May 30, 2016 fm

Let’s Not Talk About Sex


One of my absolute favorite rhetorical devices is paralipsis. Paralipsis means omission. You omit something you say by saying that you don’t say it. Eh?

Paralipsis harbors two great benefits. First, it’s a wonderful way to mention something completely unmentionable in an intelligent manner.

My friend and professional speaker Olivia Schofield once led a Toastmasters meeting in her Berlin-based club. In Toastmasters we avoid the obvious three landmines of antipathy – politics, sex, religion. Yet, Olivia was smart. She whirled the whole meeting into the fact that they were NOT talking about sex. She would say things like, If we were allowed to talk about sex, I would say now that I was sexually aroused by your speech, but since we cannot talk about sex, I will not say that. Can you imagine the fun they had in that meeting?

Or take Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE – 43 BCE), the Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, political theorist, consul, and constitutionalist. Above all – Cicero was a superstar of rhetoric. In his Pro Caelio speech, he says to a prosecutor, Obliviscor iam iniurias tuas, Clodia, depono memoriam doloris mei. Which means, I now forget your wrongs, Clodia, I set aside the memory of my pain [that you caused].

The second benefit of paralipsis is that you can avoid information overload. Imagine you give a presentation about the status of the five key performance indicators (KPIs) of your company. You learned in former public speaking trainings that an audience could never really remember more than three points. Instead of presenting all five KPIs you say,

I could talk today about our five KPIs. I could mention that our conversion rate has improved by 24% in the last quarter. But I will not talk about it. I could tell you that we are extremely proud that we achieved a 65% increase in our online orders. But this is not today’s focus either. Today I’ll focus on the three remaining KPIs…

You say it, your logos goes up, but you don’t fall into the trap of information overload.

Mentioning the unmentionable and avoiding an information overload – paralipsis is a wonderful rhetorical device. Find out more about it at Manner of Speaking.

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