Article Category: Speechwriting

Be More Memorable by Repeating Your Speech Words (Anaphora)

What if your speeches were more quotable?

What if your speeches were more powerful?

What if your speeches were more memorable?

Anaphora can do this for you. In this article, we examine how strategic use of repetition can elevate your speechwriting.

Rhetorical Devices Article Series

What is Anaphora? A Definition…

Anaphora is the Greek term used to describe the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences.

Anaphora, like many other rhetorical techniques, is commonly used in literature as well as in speeches. From literature, consider the opening words from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us,
we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven,
we were all going direct the other way —

Dickens’ use of anaphora (combined with skillful use of contrast) helps make this passage one of the most famous openings in all of literature. He uses anaphora three times:

  • 10 clauses beginning with “it was the”
  • 2 clauses beginning with “we had”
  • 2 clauses beginning with “we were all going direct”

Anaphora in “I Have a Dream” and “We Shall Fight”

In August, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave us one of the richest speech examples for anaphora. This includes “I have a dream …” and many other repetition-laden passages, including:

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.
Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.
Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

In all, King’s speech contains eight examples of anaphora. For more examples, see the Six Minutes Speech Analysis of “I Have a Dream”.

Another famous anaphora passage was delivered in the midst of World War II by Winston Churchill in the House of Commons, June 4, 1940:

We shall go on to the end,
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;
we shall never surrender.

Other Anaphora Examples

While anaphora was used by King and Churchill in highly emotional passages, it doesn’t always need to be used in this way.

In the three examples below, anaphora is used more for its emphatic and unifying characteristics. As well, note that the second and third examples involve the repetition at the beginning of phrases (as opposed to the beginning of sentences):

Senator Margaret Chase, addressing Congress to speak against McCarthyism, June 1, 1950:

I speak as briefly as possible because too much harm has already been done with irresponsible words of bitterness and selfish political opportunism. I speak as simply as possible because the issue is too great to be obscured by eloquence. I speak simply and briefly in the hope that my words will be taken to heart.

I speak as a Republican, I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American.

Ronald Reagan, address following Challenger disaster, January 28, 1986:

We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

Justin Trudeau, eulogy for his father, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, 2000:

My father’s fundamental belief never came from a textbook. It stemmed from his deep love for and faith in all Canadians and over the past few days, with every card, every rose, every tear, every wave and every pirouette, you returned his love.

A Guide for Using Anaphora in Your Speeches

The examples above highlight how anaphora helps create more emotional, more powerful, more quotable, and more memorable passages. But let’s be honest. We are rarely called to address a national or global audience on historic occasions.

So, in a “normal” speech, can you benefit by using anaphora too? Yes, absolutely! You can use anaphora in the classroom, the boardroom, or the ballroom.

Keep these guidelines in mind when stitching anaphora into your speeches.

Use anaphora strategically to highlight a passage which is central to your core message.

Guideline 1: Don’t overdo it.

Contrary to the example from “I have a dream”, it may be best to use anaphora sparingly within a speech. If you use it over and over again in every paragraph, its impact may be reduced. In most speeches, once or twice is probably enough.

Instead, use anaphora strategically to highlight a passage which is central to your core message. There’s no rule that says where this should be, but opening or closing a speech with anaphora is common.

Guideline 2: Choose simple, yet important words to repeat.

In nearly every example in this article, the speaker chose to repeat common, one-syllable words. Simple language is always a good choice, but this is especially so for repeated words.

But “simple” doesn’t mean the words are negligible. Consider:

  • King: “Now is the time …” and “I have a dream …”
  • Churchill: “We shall fight …”
  • Pope John Paul II: “I hope that …” (example below)

In each case, the repeated words echo key themes of the speech. King was sharing his dream and believed that the time had come for action. Churchill served notice that Britain was ready to fight. Pope John Paul II expressed hope for the future.

Guideline #3: Emphasize your delivery.

When speech examples are written out (as in this article), the anaphora is obvious. In a spoken speech, however, your audience doesn’t have this luxury. To achieve maximum effect, be sure to emphasize the repetitive words in your delivery. Enunciate clearly. Pause appropriately. Add vocal power if it makes sense to do so.

Guideline #4: Consider combining anaphora with other rhetorical devices.

To craft a really memorable passage, try weaving anaphora with another rhetorical device, such as:

  • the rule of three
  • epiphora
  • climax

Rule of Three
When you combine anaphora with the rule of three, the result is strong unity between the three statements. For example, consider these three contemporary speech examples:

Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech, June 12, 2005:

My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die.
It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months.
It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family.
It means to say your goodbyes.

Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009:

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans in search of a new life.
For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

J.A. Gamache, “Being a Mr. G“, 2007:

A sandal of hope when you reach out.
A sandal of joy when you listen to your heart.
A sandal of courage when you dare to care.

The mirror of anaphora, epiphora is repetition at the end of consecutive clauses or sentences. With anaphora and epiphora combined, you get sentences which begin and end with the same words. This focuses the attention on the connecting words in the middle, and magnifies the similarities or differences. For example:

Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965:

There is no Negro problem.
There is no Southern problem.
There is no Northern problem.
There is only an American problem.

When successive sentences increase in scope, this is known as climax. Note the amplification in the passage below from Pope John Paul II as he transitions from individual (1 and 2) to country (3 and 4) to global community (5).

Rhetorical Devices Article Series

Pope John Paul II, Address to the United Nations General Assembly, October 2, 1979:

At the close of this address, I wish to express once more before all the high representatives of the States who are present a word of esteem and deep love for all the peoples, all the nations of the earth, for all human communities. Each one has its own history and culture.
I hope that they will live and grow in the freedom and truth of their own history for that is the measure of the common good of each one of them.
I hope that each person will live and grow strong with the moral force of the community that forms its members as citizens.
I hope that the State authorities, while respecting the just rights of each citizen, will enjoy the confidence of all for the common good.
I hope that all the nations, even the smallest, even those that do not yet enjoy full sovereignty, and those that have been forcibly robbed of it, will meet in full equality with the others in the United Nations Organization.
I hope that the United Nations will ever remain the supreme forum of peace and justice, the authentic seat of freedom of peoples and individuals in their longing for a better future.

Your Turn: Try it Out!

You can add power and make your speeches more memorable. Craft one or two passages using anaphora, and your speechwriting will improve.

Try it out, and share your passage in the article comments.


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Comments icon1 Comment

  1. GREAT article, Andrew.
    Six Minutes is the best speech-communication blog around!

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