Lesson 12 Empowering Your Speech

if you have tried reading a complete speech aloud, you have already discovered that word choices are impor- tant. Words that read well on the page, for example, may not speak well out loud. Similarly, a well-worded sentence can transform an ordinary statement into something extraordinary and memorable.

Good writing is a skill, and like any other skill it comes only by practice. As you rehearse your speech, pay attention to your choices of words and ask yourself whether you might be able to say things with more punch, as well as more succinctly, accurately, and memorably. After all, you want your audience to remember what you say, and there are many ways in which you can craft your wording to help them remember.

The techniques used to make speeches memorable are called rhetorical devices. They are devices or tech- niques used to enliven rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of using language to persuade, which is at the heart of public speaking. There are many useful rhetorical devices that can keep your audience listening to your words, but we will focus only on the major categories in this lesson.



–eMPowering Your SPeecH–

Spoken words versus written words

We have already touched upon this distinction, but it is worth considering in more detail. A college essay will generally strive for a fairly formal tone, sounding somewhat stiff but erudite. That tone, however, will not sit well with your audience if you try it out in a speech. Your audience wants you to speak to them in a fairly conversational tone, not as though you were reading from an encyclopedia.

This is not to say that your tone will be informal. It might be, depending upon the setting; some special occasions call for a very informal style, such as propos- ing a toast at a wedding. More frequently, however, you will want your words to be carefully crafted to sound professional while still presenting the information at a level that is suitable to the audience.

You have probably been taught in college writing classes that you should never refer to yourself in an essay, using the frst person pronoun I. This is appro- priate for written essays, but not for spoken speeches. An effective public speaker connects with his or her audience, and the best way to do this (as we’ve men- tioned numerous times) is to draw from your own experiences. You will, therefore, want to refer to your- self directly from time to time during your speech.

Another important aspect of formal writing is to avoid repetition—but this is not the case in a speech. Quite the contrary, in fact. You’ll remember our little axiom from Lesson 9: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them.” Now that’s repetitive! Yet that sort of repetition is important in a speech, because absorbing information from a lec- ture is an entirely different process than when one is reading it. You can always fip back a few pages to re- read something in a book, but you can’t do that when listening to a speech, so you’ll actually be helping your audience if you reiterate your points as you go along.

alliteration, repetition, Sequence

Another useful technique to help your audience remem- ber your main points it to use alliteration, the poetic technique of using words that begin with the same let- ter. The tongue-twister “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” uses alliteration, where all the impor- tant words in the sentence start with P. If your main points all start with the same letter, your audience is far more likely to remember them. Let’s return to our toothpaste speech: we could name our major points “Cavities,” “Cleansing,” and “Cost.” All three start with C, yet their names allow the listener to remember the gist of what you are saying at each point.

Alternatively, you could use repetition to name your major points. For example, let’s return to our miniature painting speech. We could name the three major points in that speech as follows: Paint Selection; Paint Brushing; Paint and Your Miniature. This repeti- tion of the word paint ties each point back to the topic, while also encapsulating the information of each one.

Finally, you can name your points in sequence, either numerical or alphabetical. For example, in the toothpaste speech we could name the points “Antiseptic,” “Brightening,” and “Cost”—A, B, C. This provides a mne- monic, or a memory-jogger, for the audience as they recall the major differences between the two toothpastes.

Metaphors and Similes

Another useful technique is the use of metaphors and similes. Both are comparisons between two things that are not typically associated with one another—where you show your audience how they actually are associ- ated in some way, thus illustrating your principle.

A simile uses like or as to draw the comparison, thus showing that the items are similar in some way:


“My love is like a rose as it opens to your beauty, shin- ing like the morning sun.” This is a simile, because it suggests that love is similar to a rose, using the word like to draw the comparison. A metaphor, on the other hand, does not say that love is like a rose, but rather that love is a rose: “My love is a rose, fragrant and soft.”

Metaphors and similes must serve a function in your speech, however. You don’t want to use them just to show off; they need to further your audience’s understanding of some point that you’re trying to make. We used a metaphor in our painting speech: “Paint selection is the lifeblood of any painting proj- ect.” This helps your audience understand that paint selection is what makes a miniature come to life, and when it’s done incorrectly the entire project can wither and die.


Clichés should be avoided like the plague. Instead, think outside the box, because what goes around comes around. Been there, done that! No harm, no foul—my bad.

Whenever a speaker tells me to “think outside the box,” I immediately recognize that he or she isn’t. Cli- chés are the habit of the lazy speaker, the person who won’t take the time and effort to think up his or her own words. Some time ago, I heard a speaker say, “Generally speaking, what it boils down to in the fnal analysis. . . .” This was a triple whammy, three tired out phrases strung together into one dull cliché that didn’t com- municate anything to the audience.

Now every rule has its counterpart, as we’ve said before, and clichés are no exception. There are times when a commonly used expression can summarize your point with strong emphasis—but only when you acknowledge that it’s a commonly used expression that

has become a cliché. “The label on toothpaste B claims that it fghts cavities, and we’re commonly told to ‘think outside the box.’ But in this case, we need to think inside the tube!” In this sentence, the speaker used a tired cliché and turned it around with a fresh new meaning that applied directly to the comparison of toothpastes.

active Voice versus Passive Voice

This is a nitpicky grammatical issue that may not seem very important, but it does make a big difference in your speech. It has to do with how we use verbs, those common action words that we use everyday, such as walk, sit, and run. The active voice states who is doing the action, while the passive voice does not.

–eMPowering Your SPeecH–

n n

Active: “Bill shut the door.” Passive: “The door was shut.”

Use of the passive voice tends to make a speech sound vague and indecisive, while the active voice makes it clear that the speaker knows exactly what he or she is talking about. Notice the subtle difference between these two sentences:

n The brochures should all be updated.
n The marketing department should update all

the brochures.

In the frst example, the speaker has merely sug- gested a possible idea, while the second example out- lines a clear plan that specifcally states who should do what. This approach sounds far more authoritative, suggesting to the audience that the speaker has thought through the issue in great detail—even though the essential information is the same!


–eMPowering Your SPeecH–

what to avoid

Finally, remember that these rhetorical devices are the spices; they are not the main course. Like any other spice, they can be easily overused, making the speech unpalatable to your audience. Resist the temptation of overusing them.

For example, alliteration is useful in naming your main points, but you don’t want to get carried away by flling each point with alliterations. Metaphors and similes help your audience to draw mental pictures of the abstract points you’re making, but too many meta- phors become confusing. Repetition helps the audi- ence remember your speech, but too much repetition will put them to sleep.

The goal of rhetoric is to communicate your ideas effectively to the audience, not to impress them with your skills as a speaker. Never let the devices draw attention to themselves; their job is to draw attention to your ideas, not to stand out on their own.