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Say It With Flair

Enhance your speech’s message with rhetorical devices.

By Bill Brown, DTM


“A rose by any other name
would smell as sweet.”

—WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE


We like objects that have a pleasing aroma, that land pleasantly in the nose. Likewise, we like sounds that land pleasantly in the ear. In addition to songs and poems, phrases can also have a pleasant pattern to them, particularly when rhetorical devices are employed, like the ones discussed in Project 4 of the Competent Communication manual.

Perhaps it is Abraham Lincoln’s classic phrase, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Perhaps it is Julius Caesar’s “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Perhaps it is real estate’s mantra “location, location, location.” These are known as triads.

We like anaphora, as used in Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. In eight successive paragraphs, King begins with those words—“I have a dream.” This is a powerful device and it is, in my opinion, why that speech is so memorable.

We like alliteration and rhyme, such as former U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism,” and O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran’s “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Alliteration doesn’t even have to start with the same letter. What are the Three R’s? “Readin,’ Writin’ and ‘Rithmetic.”

We like metaphors and similes, like Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Or the phrase “He stood there like the Rock of Gibraltar”?

We like hyperbole, such as, “He was as big as a grizzly bear, and twice as mean.”

We like antithesis, like American Founding Father Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death,” and John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” This is the technique where you pair exact opposites.

And we like contrapuntal turnarounds, like Kennedy’s “… never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate.” This is the technique where you switch words around in a phrase.

Did you notice what I did? In the last six paragraphs, I began with the words “We like …” That is anaphora. See how easy it is? You can even combine techniques. Anaphoric triads and alliterative or rhyming triads are very effective tools.

When I was growing up, one of my favorite television programs was The Adventures of Superman. The show began with an opening that included these words, “It’s a bird … It’s a plane … It’s Superman.” That is an anaphoric triad. The show aired about 60 years ago, and I still remember that line.

Are you competing in a Toastmasters contest? In one of my contest speeches, I talked about trials in our lives and said, “Sometimes they slow you down, sometimes they knock you down, and sometimes they turn your life upside down.” Not only is that an anaphoric triad, it includes a form of rhyming, as well, where I finished with the same word each time. If you want help with alliteration or rhyming, check out thesaurus.com and rhymer.com.

There is something satisfying about a rhetorical device that, when employed, stands in sharp contrast to a plain construction. It makes your point memorable. It makes it stand out. It makes it linger in the mind of the listener.

Maybe it’s the beat, maybe it’s the sound, maybe it’s the mental picture. Whatever the reason, rhetorical devices enhance the effectiveness and longevity of your message. That is reason enough to include them as often as we can in our speeches, presentations and conversations. But there is another interesting factor—they are fun to say. I learned this in the voice-over work I do. Phrases that have the right cadence more easily roll off of your tongue. And that enables you to say them with more flair.

My favorite rhetorical device is the triad. For some reason, most people like things listed in threes. No one seems to definitively know why, but I think that it is because they give us a feeling of completeness. In fact, triads are so comfortable that you can include as many of them as you want. They never wear out their welcome. In a five-to-seven-minute speech, I sometimes include as many as 15 to 20 of them.

In addition to the triad quotes above, I have used six triads myself within this article. Can you find them? I’ll give you a hint—four of them are anaphoric. To find the answers, see the section below this article.

The spoken word, just like a song, has a certain cadence to it, a certain drama, a certain melody. And each of these is enhanced by using rhetorical devices. Learn them. Master them. And use them—often.


 

In this article there are six triads in the text, separate from the triad examples that are pointed out by author Bill Brown. He challenges the reader to find the six. The answers are as follows:

  1. Perhaps it is Abraham Lincoln’s classic phrase, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Perhaps it is Julius Caesar’s “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Perhaps it is real estate’s mantra “location, location, location.” (anaphoric)
  2. It makes the point memorable. It makes it stand out. It makes it linger in the mind of the listener. (anaphoric)
  3. Maybe it’s the beat. Maybe it’s the sound. Maybe it’s the mental picture. (anaphoric)
  4. Speeches, presentations and conversations. (triad) 
  5. A certain cadence, a certain drama, a certain melody. (anaphoric)
  6. Learn them. Master them. And use them. (triad)