Avoiding Overkill: Don’t Beat the Dead Horse!

We’re all familiar now with President Obama’s infamous line in this week’s final presidential debate with Mitt Romney, responding to Romney’s charge about the nation’s shrinking armed forces:

“You mention the Navy, for example, that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916.  Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets.”

Very clever in use of facts and execution.  Mr. Obama’s mistake, however, was in his following sentence:

“We have these things called aircraft carriers and planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”

Not so clever.  Mr. Obama made a mistake that’s all too common these days (including on late-night comedy shows, “Saturday Night Live” in particular):  beating the dead horse.  It’s when you use a particularly good turn of phrase, punctuate an argument with a powerful word or two, or even tell a punch line — and then expound upon it.  Worse, Mr. Obama took a winning line and in his very next sentence not only neutralized its impact, actually reversed its impact, coming off as sounding condescending and losing points for appearing decidedly very un-Presidential.

As a writer, speaker, and media trainer, I encourage my clients to use language powerfully, but also to use powerful language sparingly, almost like a spice or seasoning:  less is more.

Don’t beat the dead horse.  Particularly with an obsolete bayonet.


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