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How Rhetoric can make your presentations powerful, effective & memorable

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Go straight to various major rhetorical devices and examples of their use

Words are powerful. They can drive us to our knees and bring us to tears. They can raise us to the heights of joy or the depths of despair. As the Greek Sophist Gorgias wrote in 414 BC:

“The power of speech has the same effect on the condition of the soul as the application of drugs to the state of bodies; for just as different drugs dispel different fluids from the body, and some bring an end to disease but others end life, so also some speeches cause pain, some pleasure, some fear; some instil courage, some drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.”

What a fantastic final phrase that is – “ …. drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.“ Wouldn't it be incredible to think that your own words could do that (OK, let's drop the ‘evil' bit)? That your words were literally irresistible?

Unfortunately, most speakers give hardly any forethought at all to the words and phrases they will use, or the tone they will use when delivering them. They don't even write their speeches or presentations out, preferring simply jot down notes in bullet points or headings, assuming that the actual, specific words to be used will somehow appear to them in a magical flash of inspiration once they stand up to speak.

Yet all the truly great speakers spent an age on preparation, (see how President Obama uses dozens of rhetorical devices in his speeches) and behind every perfect speech is hours of hard work. From his first speech to his last, Sir Winston Churchill (the man who, according to President Kennedy, "mobilised the English language and sent it into battle") was fanatical about thorough preparation and worked as hard in his seventies to prepare a speech as he did in his twenties.

He regarded each one as a work of art, and treated them accordingly. "I do not compose quickly,” he wrote. “Everything is worked out by hard labour and frequent polishing. I intend to polish till it glitters."

He would spend days dictating a speech to his secretary, testing words and phrases and muttering to himself as he paced up and down, cigar in mouth. And then finally, he would sit down at his desk and revise what he had written, applying final alterations, insertions, substitutions and deletions like the finishing touches to a painting. He was obsessed with making his words pleasing to the ear and liked to think he set his ideas to rhetoric as a composer would his to music (to mix artistic metaphors).

In his book ‘ Savrola' he writes about how his hero prepared a speech:

“What was there to say? Savrola saw a peroration, which would cut deep into the hearts of a crowd, a high thought, a fine simile, expressed in that correct diction which is comprehensible even to the most illiterate, and appeals to the most simple: something to lift their minds from the material cares of life and to awake sentiment. His ideas began to take the form of words, to group themselves into sentences; he murmured to himself, the rhythm of his own language swayed him; instinctively he alliterated. . . That was a point; could not tautology accentuate it? The sound would please their ears, the sense improve and stimulate their minds.”

What Is Rhetoric?

In choosing words that would “please their ears” and “stimulate their minds,” Churchill was consciously using the ancient art of rhetoric, which has been with us since the fifth century BC.

For centuries its study was regarded as a staple of a gentleman's education, being one of the seven ‘liberal' arts (the other six were mathematics, grammar, logic, geometry, music and astronomy), i.e. those not tied to the necessity of learning a trade.

However, nowadays (apart from the phrase 'rhetorical question', i.e. a question asked for effect which does not require an answer) the word tends to be used mostly in a negative sense, as in ‘nationalist rhetoric' or ‘crowd-pleasing rhetoric' (is that necessarily a bad thing? What is wrong in pleasing a crowd?).

So what is it? Some definitions are shown below:

“... the art of using language so as to persuade or influence others; the body of rules to be observed by a speaker or writer in order that he may express himself with eloquence” - Oxford English Dictionary

“… the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” - Kenneth Burke

“ … the science of speaking well" - Quintillian

So we can see that rhetoric isn't some dusty, ancient art with no relevance to the modern age – it is “the art of using language so as to persuade or influence others.” And isn't that exactly what you are trying to do when you speak before an audience?

Your intitial reaction at this point might be, 'Hang on Nick, I don't want (or need) to be a Churchill or a JFK. I just want to learn how to make better presentations. If I started to speak like them, my colleagues or customers would laugh at me.'

Well, I'm not trying to turn you into one of the twentieth century's greatest orators. 'm simply exposing you to the conscious techniques they used to make their speeches so effective. Techniques that will make your OWN talks or presentations ten times more effective, if you have the guts to use them.

There are a number of these tried and tested rhetorical techniques in my Whole-Brain Presenting Ebook with instructions and advice on how to apply them using ordinary, everyday language. You can also read about them here: Rhetorical devices and techniques.

Now here is the key bit. If you use them, you will increase your chances exponentially that your message will be remembered, for they are specifically designed to sear your words indelibly into the hearer's brain.

Not specifically a rhetorical technique and more a general principle is the 'TRICOLON.' For some reason, the human brain seems to absorb information effectively when it is presented in this way. Think of these famous examples:

"Government of the people, by the people, for the people" ... Abraham Lincoln

"Never in the history of human endeavour has so much been owed by so many to so few" ... Sir Winston Churchill

"Veni, vidi, vinci" ... Julius Caesar

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I will learn” – Benjamin Franklin

You will no doubt have noted that each of these examples involves the repetition of words or sounds. Whereas in normal speech we tend to avoid repetition to avoid sounding long-winded (in a normal conversation, Lincoln would probably have said, 'Government of, by and for the people'), there is something about repetition in formal speech which is very effective. Several of the techniques explained below deal specifically with this.

For example, In his 'I have a dream' speech, Martin Luther King starts six successive paragraphs with 'I have a dream' and then seven with the words 'let freedom ring.' And anyone who thinks that speech is boring, repetitive or long-winded needs their head examining; it is the single most moving speech I have ever heard.

Read this article to learn how to use rhetorical techniques so you can 'speak like Churchill' (only without sounding Churchillian).

Famous Speeches

The links below will take you to a number of famous speeches. Some of them are filled to the brim with rhetorical devices, and these I have highlighted them in bold print, with the name of each in brackets.

No wonder they stir the blood so effectively!

"I have a dream!" - Martin Luther King Jnr.

Inaugural Address - President John F Kennedy

"Fight them on the beaches" - Sir Winston Churchill

9/11 Speech (excerpt) - President George W Bush

Address to the Third Army on the eve of the D-Day Invasion - General George Patton

Gettysburg Address - President Abraham Lincoln

Elizabeth I's speech to the English army on the eve of the Spanish Armada

"The Iron Curtain" - Sir Winston Churchill

London Bombing Speech" - Prime Minister Tony Blair

Inaugural Address - President Barack Obama

Speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention - Senator Barack Obama

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