It's not what you say, it's how you say it. That old adage tells a powerful truth, according to etymologist and author Mark Forsyth. In a lively TEDx Talk at the University of Pennsylvania in 2016, he laid out some rhetorical devices--well known to the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare, and still powerfully effective today--that make even a really simple statement incredibly hard to forget. He offered a total of 39 of them in his book The Elements of Eloquence. Here are the five he covered in his TEDx Talk.

1. Diacope

"Bond. James Bond." 

Practically everyone in the world knows that line, Forsyth said. "Indeed there was a recent poll in which that was voted the greatest ever one-liner in movie history." Which, if you think about it, is pretty strange. As he pointed out, the line is merely a movie character saying his own name. 

But it's also diacope, the repetition of a word or phrase with one or two words in between. When you arrange words this way, it's terrifically memorable. "Home, Sweet Home," "O Captain! My Captain!" "To be or not to be," and "Burn Baby Burn, Disco Inferno" are all examples of diacope, and I bet you know them all. That's the incredible power of this simple linguistic device.

2. Progressio

"In progressio, all you do is say something, then its opposite. Something else, then its opposite. And you just keep going on and on," Forsyth explained. One of the most familiar examples of progressio is from Ecclesiastes Chapter 3, made even more famous by the Byrds with the song, "Turn, Turn, Turn": "A time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap; a time to kill, a time to heal; a time to laugh, a time to weep." 

Charles Dickens's most famous opening line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." is an example of progressio. So is the Beatles' "You say yes, I say no." That simple rhetorical device is what makes them so memorable.

3. Chiasmus

Chiasmus is a rhetorical device in which words or grammatical parts are presented in one order and then the reverse. When the words are the same, they may be considered antimetabole, a subset of chiasmus.

Here's an example from Stephen Stills: "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." And perhaps the most famous one of all, from president John F. Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." 

Forsyth gave his talk in the summer of 2016, and based on her use of chiasmus, he predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, which probably seemed like a pretty safe bet at the time. In Forsyth's defense, president Donald Trump turned out to be a pretty good user of chiasmus himself, for example when he made this comment to defend his relationship with Vladimir Putin: "I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics." 

Whatever your political leanings, chiasmus is a powerful rhetorical tool. Forsyth claims that in his lifetime, everyone elected president of the United States has known how to use it.

4. Anaphora

You might think that politics should be about issues and facts rather than rhetorical devices, Forsyth said. "And, yes, I'm sure it should. But it isn't. Rhetoric is what makes anything you say memorable. Rhetoric is what makes what you say stick in people's minds. Rhetoric is what persuades people of your position. Rhetoric is what provokes emotions. Rhetoric--have you noticed I'm starting every single sentence with the same word?" That's a rhetorical device called anaphora, he explained. And if the foregoing sentences helped convinced you of rhetoric's power, then you can see how effective it is.

5. Anadiplosis

In this rhetorical device, you connect one sentence or clause to the next by repeating a word at or near the end of the previous clause at or near the beginning of the next clause. Then you do it again. Here's an example from Shakespeare's Richard II: "The love of wicked men converts to fear, that fear to hate, and hate turns one or both to worthy danger and deserved death." Or, as Forsyth put it, "Rhetoric wins votes. Votes get you into government. And in government, you can actually change the real world." 

It doesn't apply just to politics. Simple rhetorical tools can make everything you say much more memorable, and therefore much more persuasive. Learn to use them, and you'll have an extra edge the next time you make a presentation or a pitch.

Published on: Aug 30, 2019
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