The Ancient Greeks and Romans knew a thing or two about the art of convincing people through the power of words. After all, they didn’t have blogs or PowerPoint to help them, so they had to be good. Their secret was a battery of techniques they used to great effect. Here is your instant guide to 5 of the best ones.

Secret 1: The Tricolon

A tricolon (plural: tricola) is a rhetorical device that refers to a sentence with three clearly defined parts of roughly equal length, each increasing in power to produce a noticeable driving force. It is a popular device used in literature, poetry, and public speaking. The tricolon is effective because it creates a sense of rhythm and emphasis, making the message more memorable for the audience.

One famous example that makes use of the tricolon is the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from the United States Declaration of Independence. This phrase uses three equal parts to express the fundamental values of the American society. The tricolon creates a strong sense of unity and emphasis, making the message memorable and powerful.

Similarly a notable example of the use of a tricolon comes from Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This tricolon uses three parts to emphasize the importance of racial equality and the hope for a better future.

A tricolon that comprises parts that increase in length is called an ascending tricolon. This type of tricolon is used to create a sense of progression and momentum within the sentence. An example of an ascending tricolon is the phrase “I asked for strength, and God gave me difficulties to make me strong; I asked for wisdom, and God gave me problems to solve; I asked for courage, and God gave me obstacles to overcome.”

On the other hand, a descending tricolon decreases in length with each part, creating a sense of closure or finality. For example, this descending tricolon in the phrase “Every man dies, not every man really lives,” from the movie Braveheart. The tricolon is used to emphasize the difference between mere existence and truly living a fulfilling life.

A tricolon is a powerful rhetorical device that uses three equal parts to create a memorable and powerful message. It can be used in a variety of contexts to create different effects, such as progression, momentum, or closure. By using tricolons, writers and speakers can engage their audience and deliver their message with force and clarity.

Secret 2: Anaphora

An anaphora (Greek for “carrying back”) is a rhetorical device that consists of repeating a sequence of words at the beginnings of neighbouring clauses. You can see it’s relationship with the Tricolon, but don’t confuse the two, they are different beasts. The anaphora is used effectively in the poem Tintern Abbey  by William Wordsworth:

Five years have passed;

Five summers, with the length of

Five long winters! and again I hear these waters…

Similarly, in speech you could say: “ask not what Twitter can do for you. Ask not what Facebook can do for you. Ask instead, what you can do for your customers via social media”.

Secret 3: Epistrophe

By contrast, an epistrophe (plural: epiphora) is repeating words at the clauses’ ends. Epistrophe (Greek for “return”), also occasionally known as antistrophe, is the counterpart of anaphora. It involves repeating the same word or words at the end of successive phrases, clauses or sentences. It is a powerful device because of the emphasis placed on the last word in a phrase or sentence. Here’s a great example, from Thomas Wilson:

“Where affections bear rule, there reason is subdued, honesty is subdued, good will is subdued, and all things else that withstand evil, for ever are subdued.”

Epistrophe is a commonly used rhetorical device in literature and speech-making. It helps the speaker to emphasize a particular idea or thought by repeating key words or phrases at the end of successive clauses or sentences. This creates a strong sense of continuity and rhythm, making the message more memorable and impactful for the audience. Epistrophe is often used in political speeches, sermons, and poetry, as it is an effective way to convey emotion and establish a connection with the listener. It can also be used in advertising to create a catchy slogan or memorable tagline.

Use this device when you want to convince your audience of the importance of what you are saying. The rhythmical build-up generates a tension that is punctuated by the repetition of the final word.

Secret 4: Metabasis

Our fourth ancient secret is metabasis. Metabasis (Greek for “change”) is a rhetorical device that is used to briefly summarise what has been said so far and provide a smooth transition to the next point. It is an effective way to keep the audience engaged and connected with the flow of the speech or discussion. By summarising what has been discussed so far, the speaker can help an audience to stay on track and avoid confusion.

Metabasis can be used in a variety of contexts, such as speeches, debates, or presentations. For example, a politician might use metabasis to summarise the main points of their platform and transition to the next topic. Or, a business presenter might use metabasis to briefly recap the main features of their product and transition to the benefits.

Metabasis can be found in another speech by Martin Luther King Jr. this time at the March on Washington in 1963 when he used the phrase “We cannot walk alone” to summarise the progress that has been made in the civil rights movement and transition to the next point: “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.”

Metabasis is particularly useful for moderators of debates. In a panel debate, metabasis can be used to summarise the key arguments that have been made and transition to the next topic. This helps to keep the discussion ordered and clear in its progress.

Metabasis is a powerful rhetorical device that can be used to summarise what has been said so far and provide a smooth transition to the next point. It is useful in a variety of contexts, including speeches, presentations, and debates. By using metabasis, speakers can keep their audience engaged and connected with the flow of their speech or discussion.

Secret 5: Alliteration

Alliteration is a technique beloved by newspaper sub-editors and advertising slogan copywriters alike. It consists of combining words that begin with the same initial letter. Examples include the famous advertising slogan: “Guinness is Good for You” and the rather wonderful Daily Express headline: “Pompey Pipped at the Post as Pippo Pounces”. It is a great way to draw attention to particular points and is especially effective when used with subtlety.

This technique is particularly effective in public speaking, where it can help to emphasize important points and make a speech more memorable. We can see this in a famous speech by former US President Barack Obama:

“In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those that prefer leisure over work or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.”

In this passage from his 2008 Democratic National Convention speech, Obama uses alliteration to emphasize the importance of hard work and perseverance in achieving greatness. The repeated “s” and “f” sounds in phrases such as “shortcuts or settling,” “path for the faint-hearted,” and “pleasures of riches and fame” draw attention to these words and create a rhythmic effect that adds impact to his message.

But alliteration is not limited to political speeches. In fact, it can be used in any form of public speaking to add emphasis and impact to a message. For example, marketing copywriters might use alliteration to create more memorable slogans or taglines for their clients, such as “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”  for M&M’s.

This classic slogan uses alliteration with the repeated “m” sounds in “Melts in your mouth.” This creates a memorable and catchy slogan that emphasises the product’s desirable qualities of being smooth and easy to eat. The alliteration in this slogan also helps to differentiate M&M’s from other confectionery and makes it instantly recognisable to consumers.

Overall, alliteration is a powerful tool for public speakers, helping them to create powerful messages for their audience. When used effectively, alliteration can make a speech more engaging and persuasive, and help to ensure that the speaker’s message is remembered long after the speech has ended.

Why? Why? Why?

The Ancient Greeks and Romans were masters of persuasive communication, using a variety of techniques that are still relevant today. They understood that words could be used not just to inform, but also to inspire, motivate, and even manipulate audiences. They recognised the importance of tailoring their language to different audiences and situations, and they developed a range of rhetorical devices to help them do so.

All of these techniques were used to great effect by legendary orators such as Cicero, Demosthenes, and Pericles, who could move crowds to tears, laughter, or fury with their words alone. Even today, their speeches remain masterpieces of persuasive communication, reminding us of the enduring power of language to inspire, motivate, and influence others.

There is no doubt that many people who are perfectly competent speakers don’t know anything about metabasis, anaphora or their rhetorical cousins. But who wants to just be competent?

Wouldn’t you rather be outstanding? Wouldn’t you rather be remarkable? Wouldn’t you rather be so good that people would pay to hear you speak?

Here’s how you do it: try one new rhetorical device from this article each time you speak. Keep at it until you have truly mastered them all. Then learn some more, because the ancient orators had a lot of techniques from which we can learn.

Random Quote

“Gratitude always comes into play; research shows that people are happier if they are grateful for the positive things in their lives, rather than worrying about what might be missing.”

— Dan Buettner

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