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Spice Up Your Speeches with these 3 Rhetorical Devices

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Many of the greatest speeches in history have influenced their audience on an almost subliminal level. John Zimmer has written about Rhetoric for us before and here outlines three specific rhetorical devices that can have this profound effect and shows us how to use them to increase our powers of persuasion and our ability to influence.

Rhetoric is the art of using language with persuasive effect. Over 2,300 years ago, Aristotle wrote the classic book on the subject, On Rhetoric. For centuries, the study of rhetoric – the ability to speak in public and to move audiences with logic, emotion and credibility – was an important component of many educational systems.

The word “rhetoric” comes from the Greek ῥητορικός (rhetorikos), which means “oratorical”. “Rhetorikos” is derived from ῥήτωρ (rhetor), meaning “public speaker”, which in turn comes from the verb ἐρῶ (ero), meaning “to speak” or “to say”.

Simply put, a rhetorical device is a speaking technique that is used to persuade an audience to consider a subject from the speaker’s point of view. When used properly, rhetorical devices can have both logical and emotional appeal, and thus be very effective.

Below are three rhetorical devices that can add spice to any speech. But remember that you don’t want to overdo it. Think of adding rhetorical devices to a speech the way you would add a fine spice to a meal: you want enough to enhance the flavour but not so much that it overpowers the taste. In most cases, one or two will suffice.

 

Anaphora

The word anaphora comes from the Greek ἀναφορά (anafora), meaning “to bring back” or “to carry back”. In plain English, it is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences or clauses.

For example

I came, I saw, I conquered.” – Julius Caesar

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills …” – Winston Churchill

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.” – Martin Luther King

In an anaphora, the key words or ideas are emphasized, often with great emotional pull. Repetition makes the line memorable and the speaker’s words have rhythm and cadence.

In English, an active sentence (e.g., “We developed the plan.”) is more effective than a passive sentence (e.g., “The plan was developed by us.”). Thus, anaphora is particularly effective when one wishes to emphasize the subject of an action.

 

Epistrophe 

The word epistrophe (also known as epiphora) comes from the Greek ἐπιστροφή (epistrofi), meaning “turning about” or “upon turning”. In plain English, it is the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive sentences or clauses.

For example

“… that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” – Abraham Lincoln

“Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. We call on our people to seize this moment, so that the process towards democracy is rapid and uninterrupted. … I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination.” – Nelson Mandela

“But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we’ve been told that we’re not ready, or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes we can. It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes we can. It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes we can. It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes we can.” – Barack Obama

Because the emphasis is on the last word(s) of a series of sentences or phrases, an epistrophe can be very dramatic. As with an anaphora, the repetition in an epistrophe gives the lines rhythm and makes them memorable.

 

Anadiplosis

The word anadiplosis comes from the Greek ἀναδίπλωσις (anathiplosis), meaning “doubling” or “folding”. In plain English, it is beginning a sentence or clause by repeating the last word or words of the previous sentence or clause.

For example

“Tonight, we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution.” – George W. Bush

“The General who became a slave; the slave who became a gladiator; the gladiator who defied an Emperor. Striking story!” – Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda in Star Wars: Episode I

Anadiplosis can be used to demonstrate the relationship between things or events. It is often used to show cause and effect. The real power of an anadiplosis is when the repeated words build in intensity to a crescendo.

It is not necessary for the repeated words to be exactly beside each other; other words can be interjected provided that the elements of the anadiplosis are not too far apart. Furthermore, minor words in an anadiplosis can change; e.g., “a slave; the slave” and “a gladiator; the gladiator” in the quote by Joaquin Phoenix above.

For more information on rhetoric click here, or for more specific examples of adding rhetorical flourishes to liven up your speech, read Peter Watts Paskale’s post here.

John Zimmer
John Zimmer is an international speaker, trainer and lawyer. He has worked at a major Canadian law firm, the United Nations, the World Health Organization and is now a full-time speaker. A seven-time European Champion of speech contests, John writes an internationally recognized blog about public speaking, Manner of Speaking. He is also the co-creator of Rhetoric – The Public Speaking Game™.
John Zimmer
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