Readers, Writers, Texts

Rhetorical Devices in Speeches

All speeches contain three basic ingredients: ethos, pathos and logos. These are the terms used by the ancient Greeks to describe the different ways a speech appealed to an audience. Ethos refers to the trustworthiness of the speaker: it is what gives the speaker the right to stand before an audience. Ethos can be understood as a process of establishing credit with an audience, and building confidence in the listener. Pathos is any part of the speech that appeals to our emotions (the word shares a root with pathetic, sympathy and empathy). Whenever speakers remind you to be patriotic, make you smile or frown, or make you feel guilty they are appealing to your emotions. Logos is the part of the speech that appeals to our sense of logic and all good speeches do this. Statistics, arguments with sound premises, and examples of reasoning are all indicative of a logical approach to winning over the audience. 

Good speeches will always contain these three basic elements, and will enliven these appeals with a variety of rhetorical devices. You can think of a speaker as an artist or craftsperson and ethos, pathos and logos as the framework upon which the artisan works. The artist will also carry around a tool bag of rhetorical devices – paints, tools and other kit – to be used to a greater or lesser degree, whatever is judged best to bring out the beauty of the artwork. Read a selection of the articles below to hone your own knowledge of these tools, and how to recognize and appreciate them:

Class Activity

Use the cards below to play a matching game. Review the devices on the screen, then print out the cards and scatter them over a table. Can you match the name of the technique to the example from a famous speech?

Learner Portfolio

Take an issue that is important to you; for example, an environmental issue, volunteering, the importance of exercise, a school issue. Write a one-two page speech in which you employ the rhetorical devices from this section to persuade you reader/listener of your point of view. For maximum effect, once you have finished, read your speech out loud to your classmates as if you are an activist or political leader.


Body of Work: Obamas’ Speeches

Obama is completely addicted to what technical rhetoricians call anaphora, which is what politicians always do. It’s where you repeat a word or a phrase at the beginning of the sentence, so you build up a whole rhythm. He says, “I’m going to be a President who’s going to do this, a President who’s going to do that…

He also builds very musical sentences. He never says something in one term when he can say it in two. And that’s called syntheton, which goes: We’re talking about homes and jobs, people and places, fish and chips…

He also does — which I wish I knew why it was so effective, neurologically — but he does what’s called the group of three, which is called the tricolon. “Blood, sweat, and tears,” which is actually a misquote from [Winston] Churchill … The human brain wants things to go into groups of three for some reason. It’s hugely rhetorically effective to use groups of three, and Obama does it all the time.

… If you just look for grouping of three phrases that rise up in import and significance as you get to the end. So things fall into groups of three, balanced pairs, the syntheton thing. There are a lot of parallelisms, lot of antithesis, one thing and the other.”

Sam Leith, Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric From Aristotle to Obama

When the Obama era came to a close in the United States, much was made – and rightly so – about his abilities as an orator.  Websites and newspapers were ranking his top speeches, comparing them to J.F.K., Lincoln, and F.D.R. in American history. Much less was said about Michelle Obama’s powerful voice in those eight years; but this oversight has recently begun to be rectified. With the publication of her top-selling autobiography (Becoming) and a continuing public presence, the media is beginning to appreciate her skill as a wordsmith too.

Find out more about rhetorical devices in speeches by researching Barack and Michelle Obama’s use of rhetoric in detail. Read the articles, listen to and study their speeches, and hone your media literacy:

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt:

Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

IB Language and Literature Guide

Either Michelle or Barack’s speeches would make ideal texts to use in this assessed activity. They connect very well to two Global Issues: Beliefs, Values and Education or Politics, Power and Justice. You could pair them successfully with a number of extracts from your literary texts when characters are trying to persuade one another or set out their viewpoints in a persuasive way. Speak to your teacher about your ideas; the list below is not exhaustive:

  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – in Act 4 Scene 1 Portia delivers a powerful speech to try and persuade Shylock to be merciful.
  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – when Doolittle uses every rhetorical trick in the book to get money out of Higgins in Act 2.

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