Persuasion is an essential skill for anyone in business. You can become more persuasive by using rhetorical techniques.
Don’t let their ancient roots fool you. Rhetoric techniques are still useful and effective if you want to communicate effectively today.
After you become familiar with several rhetorical techniques in this post, you’ll recognize them in various forms of communication. From advertising to political speeches, using rhetoric continues to be a valuable skill today.
What Is Rhetoric?
Rhetoric is the art of persuasive communication. It applies to all forms of communication, whether written or oral. It's got its roots in Aristotle's Art of Rhetoric, a treatise on persuasive communication. In it, Aristotle describes the principles of persuasive communication. He describes the three main rhetorical techniques (more on that later), as well as the structure of a persuasive piece.
Even though the Art of Rhetoric was written in the 4th century BCE, these principles are still very much in use today.
What Are Rhetorical Devices?
Rhetorical or persuasive communication can be classified into four types. The first three in the list below were named by Aristotle:
Logos is persuasion through the use of logic and reason. This is a common method for convincing an audience by citing facts, information, and research.
This method includes using a rational structure and sound logic when presenting your material. It also helps to visualize the information you're presenting. Instead of boring lists or tables of data, turn them into visually compelling charts, graphs, maps, and diagrams.
If humans were purely rational beings, logos would be enough to be persuasive. But we know that isn't the case. That’s why there’s a need for other persuasive methods, such as ….
Pathos refers to convincing the audience through emotion. With this method, the communicator wants to arouse specific feelings in their audience. That’s because, although we like to think of ourselves as being logical, ultimately, we respond and act based on emotions.
The best ways to arouse emotion in your audience is through stories, images, sounds, and trigger words.
At the same time, though, we want to have logical reasons for a decision, even though it was made emotionally. That’s why you’ll always be more persuasive if you've got both logos and pathos.
Yet there are still other rhetoric techniques at your disposal.
Ethos is a method of persuasion through the speaker’s or writer’s credibility and authority.
It’s so natural for us to believe people in positions of authority that, according to Robert Cialdini, one of the tools of influence is authority. In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Cialdini talks about research studies where subjects were unable to defy the wishes of an authority figure—even if it meant electrocuting an adult learner for giving wrong answers.
You can depict authority in many ways. You can use your business title (CEO, head of marketing, or vice president of communications, for example), professional designation (doctor, lawyer, CPA, etc.), or academic achievement (such as PhD). Uniforms can also signal authority. Imagine a speaker wearing a police uniform, for example, compared to a plainclothes police officer. Finally, the way you handle yourself—your poise, self-confidence, and delivery—can radiate authority.
Logos, pathos, and ethos are the three methods of rhetoric, according to Aristotle. Some communicators have added a fourth method: kairos.
“Kairos” is defined as
“...a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action: the opportune and decisive moment.”
This persuasion method is less about your message and how you deliver it, and more about the timing of your message.
It makes perfect sense that the audience receives your message better if they hear it at the best time. Perhaps it’s when the subject is top-of-mind for them. For example, if you’re selling solar power stations, an opportune time would be during and right after a massive blackout.
Each of these persuasion methods, on its own, helps make you a more effective communicator. Combine two or more, or use all of them, and you’ll be unstoppable.
7 of the Most Common Rhetorical Devices
The four persuasive techniques above can be further broken down into specific rhetorical techniques or devices. These are ways of using words that help you communicate more effectively. Whether your goal is to inform, increase understanding, or move your audience into action, rhetorical devices will help you achieve it.
There are dozens of rhetorical techniques, more than we can cover in this article. Below are some of the most common ones you can easily apply to your business communications:
Alliteration is repeating a consonant in successive words. It’s effective for getting the attention of your audience and for making your message more memorable. Alliterations are particularly useful for taglines, titles, and product or event names. Here are a couple of good examples of alliteration:
“Unquestionably, when it came to dividing, dismantling, dismembering, desolating, detaching, dispossessing, destroying, or dominating, Mama Elena was a pro.” - Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate
“Each of the 79 mannequins here represents one million children globally who are trapped in ‘3D’ jobs: dirty, dangerous and degrading work.” - World Vision Canada
Allusion is making a reference to something well-known. It’s useful for emphasizing a point by calling to mind a person, thing, or event your audience is familiar with. Be careful what you’re alluding to. If it’s not known to your listener or reader, then it'll fall flat. For example, do these allusions land with you?
“This prepper’s house is practically Noah’s Ark.”
“I’m no Einstein.”
“We rely on Good Samaritans to keep this food bank going.”
Anaphora also entails repetition. But instead of a sound, it’s repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of consecutive sentences. You can use it for emphasis and dramatic effect. Perhaps the most popular example of anaphora comes from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech:
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
Anthimeria is misusing a word intentionally, such as by using a noun as a verb. The jarring effect helps cut through the noise and capture the audience’s attention. Sometimes, it’s simply the best way to express something, for example:
“Google it.” - Everyone on the web since 1998
“One forgets about parenthood. The on-and-on-ness of it.” - Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, in Downton Abbey, Season 3, Episode 8, created by Julian Fellowes, ITV, 2013
Erotesis, also known as a rhetorical question, is asking a question with an obvious answer. You ask a rhetorical question not to get an answer but to get your audience thinking and more likely to agree with you.
“All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a freshwater system and public health … what have the Romans ever done for us?” - Monty Python, Life of Brian, 1979
Personification is giving human characteristics to things and concepts. This rhetorical device helps you clarify your point and bring abstract ideas to life. It’s so common that you may already be using it without even knowing it. Use personification intentionally when you’re struggling to concretize an idea or to drive a point home.
Some examples of personification include:
“I like singing but singing doesn’t like me.”
“Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in." - Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Sententia refers to quoting an adage, proverb, or principle. You can use sententia to reinforce and add authority to your point. Introduce the quote with phrases like, “as the saying goes,” “as [insert name] reminds us,” and “according to [insert name].”
Atomic Habits author James Clear likes to use this rhetorical technique on his blog. Here are a couple of examples:
“As the Frenchman Blaise Pascal famously wrote in his Provincial Letters, ‘If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.’” - in “How Experts Figure What to Focus On”
“Peak performance experts say things like, ‘You should focus. You need to eliminate the distractions. Commit to one thing and become great at that thing.’” - in “How Experts Figure What to Focus On”
As you can see, you've got many rhetorical techniques at your disposal. Above is only a small sampling of all the literary devices available to make your writing or speech pop, your ideas clearer, and your message more memorable.
But there are right and wrong ways to use these rhetorical devices. The next section provides guidance on how to make the most of them.
How To Improve on Your Rhetoric Skills: 5 Tips
Before you spice up your next communication with a sprinkling of rhetorical techniques, go over the following tips. They'll help you avoid the common pitfalls of rhetoric:
1. Know Your Audience
The effectiveness of persuasive communication isn’t about which or how many rhetorical techniques you used. You could apply any of these devices and still end up with a piece that falls flat.
Falling flat is what happens when you write without thinking about your audience. Consider where they’re coming from, in relation to your topic. Expect their questions and objections. Find out what allusions they can relate with.
2. Use All 4 Types of Rhetorical Devices.
Combine logos, pathos, ethos, and kairos in your presentation or written piece. You can be sure to be more persuasive when you move emotions, back up your claims with data and facts, come across as a person of authority, and deliver a timely message.
3. Consider Form as Well as Substance
Rhetoric teaches us that the way in which we present our ideas is as important as the ideas themselves. The words we choose, the order in which we present our thoughts, and even the sounds our words make all create an impression that can make or break our writing or speech. As Marshall McLuhan famously wrote,
“The medium is the message.”
(See what I did there?)
4. Analyze the Rhetoric of Communication Pieces
A terrific way to learn more about rhetorical techniques and how to use them in business communications is by analyzing other people’s writing.
If something appeals to you, if something moves you forcefully, or if something makes you buy a product, stop and analyze it. Figure out why the piece was effective. See if you can identify what rhetorical devices are in it.
Many of the examples in this article, for instance, were bits and pieces of writing I collected over the years in a Google Doc I've titled, “Beautiful and Witty Sentences.”
5. Practice, Practice, Practice
Thankfully, persuasive writing is a skill. That means anyone can get better at it by learning the principles and applying them.
Take every opportunity to practice using the dozens of rhetorical devices available. Challenge yourself to get really good at a few of them, and to use unfamiliar ones. Before you know it, writing persuasively will become second nature.
If you're serious about becoming a better communicator and presenter, check out these articles:
- How to Quickly Become a Better Presentation Storyteller in 2022Brenda Barron30 May 2022
- 15+ Best Business Presentation Tips: Quotes From the Experts (For Great Results in 2022)Alexis (Lexi) Rodrigo28 May 2019
- How to Speak Confidently in Public (Like a Pro Speaker)Laura Spencer05 Aug 2021
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Use Rhetorical Techniques to Become a Powerful Communicator
You now know what are rhetorical devices and have several tools to communicate more powerfully and persuasively. These ancient rhetoric techniques have stood the test of time because they work. Study them, learn them, and use them in your writing and speech.
Becoming a persuasive communicator will help you succeed in business. And when you’re ready to present your ideas, go to Envato Elements for creative assets.
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in June 2022. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.