Shortcuts to Eloquence


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You have probably had the experience of listening to a speaker who, even if you did not agree with that person's message, caused you to think, “this is an outstanding speaker. " That speaker was probably using certain rhetorical devices that touched an internal chord, that made him or her sound eloquent.

Normally, such techniques are used by experienced speakers who have honed them over time. Yet you do not need to have delivered hundreds of presentations to develop the ability to incorporate rhetorical techniques which add grace, forcefulness, vividness and especially eloquence to your presentation.


According to one of the most oft-quoted men of the 19th Century, Ralph Waldo Emerson, eloquence is

"the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you are speaking. "

Note that he said nothing about speaking in polysyllabic phrases aimed less at communicating than impressing. Truly eloquent speakers use short, direct, specific language aimed a their listeners. Winston Churchill's stirring speeches during World War II are prime examples of such language.

Eloquent speakers, like Churchill and John F. Kennedy, realize that the spoken word must appeal to the ear more than the eye, and nothing appeals more than repetition, rhythm and cadence. The eloquent presentation translates dull and colorless speech into words with punch which will be remembered.

In short, eloquence is where poetry and prose meet, where music and speech join. The means by which this is accomplished is by the adroit use of figures of speech, generally referred to as rhetorical devices.

Shortcuts to eloquence

I use this phrase to describe what are normally referred to as rhetorical devices. I do so for the simple reason that, adroitly employed, these techniques allow novices to appear as a very experienced speakers in the perception of their audiences.

Inexperienced speakers can learn to incorporate into their presentations techniques that provide polish to what may be an otherwise pedantic effort. Below are four of these shortcuts that will let you implant your ideas into the collective mind of your audience.

Shortcut one: Repetition

Perhaps the most frequently used of these techniques is repetition of key words and key phrases to emphasize the presenter's message. An illustrative example is the famous 1963 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. known as the “I have a dream" speech because he opened eight consecutive paragraphs with that phrase. Unless you believe you possess the oratorical skills of Dr. King, I would refrain from going that far in a business presentation. But a more limited repeating of key phrases does indeed add power to any presentation.

In a written essay, such repetition would be redundant. In a spoken presentation, it is an invaluable asset to hammer home the point you want your audience to grasp and act upon.

The King speech shows how repetition can allow a presentation to build to a crescendo. Repetition is frequently used at the beginning of a presentation to gain the audience's attention.

Shortcut two: The Rhythmic Triple

One again I am coining my own phrase. This technique, a variation of repetition, is generally called the Rule of Three, because it repeats, in threes, key words and phrases. I prefer the term rhythmic triple because this technique delivers a message with an ear-pleasing rhythm and cadence in the beat of three.

The speaker using this technique drives home his or her point with three words, three sentences, three phrases. “Threes" tend to reinforce, because, for reasons no one fully understands, people remember best when they hear repetition in a series of three. Repeating twice is too little, four or more two much (unless you are a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ).

Churchill was a great user of the rhythmic triple, as when he said of the Royal Air Force,

"Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few . . . "

He could have said “We owe a great debt to the fliers of the RAF in the saving of Britain. " Would this phrase have been as memorable?

In July 2002, Governor Mark Schwieker of Pennsylvania used the rhythmic triple in demanding an explanation about safety procedures from the company that owned the mine where nine miners were entombed before being miraculously rescued. The Governor said, with considerable emotion, that the company owed an explanation “To the miners, to their families and to me. "

Where to find examples of the Rhythmic Triple. You local library will have copies of Vital Speeches, published every two weeks. Peruse speeches made by prominent business and government leaders, and you'll find numerous examples of the rhythmic triple. You can then adapt these to your own requirements.

You can also use a thesaurus or synonym finder to aid you in finding related words to link together in developing your rhythmic triple.

A word of caution. This is a such a powerful device that employing it almost guarantees your point will be remembered by your audience. So be careful when employing. You may wish to take a lesson from the experience of the first President George Bush.

At the 1988 Republican Convention, then Vice-president Bush, against the advice of some of his economic advisers, used a double “Rhythmic Triple" in saying “Read My Lips: No New Taxes. " Had he wanted to be vague, while still voicing his opposition to new taxes, he could have said “At this point in time, I assure you that I have no intention of engaging in any new revenue enhancement devices. "

Those in the Convention audience, and Republicans watching on television, would have known he was promising to not raise taxes. The cumbersome phrase, however, would not have been memorable.

He was elected President that year, of course, but proceeded to raise taxes in 1990. During his bid for reelection in 1992, the Democratic Party kindly reminded the electorate of his double rhythmic triple . Had Mr. Bush not been so eloquent in 1988, he might have been reelected in 1992.

As with all these devices, don't overdo it. You do not want to be so engrossed in “sounding" eloquent that you do not get your message across. Too many triples is similar to putting too much seasoning on food. It will take a lot of experimenting, but once you are comfortable with this technique, you have added a powerful weapon to your speaking arsenal.

Shortcut three: Rhetorical Question

This technique, where you pose a question and then provide the answer, can be used to draw an audience that may have “wandered off" back to the speaker's message. It can also be used to force the audience to reflect actively on what you have said, not just passively listen.

You can also use it to lead into a summary of key points, as well as a transition from one key point to another.

If you are making a presentation to a small group, and notice that a person is sleeping, you may wish to move close to that person, pose a question, wait about two seconds, and then provide the answer.

The result will be an audience member who is now wide awake and very grateful that it was a rhetorical question, not one demanding an answer. Be cautious, however, in using this technique when presenting to a senior executive who might have dozed off. It will be more prudent to let others wake him or her up.

In drafting the presentation, look for places to insert rhetorical questions, then merely convert declarative sentences into question form, and you have automatically changed the cadence of your presentation. You also keep the audience attentive, because they will not know if it is a rhetorical question or one where you expect someone to respond.

Shortcut four: The Pause

Inserted strategically and occasionally dramatically, a pause is an effective means to call attention to a point just made, allowing the information to be absorbed before the next point is articulated. Developing the technique of the pause also forces a speaker with a tendency to speak quickly to slow down. The pause can be effectively used to substitute for “uh" when you are reaching for just the right word.

Think of your presentation as vintage wine being poured into the small wine glasses of your audience's retention. You cannot pour constantly, or much of the wine will spill on the table. Stop pouring for about two seconds to permit another glass to be placed under the bottle.

There are a number of other rhetorical devices, but the ones provided here provide a solid start. Learn to integrate them into your presentations and meetings, and you will be thought of as a very experienced and eloquent speaker, even if you are not yet at this stage.

Copyright 2005 Larry Tracy

This article is excerpted from Larry Tracy’s book, “The Shortcut to Persuasive Presentations. " A retired Army colonel, he was called “an extraordinarily effective speaker” by President Reagan. He has been cited in several publications as one of the top presentations trainers in the US. His website is #1 on Google for “persuasive presentations. ” He will be on the cover of the July American Speaker magazine.


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