A man walks into a bank with a gun in his hand. “Ok, everybody,” he shouts, “lie on the floor! This is a hold-up!” Some people obey immediately, but a few don’t. The man reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handful of bullets. “Get on the floor,” he commands. “I have a handful of bullets!” When that doesn’t provoke the desired response, the man begins throwing the bullets one at a time. The security guards quickly realize that the man has no bullets in the gun. They dodge the bullets the man throws at them, and quickly overpower him.
Why did this man fail to rob the bank? He had the necessary tools, namely the bullets and the gun. His problem, however, was that he used them separately. Each tool had some effect, but they did not help him accomplish his purpose when used alone. In most cases, tools need to be combined to make the greatest impact on your audience, whether people in a bank or people who read your documents.
Strategies for Impact
Writers have at their disposal many strategies for making an impact. In most cases, they can be used independently to create some level of emphasis, or impact. For example,
- Parallelism: Creating a series of parallel items provides increasing emphasis on those items while showing how they are related to a main point.
- Framing: Framing ideas by stating similar ideas at the beginning and end of an argument reinforces those ideas and keeps the reader focused.
- Sentence Fragment: A sentence fragment starting with a conjunction tells the reader to pay close attention to what comes next.
- Style Shift: Dropping in a rare colloquialism garners reader attention to a particular point.
- Terminal Placement: Stating the most important information or concept at the end of a sentence or paragraph demonstrates its importance and helps the reader focus on it.
- Short Phrase or Sentence: Short sentences and phrases have the potential to create strong emphasis. They catch the eyes visually, and the punctuation on either side creates pauses so that the phrase or sentence stands out.
Many such strategies exist. In fact, the writing guide Bang! Writing With Impact contains over 200 such strategies.
However, these strategies increase the overall impact of your writing when they are combined logically and artistically. Let’s look at a great example of how the strategies described above can be combined to create an overall emphasis on a particular idea.
Sample of Strategies Combined
The text in this sample is taken from An Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World by Harry Elmer Barnes (Author: 1937, 1941; Dover Publications Inc.: 1965). The passage discusses the idea that while human nature has not changed since the earliest days of our history, humankind has made great advances in culture, thus negating the idea that human nature is a barrier to societal advancement. By the time you finish reading this selection, you will have a good idea of where the author stands on this issue, and, likely, you will agree with him.
These considerations should serve to make clear that what we regard as human civilization has developed without any change in human nature. Our institutions, literature, art, and religion have grown from the most rudimentary beginnings to their present forms without involving the slightest changes in the physical equipment which we designate as human nature. We have passed from cave dwellings to the Empire State building and Rockefeller Center, from small clans and tribes to great national states and colonial empires, from the possession of a few skins and bone implements to billionaires, and from illiteracy to the wisdom of a John Dewey or the erudition of a Joseph McCabe. And all of these advances have been accomplished with the same old human nature, persisting unchanged.
The writer used the strategies above to emphasize his points, lead to a final conclusion, and make an impact on his readers.
- Parallelism: This passage contains two major examples of parallelism. The second sentence contains a parallel series of 4 individual words (“institutions, literature . . .”). The third sentence contains a series of 4 parallel phrases. In most cases, four items in a series is the maximum for creating emphasis. Using more than four actually reduces impact.
- Framing: The first sentence provides the context for upcoming text: “human civilization has developed without any change in human nature.” Then the author provides some discussion of this, some examples, etc. Finally, in the last four words of the paragraph, he reinforces his idea: “human nature, persisting unchanged.” Thus, we start and finish with the central concept, which frames the entire passage.
- Sentence Fragment: Starting a sentence with “and,” “but,” and “yet,” (coordinating conjunctions) will always make a sentence fragment. However, this strategy tells the reader that the next information is inherently linked to and provides the conclusion from the previous statement. This tells the reader, “Pay attention. I’m about to write something important.” The author used this strategy by starting the final sentence, “And all of these advances . . . .” At this point, he begins to build up to the final impact statement.
- Style Shift: This passage has a fairly academic tone. While the author obviously is passionate about this issue (we know this from the other strategies), he maintains a high, fairly impersonal tone. Then, he uses the term “same old,” which is a colloquialism. This draws the reader’s attention to what comes next. If the reader’s attention has started to wander during the previous discussion, this temporary shift in style will draw the reader back in so that the author can make his central point, which follows immediately.
- Terminal Placement: The most important information in a sentence should be at the end of the sentence. Similarly, the most important information in a paragraph should be at the end of the paragraph. The reason for this is simple. The words at the end of the paragraph have the potential to create the greatest impact, so placing the main idea there means placing the greatest emphasis on the main point. The last four words of this paragraph summarize the main point.
- Short Phrase or Sentence: Look at the final phrase of the entire passage: “persisting unchanged.” That is the point of the entire passage: human nature has persisted unchanged and yet all these accomplishments have occurred.
Harry Barnes packed many strategies into four sentences. The effect is cumulative, building to an impressive, emphatic paragraph. The final sentence, alone, combines four strategies, which together build to the final impact statement: start with a conjunction to catch the reader’s attention, shift the style to increase the impact, and conclude with the most important information in a very short phrase. Barnes would have been a very successful bank robber.
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