Article Category: Speechwriting

Speech Preparation #6: Add Impact with Rhetorical Devices

Figures of Speech

The previous article in the Speech Preparation Series showed you how to edit your speech for focus, clarity, and concision.

However, your speech can be focused, clear, and concise and still lack vitality.

If your speech is void of rhetorical devices, it is like a painting void of color.

On all technical points, a black and white sketch might clearly be a woman smiling, or group of men having a meal, but without color, it’s not the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper.

With many examples, this article demonstrates how you can inject rhetorical devices into your speech during the editing process.

Speech Preparation Series

Writing for Impact and Beauty

The study of rhetoric provides speechwriters with numerous rhetorical devices. When you use these devices, your presentations will be more impactful (easier to remember) as well as more beautiful (more pleasurable to listen to).

Of the very large number of rhetorical devices, we’ll investigate three types in this article:

  1. Devices which involve sounds (often with repetition)
    e.g. alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia
  2. Devices which involve repetition of words, phrases, or ideas (often with parallelism)
    e.g. anaphora
  3. Devices which change the usual meaning of words
    e.g. metaphors, similes

Many other devices not discussed here are worthy of study:

1. Rhetorical Devices: Sound

Sound-based rhetorical devices add a poetic melody to speeches. Not surprisingly, the net effect is that speeches are more pleasurable to listen to. Three of the most common forms are:

  • alliteration — repetition of the same sound at the beginning of nearby words
    e.g. “what my wife wanted”, “her husband has had”
  • assonance — repetition of the same vowel sound in nearby words
    e.g. “how now brown cow”
  • onomatopoeia — a word which imitates the sound of itself
    e.g. “buzz”, “whoosh”, “meow”

2. Rhetorical Devices: Repetition of Words or Ideas

On all technical points, a black and white sketch might clearly be a woman smiling, or group of men having a meal, but without color, it’s not the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper.

Two common forms involve repetition in successive clauses or sentences.

  • anaphora — repetition of a word or phrase at the start of successive clauses or sentences
    e.g. Winston Churchill

“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, [… many more …] We shall never surrender.”

  • epiphora — repetition of a word or phrase a the end of successive clauses or sentences
    e.g. Emerson

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny compared to what lies within us.”

Repetition is a powerful technique used in other ways as well.

  • Repetition is commonly used for emphasis.
  • Repeating a word or phrase in different parts of the speech helps the audience make connections as if you were sewing your speech elements together with a thread.

3. Rhetorical Devices which change word meanings

Three common rhetorical devices by which words can take on new meanings are:

  • Personification — giving human qualities to abstract ideas, inanimate objects, plants, or animals
    e.g. “The trees called out to me.”
  • Metaphor — a comparison of two seemingly unlike things
    e.g. “Life is a highway.”
  • Simile — same as metaphor, but using either “like” or “as”
    e.g. “Life is like a box of chocolates.”

These rhetorical devices, along with related concepts such as symbolism and analogies, are often the essence of storytelling as an effective means of communication.

Speech Critiques Showing Impact from Rhetorical Devices

Two of the speeches I previously critiqued are rich in the use of rhetorical devices:

Why bother? I’m not a Greek orator

Rhetorical devices in a business context are powerful.

It’s true that your business colleagues may look at you funny if you deliver your next project status report sounding like Martin Luther King. While you may want to limit your use of these techniques a bit, don’t discount them entirely. Rhetorical devices in a business context are powerful. For example:

  • Metaphors and analogies are excellent tools for explaining new concepts or new visions for your company.
  • Repetition in a set of slides can be used to emphasize key results or recommendations.
  • Devices like alliteration can be employed for slogans, mantras, etc.

Tree - Face the Wind

Rhetorical Devices Example — Face the Wind

Below is one of the final drafts of my 2007 contest speech Face the Wind. Unlike the example shown in the previous article, the words highlighted are the result of many editing iterations, not just one.

  • The left column has the speech text.
  • The right column has a description of rhetorical devices used in the corresponding passage.

Key to Color-Coding

In addition to comments, I have provided color-coding for a few of the more commonly used rhetorical devices.

  • Red marks alliteration.
  • Green marks local repetition.
  • Blue marks references to two phrases used throughout the speech: “strong roots” and “face the wind”.


Rhetorical Devices

It was the riskiest decision of our lives.

Eighteen months ago, my wife and I traded our condo keys for house keys. Our floor space doubled. Our mortgage tripled. Our income didn’t change.

Triad: doubled, tripled, didn’t change.

When that first payment escaped our bank account, a loud vacuous whoosh nearly knocked us over.

Onomatopoeia: whoosh
A: nearly knocked

We didn’t realize a much larger change was coming. Those precious few hours known as“free time” became “yard work.” For me, yard work is a lot like being a Toastmasters club officer. I have no clue what I should be doing, but yet I’m always busy.

A: lot like

Comparison – yard work, TM officer

Mister Contest Chair, Ladies and Gentlemen, and anyone who has ever chased the dream of home ownership only to be suckered into yard work …

Humorous twist: dream – suckered

Numerous bushes and trees called out to me. Some were dead; others were just not what my wife wanted.

A: what wife wanted


But the Japanese maple tree was different…it had leaves! Velvet red leaves full of the fire of life! Rather than chop it out, we decided to move it to our front yard to highlight its beauty.

Visual and tactile: “Velvet red leaves”

The tree was a Sumo wrestler. I am not.

Comparison and personification.

The reference to Sumo ties back to the Japanese earlier.

Still, I estimated that I would be done in time to enjoy a mid-morning lemonade.

A: mid-morning

Taste: lemonade

I began the negotiations with a two foot hole around the tree. The response: “NO – NOT WIDE ENOUGH!” I widened that hole many times, but the tree stuck to its guns. Several hours later, I had a moat.

Exaggeration: moat

Unexpected word: negotiations

I went over to the tree and gave it a tug. Of course it didn’t move. Tugs turned into yanks. Yanks turned into full-fledged wrestling. Eventually, I triumphed. Truthfully, the tree took pity on me and fell over.

A: full-fledged

A: Truthfully, the tree took

Wrestling ties back to the sumo wrestler reference earlier.

It was then that I realized the true source of this tree’s strength – roots like tentacles as expansive as its branches! Strong roots… strong tree.

Simile: roots = tentacles

Reference #1 to “strong roots”

Now taking that tree and planting it in the front yard was relatively easy. With the sunset in my eyes, I enjoyed that mid-morning lemonade. I caught a glimpse of my daughter’s bedroom window. And higher than that the neighbour’s monster tree. I realized if that tree ever fell over, my house is crushed.

“mid-morning lemonade” refers back to earlier prediction.

The “daughter’s bedroom window” was added for suspense.

I was thankful that trees have strong roots.

Reference #2 to “strong roots”

Many months later, yard work mercifully ended – not because I had finished the work – but it was the rainy season. When the first winter winds blew, I was in Quebec on business.

A: many months

A: winter winds

“Many months later” is the transition sentence from story #1 to story #2.

I turned on the national news. I was shocked to see footage from BC… of storm winds blowing monster trees onto homes.

A: national news

Note reference to “monster tree” matches earlier description of neighbour’s tree.

Panic dialed the phone while terror gripped me.


My wife said, “I’ve got some bad news. The gas BBQ was lifted up off the deck and slammed into the house. The good news is the neighbour’s tree is still standing.”

Onomatopoeia: slammed

Note: with the crisis averted, the neighbour’s tree is no longer “monster”.

We were lucky, but many were not. It was impossible to imagine how so many trees with strong roots could be knocked over?

A: we were

A: impossible imagine

Reference #3 to “strong roots”

Scientists suggested a theory. Perhaps it was not the force of the wind. Perhaps it was the force combined with the direction.

A: scientists suggested

Parallel repetition: “perhaps it was”

Ladies and gentlemen, every time the wind blows, the tree resists and gets a little bit stronger. As the winds continue to blow, trees become very strong in this direction. But the winds of 2006 blew from over there. These trees could not face the wind. They could not compensate. They could not cope.

Parallel repetition: “could not”

First reference to speech title “face the wind”.

“Ladies and gentlemen” is an example of the Power Button technique to draw attention to the words that follow.

Events of this past month reminded me of the importance of facing the wind head-on.

This is the transition between story #2 and story #3.

My sister-in-law Michelle and her husband Lance have had a pair of pregnancies… both cut short by miscarriage. Their hearts broke… twice. Michelle and Lance have strong roots, but strong roots are not always enough.

A: her husband have had

A: pair pregnancies

Reference #4 and #5 to “strong roots”

When that wind came for them, not once, but twice, they faced the wind head on. They refused to let it topple them or their dreams.

Metaphor: wind = miscarriage

Second reference to “face the wind”

The call came on a Sunday a few minutes shy of midnight to announce the birth of their son, Maximus.

A: call came

My first thought was Maximus: Russell Crowe from Gladiator?

But then I realized Maximus is Latin for “the greatest”. He certainly is a great joy. Though Maximus was born a full month premature, an incubator shelters him from the wind like a glass cocoon.

Repetition: great, greatest

Simile: incubator like a glass cocoon

Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot predict when the wind blows. We cannot predict how strong it will be. We certainly cannot predict its direction.

Parallel repetition: “cannot predict”

The “certainly” was added for emphasis, but it breaks the pattern. Oops.

“Ladies and gentlemen” is another Power Button.

Yesterday, a mortgage payment. Today a windstorm. Tomorrow, you may be fighting for your dreams or fighting for your life.

Triad, ordered in time, and referring back to earlier speech components.

Repetition: “fighting for your”

At times like this, remember WE ARE NOT TREES! We are not trees. Not one of you has roots going through that seat.

Repetition for emphasis: “We are not trees”

“At times like this” is another Power Button. Three buttons in one speech… perhaps overused?

We can control our response to the wind. We can try to evade it, and risk being toppled over like so many were… or we can face the wind head-on. I urge you all… face the wind.

Repetition: “we can”

Third and fourth references to “face the wind”

Mister Contest Chair…

Speech Preparation Series

Next in the Speech Preparation Series

Now that you have completed writing and editing your speech (for now), the next step is bringing it to life off the page. The next article shows you how to choreograph your speech with vocal variety, gestures, and staging.

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Comments icon6 Comments

  1. Once again, more great points on Public speaking.

    I hope you don’t mind that I use a few of these points with my clients!

  2. G Grindle says:

    Excellent points. I prepare speeches with similar rationale.

    It is good to see another persons speech broken down in their own words. I have reviewed many speeches that were broken down by someone other than the writer. I often wonder if their comments are accurate. If the alliteration was coincidental, subconsciously brilliant, or on purpose. Having someone like you deconstruct their speech is wonderful.

    One thing more fundamental than the rhetorical devices that I see in your speech is where you transition “your story” into the “audiences story”. An essential element. It is not about you. It is about the audience!

    Nice work. Good luck at your next contest.

    G Grindle ACB

  3. Ken Lucas Kilan says:

    Fantastic points! I very much enjoyed how you effectively broke down your speech into literary tools and strategies.

  4. Linda Campbell says:

    Professor Dlugan,
    Your article, “Speech Preparation #6: Add Impact with Rhetorical Devices” is brilliant, easy to follow, and is now in my toolkit. Thank you for your attention to the often overlooked finesse factor.

  5. Jolly says:

    I think you website is very good, I just wonder will you write a book about rhetorical devices

  6. VASUMATHY says:

    Wonderful tool to help the toastmasters. Highly delighted to read the same.

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