Communication Currents

Engaging Audiences Through Rhetorical Devices

October 1, 2015
General Communication Studies

Anyone who has sat through a speech, presentation, or sermon has stifled yawns and struggled to keep eyelids open. While the boredom of audiences might be blamed on short attention spans or poor listening skills, the real culprit is the public speaking context in which audience members are burdened with absorbing large amounts of talk with little chance of taking the floor. Presenters, however, can revitalize an audience’s flagging attention through rhetorical devices.

The strong potential for boredom in public speaking can be understood through a comparison with everyday conversation. In conversation, speaking turns are brief, and the floor regularly shifts back and forth among the participants. These conversational features keep us awake. Listening to others’ talk is essential if we are to know when to start speaking and what would be relevant to say. Habitual lapses in listening, on the other hand, impair our participation and damage our reputations as communicators. These motivations for listening are built into conversational turn-taking. With no turn-taking in public speaking, the audience’s motivations to listen are severely weakened.

Rhetorical devices are techniques for making a message stand out from the surrounding talk. These devices are effective in soliciting applause and laughter from audiences. Applause and laughter are powerful evidence of the devices’ effectiveness in engaging the audience’s attention and approval. Even when the goal is not getting audience members to applaud or laugh, presenters can use the devices in regularly “nudging” their attention throughout the speech.

Researchers have identified seven devices, and this introduction illustrates three of them. The examples come from Donald Sadoway’s TED Talk in which he recounts his research team’s development of the liquid metal battery. Sadoway has just touched on the invention of a process for producing aluminum. He then highlights its consequences for the market value of aluminum with the opposing “from” and “to” phrases. The A and B arrows mark the parts of a device known as thecontrast:

And just a few short years following their discovery, aluminum changed

from a precious metal costing as much as silver         ←A

to a common structural material.                                 ←B

In an earlier part of the speech, Sadoway uses another device involving a list of three:

Today there is simply no battery technology capable of meeting the demanding performance requirements of the grid—namely

uncommonly high power,       ←1

long service lifetime,               ←2

and super-low cost.                 ←3

While the contrast is based on difference or opposition, lists operate according to a principle of similarity. All three items belong to the category “demanding performance requirements of the grid.” Lists are expected to contain three items (e.g., this, that, and the other) and serve to intensify the presenter’s message.

Finally, Sadoway turns to how the battery can be made cost-efficient by limiting its materials to “earth-abundant elements.” Then he piques the audience’s interest with a puzzle-solution:

This battery needs to be made out of earth-abundant elements.

I say, if you want to make something dirt cheap,       ←P

make it out of dirt (laughter).                                     ←S

The puzzle raises the question of how something can be made “dirt cheap.” Audience members are invited to consider possible solutions and then listen closely to the presenter’s solution. He offers a literal solution that plays on the figurative “dirt cheap.” The audience’s laughter shows appreciation for the presenter’s humor.

These rhetorical devices are pervasive in persuasive communication. People use them spontaneously in everyday conversation as they seek to convince others. Professional communicators use them in creating advertising slogans (e.g., the few, the proud, the Marines), writing editorials, and composing political speeches. Inexperienced presenters may use some devices spontaneously but not enough of them to keep audiences engaged. For that reason, I developed a two-and-a-half-week unit in an advanced public speaking course to help students become proficient in using rhetorical devices. Professionals can develop skill through a self-guided course of study. Atkinson’s Lend Me Your Ears provides an excellent introduction, with many examples.

In developing the skills for using rhetorical devices effectively, start with speeches that use the devices by going to websites such as and Both websites provide video- and audio-recordings as well as transcripts of the speeches. Listening repeatedly to the recordings, while reading the transcripts, allows students to notice how the devices are put together and delivered. Listening for pauses and vocal stress on words and syllables is instructive.

Second, practice writing and delivering short segments of speech that incorporate the devices. For example, one of my students gave a sales presentation in which she pitched radio advertisements to the audience. Early in the speech, she argues that radio has certain advantages over television, especially when television shows are recorded:

So what happens when we get to a commercial?            ←P


(Shows “fast forward” icon)                                       ┐

That’s exactly what we do.                                         │  ←S

We fast forward it.                                     ←A          ┘

There is no fast-forward button in radio.   ←B

The presenter poses a puzzle by asking a rhetorical question. She then pauses and allows the audience to silently anticipate her solution, which is delivered visually via a PowerPoint® slide and then verbally. The argument is capped off with a statement (arrow B) that contrasts with the previous sentence (arrow A). Working with short examples can help presenters learn the best practices for each device. The parts of a contrast, for example, should be similar in content, length, and format. The contrast above could be sharpened by revising its first part. Specifically changing “fast forward” from a verb to an adjective and adding a short phrase, “We push the fast-forward button on our DVR,” resembles the second part of the contrast more closely than the original. Revision is crucial in using the devices effectively.

Finally, practice writing full-length speeches that incorporate the rhetorical devices. The following guidelines can help presenters decide the rate, variety, and distribution of devices in the overall speech.

  • Employ two to three devices per minute of speaking time (e.g., Sadoway’s speech uses 37 devices in just over 15 minutes).
  • Use a variety of devices to avoid an overly predictable presentation.
  • Since there is no time-out from “nudging” the audience’s attention, distribute devices throughout the speech: in the introduction, each section of the body, and the conclusion.

For Atkinson, the rhetorical devices are not just for the naturally eloquent. Our spontaneous use of the devices in everyday conversation indicates a foundation of tacit knowledge and skill upon which anyone can build. This knowledge and skill becomes explicit, perhaps strategic, as presenters apply the devices during oral presentations. This learning can be facilitated through classroom instruction or a self-guided tutorial that includes listening to model speeches and practicing the composition and delivery of the devices. In the end, presenters are equipped to meet the challenges of keeping audiences attentive and engaged.

About the author (s)

Samuel G. Lawrence

University of Central Oklahoma