“Dirty Rhetoric” Delivers Clean ...


I came across Gavin McMahon last year, listening to his webinar on presentations.

Shockingly, he offered fresh takes. Better yet, he stayed away from the typical “use visuals, not bullets” and “don’t read your slides” and “don’t jingle the coins in your pocket” drivel that dominates 99 percent of the advice on presentations.

His roadmap to better presentations was pragmatic, showing how anyone could harmonize words and visuals.

Now Gavin and his colleague Peter Watts Paskale are tackling the bigger topic of how to improve one’s writing with a tool called “Dirty Rhetoric.”

Certainly, it’s a noble cause. There’s a lot of dreadful writing out there.

But what I like about Dirty Rhetoric is that everyone — even those skilled in marrying nouns and verbs — can benefit from the tool.

Before going further, I should describe Dirty Rhetoric. It consists of a deck of 53 different technique cards, each with a description and a couple supporting examples.Dirty Rhetoric Cards 09-15Cards are color coded:

  • Green = Persuasion
  • Blue = Description
  • Orange = Scaling
  • Yellow = Memory

Then, these categories are further broken down by:

  • Belief/ideals/credibility
  • Consistency/logic
  • Emotions/imagination

Each card comes with a degree of difficulty taken from the ratings of ski slopes, with three black diamonds signifying moguls the size of Volkswagens.

With that housekeeping out of the way —

Dirty Rhetoric is damn clever.

In a sense, the cards reverse engineer the elements of effective writing, so they become a repeatable process. The beauty of these techniques is that even one or two can give lift to a narrative as opposed to the unrealistic goal of cranking out Pulitzer-grade copy from start to end.

Let me share a few techniques.

  • Cliché Flip: We try to avoid clichés, but by riffing on a cliché you can make it work for you. I always remember a New York Times feature describing the Spanish soccer midfielder, Andrés Iniesta, as possessing an “elusive gust of speed.”
  • Seasoning: As the card puts it, “Bringing vitality to your speech by using zesty descriptive words.” Incongruent words can also add a jolt to the copy.
  • Noisy Comma: This involves putting the conjunctions “and” and “or” to repeatable use. You can see how this plays out in real life in the third sentence in this very post.

The cards come with a few games, one aimed at writer’s block. The idea is to get your copy down as best you can no matter how ugly. Randomly pick a card from Dirty Rhetoric and apply the technique to one section of the copy. It helps the creative fluids flow (cliché flip playing off of “creative juices” with the bonus of alliteration).

The quest to be Hemingway or even Elmore Leonard eludes most of us. Still, it’s possible for all us to write with some bounce in our step (decided to leave that cliché alone). Dirty Rhetoric is a worthy tool to keep within arm’s length on the desk.

Toward this end, Gavin and Peter have initiated a Kickstarter campaign which you can find here.

And here’s the terrific animated video that introduces the toolkit:


Back to my post on Gavin’s presentation webinar, I wrote:

“For those of us wired by words, this is a little like suggesting a tortoise would move faster using a skateboard.”

I believe this falls under the technique called “Crazy Comparison.”

Wishing Gavin and Peter the best of luck with their Kickstarter campaign.

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