If you want to be an effective speaker or writer, you should be well versed in the artful use of rhetoric.

In fact, the most influential public figures—from politicians to philanthropists—are almost guaranteed to illustrate skillful rhetoric in their speeches, since they depend on it to persuade audiences.

Read on to learn more about how you can use rhetoric and rhetorical devices for more effective writing and discourse.

What Is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric refers to the art of persuasion. It’s one of the 3 ancient arts of discourse, alongside grammar and logic.

Mastery of rhetoric is an essential skill for politicians and career public speakers, since it utilizes various methods to persuade, influence, or please audiences.

You might be familiar with rhetorical devices and rhetorical appeals, including ethos, pathos, and logos (which, to be clear, are distinct from literary devices).

Whereas literary devices and figures of speech can alter the meanings of words (think metaphors), rhetorical devices are much more straightforward and usually employ techniques like repetition, personal examples, or parallelism.

Rhetorical Questions

Rhetorical questions are questions that are not intended to elicit an actual response, but rather to make a point or create a dramatic effect.

For example, if you’ve ever snapped “How should I know?” in frustration, you most likely weren’t waiting for an answer (and God help anyone who tried to give you one).

This kind of question is “rhetorical” because while they don’t provoke answers, they do provoke thought, and can also be used persuasively.

Rhetorical Situation

A rhetorical situation simply describes the context as the speaker communicates with the intent of changing another person’s mind.

Rhetorical situations include the speaker, an issue, a mode of communication, and an audience.

Any time you’re reading a work that might be persuasive, you should consider the speaker, their purpose, and intended audience.

Examples of Rhetoric

Below are several examples of rhetorical strategies from famous speeches and works of literature.

Example 1

“It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores. The hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta. The hope of a mill worker’s son who dares to defy the odds. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope! Hope in the face of difficulty! Hope in the face of uncertainty! The audacity of hope!”

—Barack Obama, 2004 DNC Keynote Address

In this 2004 speech, Barack Obama uses strategic repetition to emphasize the universal idea of hope, including a reference to his own background, to better relate and connect with his audience.

Example 2

“…advise him of his happy state—
Happiness in his power left free to will,
Left to his own free will, his will though free
Yet mutable.”

—Paradise Lost by John Milton

In this excerpt, the repeated use of the words “free” and “will” create a rhythmic, playful tone that artfully conveys the author’s point.

Example 3

In 1931, ten years ago, Japan invaded Manchukuo — without warning. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia—without warning. In 1938, Hitler occupied Austria—without warning. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia—without warning. Later in ’39, Hitler invaded Poland—without warning. . . . And now Japan has attacked Malaya and Thailand—and the United States—without warning.

—President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “On the Declaration of War with Japan”

In yet another example of repetition, FDR emphasizes the various attacks and invasions that have occurred without warning throughout history. In this case, the United States was about to declare war on Japan for their attack without warning.

The Power of Strong Rhetoric

A strong mastery of rhetoric and rhetorical devices can significantly amp up your powers of persuasion and bring readers (or listeners) to your side.

Practice using rhetorical devices, including rhetorical questions, to make your words more impactful.

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