Part Three: Style

Introduction To Style

Hello, and congratulations on making it this far. I’m really pleased you’re here. It takes a lot of oomph to sign up for a course like this in the first place. Actually to take part is a whole other accomplishment, worthy of a big gold star.

Before I go much further, I think need to say something very important about style: we’re all different. I emphasize this fact because my own style, as demonstrated here, is almost certainly not quite (or not at all) your style. And I use myself as a demo quite a lot.

I don’t suggest you should copy me.

Look for the fundamentals underlying the superficial. Then take what’s useful, and do it your way.

The whole of this course, as you know by now, is based on classical rhetoric. And Part Three is more obviously about what we moderns call “rhetoric” because it’s (at least somewhat) about using rhetorical figures: figures of speech, and figures of thought.

When most people talk about rhetoric, these days, they tend to mean ingenious wordplay that is deliberately deceptive / manipulative.

Fair enough. But that’s a rather negative way to describe something we are all trying to do.

Like a frying pan, rhetoric is neither good nor bad: you can use it to cook up something splendid, or to bash somebody on the head. (This paragraph has been brought to you by the rhetorical figure called analogy.)

Depending on which figures you use, you can add drama, inject variety, help people to see things in a new way. Figures can make your words startling and (therefore) memorable.

As a writer, I tend to get very excited about this. The exercises in this section are essentially writing exercises. Additionally, there are two bits of audio. One is an interview with a friend of mine, about how he helped somebody else to be more natural. The other is an edited one-to-one session about the fear of meeting an actual audience.

Finally, there’s a video in which a course participant, Eve, came up with an ingenious way to overcome the disconnect of Zoom.

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Challenge 6 | Collect rhetorical figures

The Greeks named many useful rhetorical figures.

This challenge is an invitation to you to start your own collection of verbal beauties, to use as models in your own writing. To get you started, you can download some from my own “commonplace book” (as this kind of collection has traditionally been known).

Modest Adequate Style Rhetorical Figures.pdf (237.9 kB)

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Challenge 7 | Co-opt fine writing

Great writers and speakers become great because they learn from those who went before them. As a young man, the author Hunter S Thompson typed out the whole of The Great Gatsby, twice, just to see how it felt to write a masterpiece. (He copied out other books too.)

You may be pleased to hear that there’s benefit in copying much shorter passages – mere sentences, but great sentences.

I do this every so often in order to internalise and re-use their remarkable effects, for my own purposes. (See below.)

Here is an example. The first sentence is the original opening to a serious story in the Sunday Times. The second is my own rebuilt version of the same sentence, with an entirely different mood and subject, to fit my own situation:

After a light lunch last Wednesday, General James F Hollingworth, of Big Red One, took off in his helicopter and killed more Vietnamese than all the troops he commanded.

After a massive bowl of soup last night, Mr John-Paul Flintoff, a resident of north London, took a cross-legged position on the floor of his living room and spent more time watching TV than he had spent writing in the library all week.

Your turn now! Find a piece of writing you like, and copy out a few great lines. Then recast them to tell a story about whatever’s going on in your own life right now.

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A Speech That Didn’t Zing

Only somebody very important, powerful or influential gets to give the keynote speech at Davos. Recently I watched a man deliver that speech. It was broadcast live, on British TV, which is also remarkable.

The man’s subject was huge: “the greatest threats humanity has ever faced” (as he put it in his second paragraph).

This was real “voice from the wilderness” stuff, and in theory the speech could be a model for anybody trying to advance a cause they care about.

But… though I like the man, and agree that the topic is urgent, I think the speech is poor.

You can read it, and judge for yourself. I particularly recommend that you read it out loud.

(Bet you 10p you won’t!)

Warning: This is a bit of an epic. Don’t feel you need to tackle it all now. But I recommend that you print off the page, because there’s a lot of useful material in it.


Be More Natural!

I hope it goes without saying – but I’m going to say it anyway – that style isn’t all about polish. It’s also about removing polish – about finding and transmitting your authentic, natural voice.

That’s not easy. It takes a leap of faith.

How to help somebody who comes across as wooden, and wants to be more natural? You can’t just say, “Be more natural!”

What my friend Steve Chapman did was utterly unexpected (it involved dandelions).


Audio: Everyone Is Interesting And Attractive

I thought you might like to hear this short excerpt from a one-to-one session, with somebody who – at around this point in the course – felt extremely nervous about meeting an actual audience.

I’ve edited it so that you can only hear me.


7 mins 27 seconds

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Bonus video: Dead Zoom Remedy

It’s terribly easy to think that speaking is entirely mental – as if we didn’t have bodies. That can be even worse on Zoom. Course participant Eve L helped me to look for a way to overcome this.

As you watch, you might think of ways to use movement in your own online talks and meetings, whether or not you ask your audience to move around too.

And / or you might want to copy the way that I’m talking with Eve, instead of just talking at her.

With thanks to Eve.

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