We’ve all seen someone dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt. And how do they look? They answer is pretty much always the same. They look fine. It’s a classic, acceptable look. It is also a look that few people would run home to emulate: this is largely because it is an outfit that is rather forgettable. It is fine, just fine. An essay devoid of any rhetorical devices tends to be the jeans and white-t-shirt of writing. It’s fine—not particularly memorable or engaging, but not anything that is going to cause problems for anyone. You are clothed, you are not breaking the law by walking around naked, and the entire ensemble is non-offensive and gets the job done.
Think of rhetorical devices as the accessories to this very, very basic ensemble. They add spice, variety and confidence, while making your essay stick in the minds of people that read it. Similarly, adding some rhetorical devices can have a transformative impact on your essay. Thus, while a white t-shirt and jeans can be very forgettable, a white t-shirt with a designer leather jacket, vintage boots, and an ear cuff is the exact opposite. After reading this article, you will no doubt have the clarity and confidence to use rhetorical devices with great success, elevating your writing to a higher level of confidence.
Rhetorical devices are tools used within language to make written or spoken words more artful and effective. Rhetorical devices revolve around the use of a figure of speech and other persuasive strategies to make language more nuanced and developed. If you think about it, there are a million ways to express an idea. Some are more or less effective. One of the greatest communicators of all time was Steve Jobs. While he was the man behind some of the most aesthetically harmonious technology the modern world has ever known, he had to be a great communicator. Jobs’ ideas would have been worthless if he wasn’t able to communicate with the general public about why his products were important and why people should try them.
Rhetorical devices can be lasting tools for crafting words that stick with the reader, when used appropriately. Jobs was able to shape his messages using winning rhetorical techniques, so that his ideas would foster an emotional response with those listening to him. Some might argue this is precisely what allowed him to shape the world.
Consider one of Jobs’ most successful speeches, which was delivered at the launch of the 2007 iPhone. It is stuffed with rhetorical devices and for good reason: it was crucial for the Apple company be able to convince the general public that the iPhone was something they wanted and needed. An example of one use of rhetorical devices was in Jobs’ speech when he discussed the fact that the iPhone had visual voicemail and the features and benefits of it. Instead of just saying, “visual voicemail gives you the freedom to see who called and pick which message you want to hear first,” Jobs sets up a more compelling emotional appeal.
He uses the rhetorical device known as germination which uses repetition for emphasis: “And so I’ve got voice mail how I wanna listen to it, when I wanna listen to it, in any order I wanna listen to it with visual voicemail.” The obvious benefit of this rhetorical device is crystal clear. The repetition signals to the listener that visual voicemail gives really compelling benefits that are necessary right now.
Rhetorical devices means that a message or a concept will stick with the reader or listener in a descriptive manner for a longer period. This is no small feat in today’s world, where one is constantly battling it out to capture someone’s attention from a range of competitors and forms of media. The average person is under a verbal and visual assault from a long range of stimuli. This means it can be harder to engage someone and get them to focus fully on a message you are trying to deliver. Moreover, it can be even more challenging to ensure that whatever you are saying stays in their head to any extent. The pace of modern society can make people feel like literally everything is a blur and everyone they meet and everything they hear just sort of fades together into an indiscernible mass.
Essentially, there’s a lot of content that can feel like the white t-shirt and jeans ensemble—nothing stands out. Rhetorical devices can ensure that what you say is memorable. This can be crucial if you’re writing a speech, engaging in a debate, developing marketing materials, or trying to persuade someone of a particular argument. Rhetorical devices are the accessories to your ensemble. Some of these rhetorical devices are so powerful, they’re like a shiny Porsche gleaming behind your t-shirt and jeans ensemble—the ultimate in memorable accessories.
For instance, take the example of Jobs again in his iPhone launch speech in 2007. He used so many rhetorical devices throughout that speech that he pretty much ensured that the audience was completely convinced of the importance and magnitude of the iPhone 7. One simple device he used was rhetorical questions. Rhetorical questions are questions that don’t need to be answered, because their answer is obvious or otherwise self-evidence. Jobs litters his speech with these rhetorical devices, asking the audience things like, “Isn’t that incredible?” or “Want to see that again?” and “Pretty cool, huh?”
These devices ensured that the audience thought what he wanted them to think. It also got the audience excited about the product.
Jobs framed the questions in such a way that the audience would answer it in a manner that he wanted them to, so that they would think things like: yes, that was incredible or yes, I want to see that again and yes, that is pretty cool. For Jobs, rhetorical devices were a part of his ability to persuade or convince and to help shape public opinion about what he was launching.
Since we’ve had iPhones for over a decade now it can seem hard to imagine that there was a period when the notion of a touchscreen phone was novel to the world at large. But this is true. Jobs had the task of explaining to the world why they might want to carry around a mini-computer with them all the time. This was a concept that he was forced to sell to the audience, and rhetorical devices really helped him achieve this goal. For instance, he also used an example of aporia: this is a fake statement or question of uncertainty presented to the reader/audience, which the writer or speaker answers. For instance, when Jobs is introducing the giant screen of the phone and how the user will navigate it, in his speech he writes, “Now, how are we gonna communicate this? We don’t wanna carry around a mouse, right?”
Jobs then continues to use this rhetorical device to anticipate a solution the reader or audience member might be thinking of by saying, “So what are we gonna do? Oh, a stylus, right? We’re gonna use a stylus.” Aporia is a rhetorical device Jobs leans upon to poses these faux questions as a means of directing the audience’s attention and then redirecting it in the direction he wants it to go in. Aporia allows him to do this as the fake questions he poses permits him to answer them, which he does. He eventually says, “No. No. Who wants a stylus? You have to get em and put em away, and you lose em. Yuck.” Here aporia has allowed him to direct the thoughts of the audience, anticipate a prospective answer they might give, and then show them why this answer was not what they wanted. This allowed him to suggest that the iPhone 7 was exactly what they wanted.
It is clear how a blander speaker might create a more forgettable speech and say something like, “we have a giant screen and that’s great because you don’t even need to use a stylus or a mouse.” This would still leave some people wondering how they would navigate the screen and some would even be thinking, “maybe I do need a stylus with this.” Rhetorical devices not only make your writing poignant and memorable, they really can help you sculpt the direction of thought of the listener or reader.
Harnessing words that all begin with the same words or sounds.
Freshen that fugly fashion with a fierce fedora.
This is one the greatest and most common rhetorical devices that you can place into your writing in order to make it better. You encounter alliteration all the time—it’s not just in academic essays, it’s in marketing slogans, commercial jingles, inspirational memes and other materials. Alliteration is so common in our world, it’s easy to not notice it anymore, but it’s really everywhere from the names of retailers (American Apparel, Bed Bath and Beyond) from the names of television shows (West Wing, Sex and the City) to names of fictional characters (Mighty Mouse, Willy Wonka, Godric Gryffindor).
Many students are probably abundantly acquainted with this literary device, as it is prevalent through academia, pop culture, and colloquial speech. It’s literally everywhere. An analogy connects two things in order to shed light on one, providing a new perspective or sense of understanding.
For instance, I’m sure everyone has heard the expression, “he’s as dumb as a box of rocks.” Here the analogy brings two things together: the person in question and a box of rocks and uses that connection to show the lack of intelligence of the individual.
Consider a more sophisticated quote from Elizabeth Kubler Ross: “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within” (Moran & Castle, 2013). This quote clearly connects people with stained glass windows in order to make commentary about the necessity of having inner character (or light). Anyone can appear to be doing well when the sun is out, however, it takes real beauty to be able to shine in the darkness.
This rhetorical device is comparable to alliteration because it too relies on repetition. Instead of repeating sounds, each clause repeats a new set of words.
Dr. King did this most famously in his “I have a dream speech” where he repeats the phrase “I have a dream” at the beginning of each clause. “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. 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. I have a dream today!”
Dickens achieved a comparable memorable impact at the opening of a tale of two cities with this same rhetorical device: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
This device means that a phrase will be repeated but the order of the words will be changed in order to impact a more significant meaning. John F. Kennedy’s speechwriters tended to enjoy this tool in order to make this president’s ideas more memorable.
Who can forget his statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you
— ask what you can do for your country.” Here the chiasmus is that you and your country are flipped in the order they appear in the second clause. He mimics this tool in “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” Again, the order in which the words negotiate and fear are swapped in the second clause. This tool helps to give the reader a sense of repetition but without using obvious repetition. This gives the best of both worlds, as it creates impact but with a sense of freshness.
This rhetorical device is similar to anaphora as it too deals with the repetition of words and phrases, however the words repeated appear at the end of each clause. For example, consider the words of Dorothy Kilgallen, a journalist of 1959. She wrote, “Success hasn’t changed Frank Sinatra. When he was unappreciated and obscure, he was hot-tempered, egotistical, extravagant, and moody. Now that he is rich and famous, he is still hot-tempered, egotistical, extravagant, and moody” (Shaw, 2016).
Or consider this excerpt from a speech Bill Clinton made in 1993: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America” (Huizenga, 2011).
When one considers this type of device in writing, the impact is clear: the entire message becomes more memorable, more poignant and creates an overall bigger impact.
Hyperbole is often referred to as simply an exaggeration. Hyperbole often occurs in song writing when people croon about how they have walked “a thousand miles” to be with someone else. If you think about it, you could probably find many examples from beloved songs that demonstrate clear examples of hyperbole: It’s raining men. You stole my heart. I died a thousand times. Killing me softly with his song. You watch me bleed until I can’t breathe.
Another example of hyperbole occurs often when politicians talk about particular issues, such as gun violence in Chicago’s south side. You will often hear politicians say, “The Southside of Chicago is a warzone.” While it’s not an actual war zone, it is unsafe. The hyperbolic assertion is in the description. This can be an effective tool in getting the attention of the reader and dramatically making an assertion in order to convey meaning. Of course, Steve Jobs did this to a certain extent in his iPhone 7 speech, when he said the phone had the “Best version of Google Maps on the planet, widgets, and all with Edge and Wi-Fi networking.”
This rhetorical device is harnessed when the writer wishes to use an object to symbolize a person, place or concept. The most common example of this is when “The Crown” is used to represent the queen or the royal family. Likewise “The White House” can be used to refer to the President (ex: The White House failed to comment about the attack in Omaha).
Metonymy can break up the monotony of your writing and can assist you in connecting with a broader audience. It can also be used as a tool for you to inspire others. For instance, the famous saying, “the pen is mightier than the sword” is an example of metonymy.
You’ve probably encountered personification a dozen times this last week already. It is common in conversational speech (my computer hates me) and in popular culture (your phone is your best friend) and in tons of commercialized writing (Gatorade always wins).
Personification can be effective in helping you to drive home a strong point that stays with the reader long after they have read your work. This is largely because personification gives life to the inanimate, so it can’t help but be memorable.
A simile is a form of analogy because it does represent the connection of two things, however, a simile must contain like or as when making the connection. Similes can be completely powerful in your attempt to connect two different things and can help you to convey meaning in a creative manner.
For example, “she’s as loud as a siren” or “he’s as hot as a sunburn “or “he talks like a politician” or “they walk like elephants,” are all examples of how effective similes can be in linking two distinct things in order to convey a deeper sense of meaning. Using similes can immediately make your writing more efficient and more vivid for the reader, giving them a sense of being there.
While bland writing does have its merits, just like the simplicity of a white t-shirt and jeans has its attributes as well, it does suffer from the pains of being forgettable. You don’t want to stuff your writing with rhetorical devices (unless you’re Steve Jobs launching the iPhone 7) as it can make your work seem overwritten and give you the appearance of trying too hard. Even so, the prudent use of rhetorical devices can do wonders for your work, aside from helping to make your essay longer. Your ideas can be sharper and have a greater sense of clarity with some well-chosen rhetorical devices. Your reader will feel a deeper and more connected sense of engagement with your work. It will give you the appearance of being a more confident writer, and this is something that professors can’t help but give higher grades to. The confidence you exude when deftly employing rhetorical devices is not unlike the confidence one displays when accessorizing a boring outfit. The accessories show, I have the strength to be different and I am not afraid of what others think of my choices to not blend in. The person who walks around in a white t-shirt and jeans just doesn’t convey that same message.
As always, our writers are always available to check your use of rhetorical devices and to help adjust them if necessary. They can help refine the ideas you want to convey and suggest other comparisons you might want to make. This can ensure that you submit the tightest, most vivid piece of writing that you are capable of crafting.
Dickens, C. (1999). The unabridged Charles Dickens: A tale of two cities, Oliver Twist, great expectations. Philadelphia, PA: Running Press.
Huizenga, T. (2011, February 24). Sing Out Mr. President: Bill Clinton’s Proverb Of Wrong And Right. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2011/02/28/133973258/sing-out-mr-president-bill-clintons-proverb-of-wrong-and-right
Kennedy, J. F. (n.d.). Ask not what your country can do for you (Kennedy’s inaugural address). Retrieved from http://www.ushistory.org/documents/ask-not.htm
King, M. L. (2012). I have a dream. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books.
Moran, A., Castle, S., & Keafer, E. (2013). Brim: Creative overflow in worship design.
Shaw, M., & Zackman, G. (2017). The reporter who knew too much: The mysterious death of What’s My Line TV star and media icon Dorothy Kilgallen. United States: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Wright, M. (2018, June 12). The original iPhone announcement annotated: Steve Jobs’ genius meets Genius. Retrieved from https://thenextweb.com/apple/2015/09/09/genius-annotated-with-genius/