Making effective presentations (Part 1): a few words on rhetoric
Guest Writer | Wednesday, December 05, 2012
Earlier this year, the British journalist Simon Jenkins complained about the ‘amateurishness’ of today’s public figures when it came to giving speeches.
Earlier this year, the British journalist Simon Jenkins complained about the ‘amateurishness’ of today’s public figures when it came to giving speeches. He was particularly critical of industry awards ceremonies, wheregushing winners invariably produce acceptance speeches which are, for him, overlong, woolly and clumsy. The reason? A complete neglect of the art of rhetoric – the art of discourse, of effective and persuasive public speaking.
Rhetoric has its roots in fifth-century Athens, where its development supported the advent of democracy itself: anyone could influence the decisions of the State by simply standing up and addressing the assembly and persuading others to come round to their point of view. Dissected by writers such as Plato and Aristotle, rhetoric was a skill highly-valued by the Romans and was a vital part of Western education until the 19th century. And although no longer formally or widely studied, rhetoric remains as potent and as relevant as ever. Step forward Barack Obama.
Obama includes in his speeches many interesting rhetorical devices that help account for the effectiveness of his oratory. During the presidential race, the US press even referred to his style as ‘Ciceronian’ – recalling Cicero, outstanding Roman politician of the late republic and one of the greatest orators in history. Politics aside, it has been suggested many times that his rhetorical skill helped win him the Democratic nomination and then the presidency.
The following are examples of rhetorical structures used by Obama – but which can be applied to any speech or presentation, in any language:
- Tricolon - points are made more emphatic when they are emphasised in series of three. “After decades of broken politics in Washington, eight years of failed policies from George Bush, twenty-one months of campaigning,we are less than one day away from bringing about change in America.” (Election eve speech)
- Praeteritio – drawing attention to a subject by not discussing it. By mentioning a subject in an off-hand way and apparently dismissing it, this nonetheless reminds the audience of its importance – as Obama does here with the power of the US military: "Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation, not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military...” (2004 Democratic Convention speech)
- Chiasmus – a verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first but with the parts reversed. The effect can be one of balance and reasonableness: "My job is not to represent Washington to you, but to represent you to Washington."
- Antonomasia – replacing a proper name with a suitable epithet. On accepting the Democratic nomination, Obama referred to Martin Luther King obliquely, calling him “a young preacher from Georgia” . Here, the used of antonomasia works on two levels: it reminds the audience of King’s humanity and his similarity to Obama himself – King, too, was an ordinary young man, once – while also flattering the audience by establishing an intimacy between them and the speaker. The sense is that we all know what is being talked about without need for further explanation.
- Anaphora – repetition of a phrase at the start of a sentence. It can be powerfully emphatic: "It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools ... It's the answer spoken by young and old ... It's the answer ..." (04/11/08, victory speech)
- Epiphora – repetition of a phrase at the end of a sentence. Obama’s most famous example is, of course, “Yes we can”, also put to full effect in his victory speech. You can read the full transcript here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/us_elections_2008/7710038.stm
If you want to learn more, you can read Harvard professor James Woods’ analysis of the rhetoric of Obama’s victory speech in depth for the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2008/11/17/081117ta_talk_wood.