Using Rhetorical Devices to Create Magnetic Talks

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harry Belafonte near podium at Montgomery March

When we think about rhetoric, several pictures may come to mind.

  • Some think of high school speech and debate team.
  • Some think of politics.
  • Some envision philosophers living in ancient times.

All of these ideas are correct, because rhetoric has been around for thousands of years and has changed and expanded to suit the times in which it’s been used.

One thing’s for sure, rhetoric without rhetorical devices is like cheese without crackers.

Today, we’re talking about how to use rhetorical devices to create a magnetic talk. It’s part 3 in our 3 part series on how to be more expressive.

Five Rhetorical Devices To Create Magnetic Talks

The Rhetorical Question

The rhetorical question is one you pose to your audience NOT so much for them to answer, but to make a point.

“Why would any country leave its citizens without clean drinking water?” It’s obvious countries shouldn’t do that. The point is made by asking the question.

Use rhetorical questions when you want your audience to think. Our minds always try to answer questions. If you want to engage the minds of your audience, ask questions.


Alliteration is the repetition of beginning consonant sounds. It’s likely the second most recognizable rhetorical device because it’s easy to use and easy for audiences to remember.

Related to Alliteration is Assonance. This is where we create mood through the repetition of  vowel sounds.

Free deals to eat and enjoy are earned when we execute everything in it’s entirety.

In the sentence above the long e and the short e both create assonance


The third rhetorical device is repetition. Repetition is the repeating of the same sound or phrase to establish a point. Martin Luther King Jr. was a master of this. Check out this portion of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. See how many times he uses “Now is the time”.   

This  is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to t.ake the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. 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.

King’s masterful use of repetition demonstrates how repetition can reinforce a point. You would think repeating yourself would make you less expressive, however the opposite is true.

Closely related to repetition is parallelism. This is creating similar sentence structure to make your words more memorable.  Let’s again to turn to Martin Luther King’s speech as an example. 

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

King uses  parallel sentence structure to call his listeners to a brighter future everywhere in the United States. He’s not talking about freedom in pockets of our country, but a freedom everywhere.

Parallel sentence structure makes Dr. King  more expressive not less.

Metaphors & Similes

If you want to be a great speaker, you have to step up to the plate. You have to take a shot. You have to put yourself in the game

Do you see what I did?  I just used phrases that had nothing to do with being a speaker and applied them to being a speaker. I used symbolic language to make my point. I used metaphors from baseball, basketball and coaching so you’d understand my point. If you played or coached sports, you likely understood what I meant from the references I used. That’s what metaphors do; they help us understand the meaning of something by using references to things we are already familiar with

Using metaphors is like painting with words, which is exactly what similes do.  Similes help us understand using comparisons.  Many times these comparisons use “Like” or “As”.

  • Are you busy as a bee?
  • Blind as a bat?
  • Maybe, growing up you and your siblings fought like cats a dogs.

Similes help us make sense of one thing by comparing to something else that’s similar.

Metaphors and similes can help our audiences understand  what we’re talking about by drawing on common experience as a teacher.  They’re effective because they are highly visual.

In similar way parables can also be used to help your listener understand too.

Parable comes from the Greek word meaning comparison. It is like a succinct narrative, or a universal truth that uses symbolism, simile, and metaphor, to demonstrate moral lessons.

If you want to take your similes and metaphors to a new level, wrap them in parables.



Irony and Antithesis

The use of irony in rhetoric is primarily to convey inconsistency. It’s often used as a tool to make fun of the way things are done.

When we talk about irony in speaking situations,  we’re talking about situations where you mean the exact opposite of what’s really happening.

A great example of this comes from  Their explanation of irony references a verse from Alanis Morrisette’s song Ironic.  The verses talks about a man who was afraid to fly. He finally decides he’s going to do something about it. He books a flight and the plane crashes. As the plane plummets toward the earth, he thinks to himself. “Well, Isn’t this nice”

Clearly he means the exact opposite of it being nice.

Similar to irony is antithesis

Antithesis is where you put two opposite ideas in the same sentence to create contrast.

If you remember from episode 66 in part one of this series, I used Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities as an example of how language has changed over the last 160 years. I recited the first lines of that book which demonstrate antithesis

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

Antithesis creates contrast, thus expressiveness.

Irony and antithesis are not always easy to use correctly and shouldn’t be overdone.  When they’re done well, they create a powerful form of expression that will make a lasting impression on your audience.


What are your favorite rhetorical devices? How do you use language to reach your audience? Weigh in.