Shortcuts to Eloquence
Copyright © 2005 Larry Tracy
You have probably had the experience of listening to a speaker who, even
if you did not agree with that person's message, caused you to think,
"this is an outstanding speaker." That speaker was probably using
certain rhetorical devices that touched an internal chord, that made him
or her sound eloquent.
Normally, such techniques are used by experienced speakers who have
honed them over time. Yet you do not need to have delivered hundreds of
presentations to develop the ability to incorporate rhetorical
techniques which add grace, forcefulness, vividness and especially
eloquence to your presentation.
According to one of the most oft-quoted men of the 19th Century, Ralph
Waldo Emerson, eloquence is
"the power to translate a truth into language perfectly
intelligible to the person to whom you are speaking."
Note that he said nothing about speaking in polysyllabic phrases aimed
less at communicating than impressing. Truly eloquent speakers use
short, direct, specific language aimed a their listeners. Winston
Churchill's stirring speeches during World War II are prime examples of
Eloquent speakers, like Churchill and John F. Kennedy, realize that the
spoken word must appeal to the ear more than the eye, and nothing
appeals more than repetition, rhythm and cadence. The eloquent
presentation translates dull and colorless speech into words with punch
which will be remembered.
In short, eloquence is where poetry and prose meet, where music and
speech join. The means by which this is accomplished is by the adroit
use of figures of speech, generally referred to as rhetorical devices.
Shortcuts to eloquence
I use this phrase to describe what are normally referred to as
rhetorical devices. I do so for the simple reason that, adroitly
employed, these techniques allow novices to appear as a very experienced
speakers in the perception of their audiences.
Inexperienced speakers can learn to incorporate into their presentations
techniques that provide polish to what may be an otherwise pedantic
effort. Below are four of these shortcuts that will let you implant your
ideas into the collective mind of your audience.
Shortcut one: Repetition
Perhaps the most frequently used of these techniques is repetition of
key words and key phrases to emphasize the presenter's message. An
illustrative example is the famous 1963 speech by Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr. known as the "I have a dream" speech because he opened eight
consecutive paragraphs with that phrase. Unless you believe you possess
the oratorical skills of Dr. King, I would refrain from going that far
in a business presentation. But a more limited repeating of key phrases
does indeed add power to any presentation.
In a written essay, such repetition would be redundant. In a spoken
presentation, it is an invaluable asset to hammer home the point you
want your audience to grasp and act upon.
The King speech shows how repetition can allow a presentation to build
to a crescendo. Repetition is frequently used at the beginning of a
presentation to gain the audience's attention.
Shortcut two: The Rhythmic Triple
One again I am coining my own phrase. This technique, a variation of
repetition, is generally called the Rule of Three, because it repeats,
in threes, key words and phrases. I prefer the term rhythmic triple
because this technique delivers a message with an ear-pleasing rhythm
and cadence in the beat of three.
The speaker using this technique drives home his or her point with three
words, three sentences, three phrases. "Threes" tend to reinforce,
because, for reasons no one fully understands, people remember best when
they hear repetition in a series of three. Repeating twice is too
little, four or more two much (unless you are a Dr. Martin Luther King,
Churchill was a great user of the rhythmic triple, as when he said of
the Royal Air Force,
"Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed
by so many to so few
He could have said "We owe a great debt to the fliers of the RAF in the
saving of Britain." Would this phrase have been as memorable?
In July 2002, Governor Mark Schwieker of Pennsylvania used the rhythmic
triple in demanding an explanation about safety procedures from the
company that owned the mine where nine miners were entombed before being
miraculously rescued. The Governor said, with considerable emotion, that
the company owed an explanation "To the miners, to their families and to
Where to find examples of the Rhythmic Triple. You local library will
have copies of Vital Speeches, published every two weeks. Peruse
speeches made by prominent business and government leaders, and you'll
find numerous examples of the rhythmic triple. You can then adapt these
to your own requirements.
You can also use a thesaurus or synonym finder to aid you in finding
related words to link together in developing your rhythmic triple.
A word of caution. This is a such a powerful device that employing it
almost guarantees your point will be remembered by your audience. So be
careful when employing. You may wish to take a lesson from the
experience of the first President George Bush.
At the 1988 Republican Convention, then Vice-president Bush, against the
advice of some of his economic advisers, used a double "Rhythmic Triple"
in saying "Read My Lips: No New Taxes." Had he wanted to be vague, while
still voicing his opposition to new taxes, he could have said "At this
point in time, I assure you that I have no intention of engaging in any
new revenue enhancement devices."
Those in the Convention audience, and Republicans watching on
television, would have known he was promising to not raise taxes. The
cumbersome phrase, however, would not have been memorable.
He was elected President that year, of course, but proceeded to raise
taxes in 1990. During his bid for reelection in 1992, the Democratic
Party kindly reminded the electorate of his double rhythmic triple . Had
Mr. Bush not been so eloquent in 1988, he might have been reelected in
As with all these devices, don't overdo it. You do not want to be so
engrossed in "sounding" eloquent that you do not get your message
across. Too many triples is similar to putting too much seasoning on
food. It will take a lot of experimenting, but once you are comfortable
with this technique, you have added a powerful weapon to your speaking
Shortcut three: Rhetorical Question
This technique, where you pose a question and then provide the answer,
can be used to draw an audience that may have "wandered off" back to the
speaker's message. It can also be used to force the audience to reflect
actively on what you have said, not just passively listen.
You can also use it to lead into a summary of key points, as well as a
transition from one key point to another.
If you are making a presentation to a small group, and notice that a
person is sleeping, you may wish to move close to that person, pose a
question, wait about two seconds, and then provide the answer.
The result will be an audience member who is now wide awake and very
grateful that it was a rhetorical question, not one demanding an answer.
Be cautious, however, in using this technique when presenting to a
senior executive who might have dozed off. It will be more prudent to
let others wake him or her up.
In drafting the presentation, look for places to insert rhetorical
questions, then merely convert declarative sentences into question form,
and you have automatically changed the cadence of your presentation. You
also keep the audience attentive, because they will not know if it is a
rhetorical question or one where you expect someone to respond.
Shortcut four: The Pause
Inserted strategically and occasionally dramatically, a pause is an
effective means to call attention to a point just made, allowing the
information to be absorbed before the next point is articulated.
Developing the technique of the pause also forces a speaker with a
tendency to speak quickly to slow down. The pause can be effectively
used to substitute for "uh" when you are reaching for just the right
Think of your presentation as vintage wine being poured into the small
wine glasses of your audience's retention. You cannot pour constantly,
or much of the wine will spill on the table. Stop pouring for about two
seconds to permit another glass to be placed under the bottle.
There are a number of other rhetorical devices, but the ones provided
here provide a solid start. Learn to integrate them into your
presentations and meetings, and you will be thought of as a very
experienced and eloquent speaker, even if you are not yet at this stage.
This article is excerpted from Larry Tracy’s book, "The Shortcut to
Persuasive Presentations." A retired Army colonel, he was called “an
extraordinarily effective speaker” by President Reagan. He has been
cited in several publications as one of the top presentations trainers
in the US. His website is #1 on Google for “persuasive presentations.”
He will be on the cover of the July American Speaker magazine.