Wednesday 30 October 2013

On Rhetoric

I have long been interested in Rhetoric. 

Rhetoric is the art or skill of persuading people by the spoken word. The ancient Greeks studied this assiduously, as their version of democracy rested on persuading the people in the market square. Whoever could win the argument won the day! 

Ever since, orators have used and built on the discoveries they made, and the basic rhetorical toolkit remains as powerful today as it has ever been - when well used. 

As a trainer and presenter, I often structure key points carefully, using particular rhetorical structures quite deliberately. I also coach others to use them when working on their presentation skills.

Here are some of the main techniques. 


This is the presentation of ideas by way of a strong contrast. 

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. 

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. 

That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. 

Rhetorical questions: 

These are questions where the answer is implied by the question, or is assumed to be known (or knowable) by the listeners. 

What’s Montague? [...] What’s in a name? 

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed, if you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? 

What have the Romans ever done for us? 

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? 

Three part lists:

These may be single words, phrases or whole sentences. The pace and intonation of the delivery is particularly important to make these effective. 

Veni, vidi, vici. (I came, I saw, I conquered.) 

Cry God for Harry, England and St George! 

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers... 

Liberté, fraternité, égalité. 

Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer 

I stand before you today as the representative of a family in grief, a nation in mourning, and a world in shock. 

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness 

Lies, damned lies and statistics 

Litotes (understatement) 

This can be used for a subtle emphasis with a slight comic effect and to evoke sympathy. 

And to do that would risk the financial collapse of the company, which would be slightly embarrassing. 

Hyperbole (overstatement) 

This is used to convey emphasis by exaggeration, and is best used very sparingly. 

I’d sooner die! 


For a good exploration of the first few of these, in the context of political rhetoric and stimulating 'spontaneous' applause, see Max Atkinson’s Lend Me Your Ears.

For a more comprehensive list of rhetorical devices, with examples, try here.

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