Parallelism 101: Add Clarity and Balance to Your Speeches
Do you ever find yourself wishing that your audience understood you better? Do you have difficulty conveying your great ideas clearly?
One of the most important writing techniques I ever learned was parallelism. Parallelism leads to clear writing, and clear writing leads to clear speaking.
In this article, we define parallelism, study numerous examples, and discuss how you can incorporate it into your speeches.
What is Parallelism?
Parallelism is the successive use of identical grammatical patterns of words, phrases, or sentences. Sound boring? Wait — don’t give up yet!
Parallelism may involve repetition of some words, but more generally involves repetition of parts of speech (e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives). It is sometimes referred to as parallel structure or parallel construction.
Examples of Parallelism
Consider two examples from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, both of which involve some repetition of individual words. In the first, the parallel pattern is “[preposition] the people”. In the second, the parallel pattern is “we can not [verb]“.
… government of the people, by the people, for the people…
… we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.
Feel the “[verb] any [noun]” parallel pattern repeated in John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural address:
… we will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, and oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.
For a more contemporary example, consider Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address:
… that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school.
The parallel pattern here is a little longer: “that my [noun -- related to me] had never graduated from [noun -- educational level]”
Benefits of Parallelism
Frequent effective use of parallelism is essential for clear writing.
Don’t believe me? Stroll through a sample of writing in any newspaper, magazine, textbook, or novel and you are sure to trip over numerous examples of parallelism.
Speechwriting is no exception. Every speech benefits from the use of parallel structure. These benefits include:
- Clarity – By organizing into parallel structures, you make it easier for your audience to understand. This is especially important for speeches (compared with writing meant to be read), as your audience doesn’t have the benefit of “re-reading” a passage over and over to “get” the meaning.
- Balance – Pairs of parallel patterns roll off the tongue, resulting in a feeling of satisfaction.
- Rhythm – Three or more parallel patterns are often used to establish a powerful rhythmic beat. (See the JFK example above.)
- Comparability – The similarity or contrast between two or more elements is emphasized when brought together with parallel structure.
- Concision – Rephrasing an idea using parallelism nearly always results in a more concise statement.
- Memorability – Because parallelism boosts all of the above qualities, the result is often more memorable and more quotable lines in your speech.
How to Use Parallelism in Your Speeches
1. Use parallelism to emphasize a comparison or contrast.
Consider Neil Armstrong’s famous line spoken from the moon on July 20, 1969:
That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Note the contrast between “small step” and “giant leap”; and between “man” and “mankind”.
This form of parallelism even has a fancy name: syncrisis.
For a less grand example, study Henry Ford’s off-the-mark comments about exercise:
Exercise is bunk. If you are healthy, you don’t need it; if you are sick, you shouldn’t take it.
Note the use of contrasting terms (“healthy”, “sick”) in parallel structure.
Finally, consider this hypothetical example from a political debate which uses parallel structure to magnify the contrast between opposing ideologies:
My social policies hold families together; your policies rip families apart.
2. Use parallel structure for lists of words or phrases.
For example, note the repeated parallel structure “[verb] the [noun]”
In anticipation of a visit, the homeowner cut the grass, trimmed the hedge, painted the fence, and cleared the path.
3. End parallel words or phrases with same letter combinations.
The scientist hypothesized wisely, measured precisely, calculated exactly, and reported succinctly.
With this “[past tense verb] [adverb]” parallel pattern, each phrase ends in “-ly”. This partial rhyme creates a balanced, rhythmic sound.
This form of parallelism also has a fancy name: homoioteleuton. (Don’t worry… I don’t remember that name either.)
4. Combine parallelism with the power of 3.
While you only need two elements to create parallel structures, there’s something magical about three parallel elements. Read more in How to Use the Rule of Three in Your Speeches.
Once you’ve mastered the parallel triad, consider intentionally breaking the pattern in the last element for a powerful or comedic effect. This is described in How to Add Power or Humor with the Rule of Three.
5. Use parallelism on your slides and handouts.
Just as parallelism benefits your spoken words, it also benefits your printed words. Your slides and handouts (when used) are an important presentation element; don’t neglect them. In particular, check your bulleted lists to make sure that you’ve used parallelism correctly.
Caution! Don’t make your slides too wordy; audiences hate being read to. But if you must have text, consider using parallel structure.
6. Use pauses and vocal variety to “mark” parallel structures.
No matter how well a speech is written, a speaker who delivers it in a flat, monotone voice will ruin it. Don’t be that speaker!
Use pauses and vocal variety to help convey the start or end of the parallel patterns. Your audience can’t “see” your commas (or any other punctuation) to know where the parallel structures are divided, so you have to convey them vocally.
Give it a Try!
You may already be using parallelism without knowing it, but we can all improve our speech writing.
Share your examples of parallel structure in the article comments.