is naturally easier to remember. But forcing a rhyme can become a burden, and potentially weaken your phrase.

5. It Uses Alliteration - the sibling of Rhyme. Attitude, Aptitude, Altitude - all ending with the same sound, is a great example of alliteration. Words that feature a repeating sound will stick in the audiences mind. Comes with the same danger of being forced, so apply with caution.

6. It Guides - both the audience and the speaker. Coming up with the phrase before you write the speech offers you a chance to edit your speech as you go, making sure everything you put into it lends itself to your final point. Coming up with one AFTER the speech works too, if you're willing to go back and edit after the fact.

7. It Crystallizes - synthesizing the whole of your message into a simple sound byte. Johnny Cochran's 'If it doesn't fit, you must acquit' became THE phrase he hung his defense case upon - it all came down to that simple fact. John F. Kennedy's phrase 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country' was easily a tentpole concept for his short tenure as President. The right phrase will anchor your idea into the mind of your audience, so your greater message will be triggered by just a few carefully crafted words.

Foundational phrases can be wonderfully effective, or devastatingly destructive. 

On the plus side, they are memorable, they reinforce your message in the minds of the audience, and they help you keep the content of your speech on track, if you keep in mind that anything that doesn't support the phrase doesn't support your message.

On the negative side, if speaking in clever phrases just isn't your style, they can sound forced. Too many of them can make your speech sound corny. Poorly developed phrases can be overly silly, confusing, and off-putting to the audience. Using time-worn phrases, such as 'If You can Dream It, You Can Do It', as I did in the 2008 WCPS Finals, even for the sake of irony, are likely to come off badly, and cost you credibility.

Are Foundational phrases all they're cracked up to be? Yes, and No. They contain great power. Here are three to sum up today's column.

'Foundational Phrases aren't required, but often desired.' ~ Me
'When in Doubt, Leave it Out' ~ Darren LaCroix
'With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility' ~ Spider-Man's' Uncle Ben.


  1. Reassuring article. Newish (and not so newish) speakers may take a guideline like a foundational phrase as a rule and end up banging their heads on a table out of frustration.

  2. Personally I prefer to use chiasmus in a speech to make 'em memorable, i.e. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!"

  3. This is a great article. Thank you for taking the time to elaborate and illustrate.



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