The speech that Republican senator Jeff Flake gave on the Senate floor to announce that he wouldn't seek reelection has been called "eloquent," "rousing," and even "a barnburner." It should be no surprise, since Flake used classical--and effective--rhetorical techniques to get his ideas across.

Before we dive into analyzing those techniques--and figuring out how you can use them to make yourself a better public speaker--give the speech a watch:


Now, here's what Flake did to make his speech so memorable and shareable:

1. Alliteration

The first sentence of Flake's speech contains alliteration--the occurrence of the same letters or sounds in words that are closely connected. It makes sentences more rhythmical and pleasing for the ear. For example:

"Our democracy is more defined by our discord and our dysfunction than it is by our values and our principles." 

2. Anaphora

Communication experts like myself are big fans of anaphora, which is the repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of successive sentences. When Martin Luther King Jr. repeated "I have a dream," he was using anaphora.

Nearly all memorable speeches have an example of this device. Flake's speech was no exception. Here one example from his speech:

"I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret because of the state of our disunion. Regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics. Regret because of the indecency of our discourse. Regret because of the coarseness of our leadership."

And here's another:

"We must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue with the tone set up at the top. We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never ... We must never ... "

3. Metaphor

It's well established in the scientific literature that humans think in metaphor and speak in metaphoric language. Metaphor is a figure of speech that likens an idea to something else, to highlight the similarities between the two ideas. Flake used metaphor when he said, "Leadership does not knowingly encourage or feed ugly or debased appetites in us." 

4. Aphorism

An aphorism is a short (or terse) saying that speaks volumes in a few words. The Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman said messages that are the most memorable and repeatable are often put into this form.

It's not surprising that one of the most tweeted lines from Flake's speech is: "Humility helps, character counts." 

In four words, Flake summarized what many others are thinking, and so they share.

5. Tricolon

Tricolon is a very important rhetorical device that traces its roots to ancient Greek rhetoric. It's a series of three parallel words or phrases. In Flake's speech, we see two examples of tricolon when he says, "When the next generation asks us, 'Why didn't you do something? Why didn't you speak up?' What are we going to say?"

He continues:

"We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values ... We must argue our positions fervently ... We must assume the best of our fellow man, and always look for the good."

(This paragraph is an example of anaphora in a tricolon. It's very clever writing.) 

6. Simplifying

Flake ends his speech with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, one of our most eloquent presidents and a student of persuasion and storytelling. The quote begins with the aphorism, "We are not enemies, but friends."

The quote is taken from Lincoln's first inaugural address. Interestingly, according to  this PBS report, the original draft was much longer and convoluted. It read: "We are not, we must not be, aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren." Lincoln was a good editor and chose to use fewer words, which added greater impact. 

The next time you hear people talking about a speech--whether they agree with its idea or not--keep in mind that it probably contains classic public-speaking devices that make it memorable and shareable.