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Using Emphasis in Rhetoric

Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

What techniques can you use to make your points resonate with your audience? This lesson will go into the use of repetition techniques and ways to go beyond a literal approach to words.

Writing a Speech?

You've been preparing your speech for weeks. You've got the facts, you know your argument. But how do you make sure listeners are paying attention to the most important parts?

By using a few time-tested rhetorical devices, you can emphasize the points you want to in creative and memorable ways. This lesson focuses on using rhetoric to give a speech, but the techniques can be used in writing just as easily.

Using Repetition

Think back to when you learned your multiplication tables: it's a basic aspect of human psychology that we tend to remember some things best just by hearing them over and over again. This definitely holds true when delivering a speech.

One of the best ways to create emphasis when speaking is to make sure that the information you want to put extra weight on is stated more than once. Listeners are then more likely to hear it, and they'll also recognize that something said repeatedly must be important.

What you don't want to do, however, is just say the same thing over and over again in exactly the same way. That would be pretty boring, right? Here are some ways to create repetition in creative, powerful ways.

The Rule of Three

For some reason, we tend to like hearing things in groups of three, because it creates a some kind of pleasing emphasis.

Think about Julius Caesar's famous statement ''I came, I saw, I conquered.'' He could have just said ''I won'', but the three short phrases work together to emphasize the point and make things very memorable. This technique, called tricolon is one you can frequently use.

Parallelism

Parallelism groups similar things together. This creates a kind of emphasis, since we notice the pattern when we see like with like. One well-known example comes from Winston Churchill's 1940 speech We shall fight on the beaches.

Winston Churchill used parallelism in his speech: We shall fight on the beaches
Churchill

At one point he states, ''We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.''

The effect of hearing all those short, similar ''We shall…'' phrases one after another is far more emphatic than if Churchill had just said ''We'll fight very hard.''

Chiasmus

The word chiasmus means 'crossing' in Greek, and you can think of it as a way of arranging words so that their order is inversed.

In John F. Kennedy's statement ''Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country'', you can see that the second phrase is reversed somewhat. If you can work the device of chiasmus into a speech, you'll be sure to create emphasis in an impressive way.

Alliteration

You can also create emphasis with the sounds of the words you use. Alliteration is a group of words that begin with or prominently use the same sound.

The ancient song Westron Wynde (Western Wind) opens with a powerful use of alliteration: ''Westron Wynde, when wilt thou blow?'' Every word in that first line uses the ''w'' sound, drawing special attention to it.

The ''w'' alliteration makes particular emphasis because it reminds us a bit of the sound or feel of wind blowing. You can work alliteration into a speech to create similar emphasis. Something like: ''Governor Thompson is a terrible, tyrannical, totalitarian two-timer''!

Beyond Literal

Another way to create emphasis in rhetoric is to bend the meaning of the words to go beyond their literal meaning. These techniques grab your listener's attention, create impressive effects, and just make things stick.

Rhetorical Question

A rhetorical question means asking someone a question you don't expect them to answer. Your audience is generally there to listen to your words, not jump in with their own. But we're so used to hearing and responding to questions in everyday conversation that including a question in your speech will perk your listener's ears.

Imagine beginning a speech about protecting the environment in this way: ''What could I say about habitat destruction that you don't already know? You know that our wetlands are shrinking, our forests are decimated, our beaches are eroding.'' The question grabbed their attention and now they'll be on the edge of their seats, waiting for your follow up.

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