John F. Kennedy took a passage from a speech by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and made it forever memorable by using a device known as parallelism.
Holmes said it this way in 1884: “…[W]e pause to become conscious of our national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what our country has done for each of us, and ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return.”
Some 75 years later, Kennedy delivered it in a more unforgettable way: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
When speakers or writers use parallelisms, they repeat words or expressions to create a distinctive pattern with rhythm. The repetitive balance serves to make the idea more memorable.
Sometimes, a single word is repeated in sequence, such as the advertising slogan: “No fuss. No frills. No kidding.”
In other uses, parallel symmetry is achieved by a series of identical clauses, as in the age-old maxim: “Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day; teach a person to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.”
In other uses of parallelism, a common sentence is repeated in each section of a speech. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” Speech did just that with the repeated phrase, “I have a dream that one day…” By repeating that phrase with vocal emphasis, King created an unmistakable harmony which will be remembered for an eternity.
Leaders can make their presentations more impactful by employing a parallel structure on occasion. This can be especially powerful for calls to action and points requiring emphasis.
Who can forget this Maya Angelou classic: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
While attempts to add too much flair or rhetorical flourish can come off as contrived, parallel structures that don’t go too far can make simple ideas more memorable and impactful.
Once you understand their simple logic, parallelisms aren’t difficult to compose. We hope you will try a parallelism now and again, we hope they serve you well, but most of all, we hope they make an impact on your audience.
No, I do not find that they have above average writing skills. By writing skills, I’m referring to punctuation and grammar, certainly, but also voice and tone and tempo as well as organizational structure and editing. Unfortunately, from my point of view, teachers/professors of non-writing classes who require writing in their classes don’t have the skills, time, or interest in helping improve a student's writing as part of a writing assignment. They are typically focused on the subject matter. So, we are all left with leaders at all levels of an organization who lack the ability to express themselves effectively. On the upside, it gives those of us who excel in communications a legitimate entry point into helping shape the persona of the company or executive or Initiative. The good news for those who want/ need self-improvement is that resources are readily available.
Can’t overstate the effectiveness of this technique! I’ve penned thousands of quotes, letters, and remarks for leaders over my career, and this is certainly a go to. Thanks for including practical comms tips like this for leaders and those who help them be their best selves!