Article Category: Speechwriting

8 Ways to Use Contrast in Your Speeches

Speech and Presentation ContrastWhat quality is vital to virtually all creative art forms, including literature, music, painting, sculpture, photography, drama, and speechwriting?

What quality both sharpens the attention of your audience and makes them understand you better?


In this article, we’ll define contrast, explore its benefits, and examine many strategies for using contrast in your next presentation.

What is Contrast?

Contrast is a very broad term referring to any difference–usually a large difference–between two or more elements. The elements being contrasted might be anything: words, phrases, concepts, anecdotes, story characters, sounds, actions, shapes, visuals, or emotions.

There are several degrees of contrast available to you, and each can be effectively used in speeches and presentations:

  • Opposite pairs of elements may be contrasted against one another, each helping to define the other through their differences.
  • Two or more elements which are not commonly associated with each other may be juxtaposed in surprising ways.
  • Two or more elements that belong in the same category are examined to highlight their differences.

Contrast is Ubiquitous

Contrast is everywhere, so our brains are hard-wired to recognize it and seek it out. Don’t believe me? Let’s consider just two examples, one contemporary and one from over 150 years ago.

For a lyrical example of contrast, consider the chorus for John Legend’s 2013 hit “All of Me”:

‘Cause all of me
Loves all of you
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections
Give your all to me
I’ll give my all to you
You’re my end and my beginning
Even when I lose I’m winning

In eight short lines, five contrasting pairs of words (me-you, curves-edges, perfect-imperfections, end-beginning, lose-winning) create wonderful balance and evocative imagery.

Arguably the most famous use of literary contrast is found in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens:

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us,
we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven,
we were all going direct the other way —

Benefits of Contrast in Your Speeches

The first benefit of using contrast is that it sharpens the attention of your audience. Contrast surprises your audience and draws them into your presentation because contrast is appealing. The more you are able to capture and sustain your audience’s attention, the more likely they will remember your message.

In her excellent book Resonate (Six Minutes review), Nancy Duarte expresses this idea powerfully:

Presentations with a pulse have an ebb and flow to them. Those bursts of movement result from contrast—contrast in content, emotion, and delivery. […]

Contrast […] is at the heart of communication, because people are attracted to things that stand out.

The second benefit of using contrast is that it adds precision to your words and ideas by placing them next to contrasting words and ideas. This, in turn, helps your audience understand your message.

In Writing Tools (Six Minutes review), Roy Peter Clark conveys this benefit succinctly:

Put odd and interesting things next to each other. Help the reader learn from contrast.

How to use Contrast in Your Presentation

If contrast is so vital, how can you incorporate it into your speeches and presentations? There are numerous ways to inject contrast into both your content and delivery. Let’s examine just a few.

1. Contrasting Concepts

Want to learn more?
Using contrasting concepts is just one of many ways to sequence your presentation. Many more are described in How to Sequence Your Presentation.

Organizing your overall presentation around contrasting themes is one of the most reliable techniques you can choose. For example, consider the following common speech organization patterns:

  • Advantages versus Disadvantages
  • Status Quo versus Proposed
  • Risks versus Opportunities
  • Past/Present versus Future
  • Problems versus Solutions

When you organize your speech around contrasting concepts, you create a natural cadence as you shift between the two poles of the argument.

2. Contrasting Viewpoints

Within a presentation, you can study a topic from two or more contrasting viewpoints. For example, consider three diverse speech topics–mass transit, corporate restructuring, and after-school programs–which can be presented using a contrasting viewpoint strategy:

  • Consider the impact of mass transit design on local residents, commuters, and tourists.
  • Analyze the impact of corporate restructuring on engineering, accounting, and service teams.
  • Study the impact of after-school programs on students, staff, and parents.

By contrasting several different perspectives (e.g. local residents, commuters, and tourists), the salient qualities of each perspective are clarified and amplified.

In addition, when you devote time to contrasting perspectives, you are generally seen as being fair, balanced, and comprehensive.

3. Contrasting Phrases and Words

An easy technique to make your words more memorable is to employ contrasting phrases and words in close proximity to one another. In his TED talk, Dan Pink (watch and read review) uses contrast wonderfully, including this memorable line which he repeats four separate times:

There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

In Speak like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln (Six Minutes review), James C. Humes writes:

If you want to coin your own Power Line, try pairing […] antonyms. Take one word for the first part of the sentence and then its opposite for the second part.

Two of the antonym pairs mentioned by Humes (end-beginning; win-lose) are employed in the John Legend lyrics quoted earlier in this article.

4. Contrasting Visuals

Yesterday, I saw a television commercial which depicts a healthy, prosperous family having a delightful lunch in a park. All seems normal until the parents hand their children bottles of (very) dirty water. The commercial achieves its purpose—to highlight the lack of clean drinking water for 1.1 billion people—by using a contrasting visual scene to surprise the viewer.

You can trigger emotional and cognitive responses in your audience by employing contrasting slide visuals in a variety of ways, including:

  • Juxtapose objects which don’t “belong together” into a single image, like the dirty water bottles in the park scene described above.
  • Use a pair of contrasting images on the same slide.
  • Use a series of slide images to set a pattern, and then follow them with a highly contrasting image to create visual tension.
Want to learn more?
Did you know that the use of contrast is one of twelve tactics associated with charismatic leaders?

Read about it: What is Charisma? Can it be Learned?

5. Contrasting Voice

Monotone speaking is sure to put your audience to sleep, so effective speakers incorporate a healthy dose of vocal variety into their delivery. In particular, contrasting vocal qualities can be used strategically as you present:

  • Speak louder or quieter — Variations in volume should be used sparingly as you don’t want to seem like you are yelling or whispering for the bulk of your presentation. However, when used to emphasize special words or sentences, the contrast in your voice will immediately heighten the attention of your audience.
  • Speaking faster or slower — As with volume, your regular speaking rate should allow your audience to understand you comfortably. In small doses, however, altering your rate is powerful. Slowing down signals that you are delivering a key message that you want your audience to remember. Speeding up, on the other hand, conveys heightened emotion and energy.

6. Contrasting Gestures

One of my personal speaking challenges is to avoid the repetitive “arm thrust” throughout my talk. It’s not that the action is necessarily negative when used in isolation, but any gesture that is used too much weakens its effectiveness and leads to audience boredom. Instead, using varied gestures is more effective.

There are many types of contrasting gestures that complement your message effectively. For example:

  • Left versus Right – You can indicate the passage of time by gesturing to the audience’s left (past) or right (future).
  • Down versus Up – You can emphasize the contrast between something short (by gesturing down) and something tall (by gesturing up).
  • Small versus Large – If you use smaller, constrained gestures (i.e. gestures close to the body) for most of your presentation, you can generate huge impact by using a larger gesture (i.e. gesture with arms extended).

7. Contrasting Movement

Just like contrasting gestures, contrasting full-body movement can be very effective in accentuating your message and maintaining audience attention. There are infinite possibilities for full-body movements; if you choose movements which are unique, you will achieve the desired contrast.

Note that the contrasting movement does not need to be relative to yourself. If you offer movements which contrast other speakers at the event, the effect can be just as positive. For example, if all other speakers at the event speak from a stationary position behind a lectern, you have a great opportunity for contrast simply by venturing away from the lectern.

Beware of a pitfall when it comes to body movement. Avoid pacing methodically left and right, or rocking forward and backward. Even though these are technically “contrasting movements”, the effect you will produce is one of a swinging pendulum which will slowly soothe your audience to sleep!

8. Contrasting Emotions

I once attended a conference with a fabulously inspiring keynote speaker. Later at the conference, I asked the speaker what she thought was the most important quality for a keynote address. She said that her goal is always to make the audience laugh several times, cry several times, and end with a smile. This reinforces the importance not only of connecting emotionally with an audience, but also offering the audience contrasting emotions.

An entire presentation which evokes the same emotion throughout — whether it be sorrow, joy, empathy, humor, love, or anything else — can be very flat and one-dimensional, just like a monotone voice. On the other hand, a presentation which offers an array of contrasting emotional cues creates an exciting cadence or rhythm that draws in audience members.

Rhetorical Devices Article Series

Contrasting emotions can be achieved in a variety of ways mentioned earlier, including your speech themes, words, vocal variety, gestures, and visuals.

Questions for You

What examples of contrast have you observed in your favorite presentations?

How can you use contrast in your next speech?

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Comments icon4 Comments

  1. Awesome post after such a long time. Thank you, Andrew.

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Thanks, Geetesh. I’m glad you find it useful.

  2. Dr. Subramanian Narayanan says:

    Very nice idea! Good article!

  3. VENKATRAMAN B says:

    I would like to receive the public speaking articles.