Writer, Editor, Content Strategy

2 Social Media Writing Lessons that will “Change Your Thinking, Change the World”

How nonprofits and socially conscious businesses can provoke new perspectives






Seven years ago, during a parent-teacher meeting at our son’s school, the team of teachers glowed over his abilities and interests, his strengths and contributions. My husband and I listened as we always had in these meetings to discuss our son’s struggles with learning differences: waiting for the other shoe to deliver its resounding thud of concerns. This time, no thud. “There are many ways to educate a child,” they explained. “Here, we don’t ask, ‘How smart is your son?’ We ask, ‘How is your son smart?’”

This week, a colleague sent me an email with a link to a blog post by the mother of a child recently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. The blogger recalled certain language in the Americans with Disabilities Act that states employers must provide “reasonable accommodation” for people with disabilities. The question follows: “But why wouldn’t we ask all employees what they need to be their most successful at their jobs?”

Both of these stories remind me of two important writing techniques for nonprofits and conscious businesses that aim to “Change Your Thinking, Change the World.” One: Reset readers’ thinking habits with a clever turn-of-phrase. “How is your son smart” not only changed our thinking about education, it also reshaped our worldview about labeling differences. Two: Poke life into stale views with a provocative question. Why wouldn’t we accommodate success for all? Both of these rhetorical tactics stop conventional thinking in its tracks and help build the new neural pathways to fresh perspectives.

How to Turn a Phrase

With online real estate shrinking for the written word, content creators need to say more with less. The turn-of-phrase is an art. It requires practice – as does all writing. But here’s a good way to start:

  1. Write it the way you think it, no matter how uninspiring.
  2. Go back and look for your key point in a single sentence, phrase or message.
  3. Apply one of the following rhetorical techniques to make it memorable:

Inversion: The teacher team used inversion when asking, “how your child is smart” instead of “how smart is your child.” Inverting the subject and the predicate of a sentence allows you to emphasize key words. It works great with emotive words.

Metaphor: A metaphor enlivens a phrase by attributing the characteristic of one object to another. It acts directly on emotion. The poet Pablo Neruda writes “rain that falls with its sky” to describe a downpour. Great persuaders also use them to explain complex ideas.

Parallelism: One of my favorite writing techniques strings together lyrical, repetitive phrases to drive a point home, while engaging the part of the brain that enjoys music and poetry. Great writers and orators from Lincoln to Winston Churchill used parallelism to persuade. In his inaugural speech, President Obama stirs emotion with parallelisms, including, “Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shattered.”

Chiasmus: I once read in a greeting card this vivid example of the chiasmus, which repeats words in successive clauses in reverse grammatical order: “We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing.”

Provocative Questions

Writing has a way of knocking conventional thinking on its head with provocative questions. Besides provoking, they also challenge and discard traditional ideas or concepts. Provocative questions do not have to be negative or argumentative, but they can pave the way for helpful skepticism, doubt, and disbelief; cause debate; and elevate the level of thinking of your audience. A few ways to ask:

  • Purposely assume the wrong idea: “So, you mean to say that child labor is acceptable?”
  • Try painting the reader into a corner: “How can we improve land quality without damaging cultural traditions?”
  • Ask “Why” or “Why not:” “Why wouldn’t we ask all employees what they need to be their most successful at their jobs?”

Great speechwriters and sportscasters are masters at the rhetoric game. I can’t help with the latter, but a few resources for the former include:

Good source for turn-of-phrase examples are quotation references:

Why would you settle for “just the facts” when the facts are already settled? Provoke, disturb, rattle those facts into fresh ideas that empower action.

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