To Speak Like a Leader, Use Rhetorical Devices, Part 1

Christopher Witt —  January 15, 2013

Let’s say you’re a leader and you’ve got a point to make. How do you make that point as clear, memorable, and compelling as possible?

You’re in luck. People have been addressing — and answering — that question for almost 2,500 years. (Check out Plato’s Gorgias, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, or Cicero’s De oratore.)

Maybe you don’t want to read the classics, or even some of the more recent studies (e.g. Max Atkinson’s Lend Me Your Ears). And maybe, like me, you don’t want to bother with learning the technical terms, from alliteration through zeugma, for various rhetorical devices.

But you have to know this: your message is only as powerful as 1) the power of the idea itself, and 2) the power of its articulation. And the best way to articulate your message is to use rhetorical devices.

A rhetorical device is, loosely defined, a speaker’s technique for persuasively conveying the meaning of an idea.

One of the most common, powerful, and easiest-to-use rhetorical devices is “the rule of three.”

For some reason we’re wired in such a way that we notice, remember, and feel a sense of completion when elements (words, phrases, or sentences that are parallel in structure) are grouped in threes.

Beginning, middle, and end. Past, present, and future. Three blind mice. Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Three Wise Men. The Three Musketeers. The Three Stooges. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. And on and on and on. (Notice, I didn’t write “and on and on” or “and on and on and on and on.”)

There are, of course, three variations on the rule of three.

  1. The Standard Approach: two elements in a row, followed by a conjunction (specifically “and” or “or”) and the third element.
    Since this is the most common construction, one that we use in everyday speech, it is…well…common. It’s not fancy. It doesn’t call attention to itself.
    “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The American Declaration of Independence
    “And now abideth faith, hope, and charity, but the greatest of these is charity.” Saint Paul
    “We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” Barak Obama’s First Inaugural Speech
  2. The Added Conjunction: each element is separated by a conjunction (“and” or “or”).
    Using an unnecessary conjunction calls attention to your list and presents each element as equal in value and worth. It gives a sense of piling one important issue on another. It is a rarely used technique, which is why it’s hard to cite examples and why I particularly like it.
    “In the still air, under the hard sun, gleamed the flags and the banners and the drum majorette’s knees.” E.B. White, “Bond Rally”
  3. The Missing Conjunction: no conjunction is used at all.
    Omitting a conjunction also calls attention to your list. It links the three items closely (not even an “and” or an “or” separates them). And it gives a sense of formality.
    “…with malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right…” Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Speech
    “Education. Education. Education.” Tony Blair’s statement of his top three priorities upon taking office
    “The few, the proud, the Marines”

So here’s my suggestion for increasing the impact of your message, whether you’re speaking or writing: Choose a point that you want to emphasize. Sum it up in one sentence. If it contains different elements or aspects, focus on three (not two, not four). Give it a try, and see how it works.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.