Speaking to Elephants: Rhetorical Devices in Speeches (2023)

Readers, Writers, Texts

By Doug on 12th Aug 2019 ( Leave a comment )

“It is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.”

Aristotle, the ‘father of rhetoric’.

All speeches contain three basic ingredients:ethos, pathosandlogos. These are the terms used by the ancient Greeks to describe the different ways a speech appealed to an audience.Ethosrefers to the trustworthiness of the speaker: it is what gives the speaker the right to stand before an audience. Ethos can be understood as a process of establishing credit with an audience, and building confidence in the listener.Pathosis any part of the speech that appeals to our emotions (the word shares a root withpathetic, sympathyandempathy). Whenever speakers remind you to be patriotic, make you smile or frown, or make you feel guilty they are appealing to your emotions.Logosis the part of the speech that appeals to our sense of logic and all good speeches do this. Statistics, arguments with sound premises, and examples of reasoning are all indicative of a logical approach to winning over the audience.

You can think of a speaker as an artist or craftsperson and ethos, pathos and logos as the framework upon which the artisan works. The artist will also carry around a tool bag of rhetorical devices – paints, tools and other kit – to be used to a greater or lesser degree, whatever is judged best to bring out the beauty of the artwork. Read a selection of the articles below to hone your own knowledge of these rhetorical tools, and how to recognize and appreciate them in speeches you study:

Reading Challenge

This is a longer and more challenging text, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:

(Video) How to use rhetoric to get what you want - Camille A. Langston

Class Activity: telling your ‘hyperphora’ from your ‘anaphora’

Use these Rhetorical Device Matching Cards to play a matching game. Review the cards on the screen, then print out the cards, cut them up, and scatter them over a table. Can you correctly pair the rhetorical devices with definitions and famous examples? Once you have played the game, choose one speech from this archive of famous historical speeches and see if you can identify these devices in action. Mark up your speech and present your observations to your classmates.

Areas of Exploration Guiding Conceptual Question

There is no doubt that language use varies between text types and literary forms. The context of a text, the purpose of the writer, and the audience for which it was written will all effect the language of the text. Using the resource below, you’ll discover how Martin Luther King Jr’s background, his persuasive intention, and his knowledge that many of his listeners might be illiterate shaped the language he used in his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech:

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  1. What makes a speech or speaker linger in your memory? Can you remember any particularly good speaker or speech you have heard? What made this speech memorable?
  2. What is more important to you when somebody is trying to persuade you: an emotional appeal or a logical appeal? Why? Can you give an example of a time you were persuaded in a particular way?
  3. What is rhetoric and why is it important?

Learner Portfolio

Take an issue that is important to you; for example, an environmental issue, volunteering, the importance of exercise, a school issue. Write a one-two page speech in which you employ the rhetorical devices from this section to persuade your reader/listener of your point of view. For maximum effect, once you have finished, read your speech out loud to your classmates as if you are an activist or political leader.

(Video) How to Start a Speech

For inspiration, and if you like to study aurally, you can listen to the speeches in this excellent collection before you write your own.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: speeches

“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare invade the borders of my realms; to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtue in the field.”

Queen Elizabeth I of England, at Tilbury, 1588

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are several examples of speeches: use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of this text type, including identifying ethos, logos and pathos. Add the texts to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

key features of speeches
  • Ethos: the speaker establishes his or her credibility and may allude to a moral, social or spiritual leader with whom the audience cannot disagree.
  • Logos: clear, reasonable arguments, facts and statistics and quoting experts in the field are all ways of establishing a logical appeal.
  • Pathos: emotive language and imagery are ways of helping the audience empathise with the feelings of other – often vulnerable – people.
  • Persuasive: the speaker attempts to make his or her listener think in a certain way, believe something or take action.
  • Direct address: the speaker tries to draw closer to the listeners by addressing them as ‘you’ – look out for the use of ‘we’ or‘us’ to include the speaker and listener on the same side – and be wary of attempts to compliment the listener.
  • Modality: modal verbs are small but important words (such as ‘must’, ‘need’, ‘should’, ‘might,’ and so on) that reveal the speaker’s degree of certainty and strength of feeling. You can study modality here.
  • Rhetorical devices: all kinds of rhythmical, structural, auditory and linguistic tricks can be employed by a skilled speaker. They are too many to list here, but rhetorical strategies can be studied and learned.
  • Logical Fallacies: also called ‘argumentation fallacies.’ Common fallacies in speeches are glittering generalisations, simplification and slippery slope. Learn more about logical fallacies here.
(Video) The 110 techniques of communication and public speaking | David JP Phillips | TEDxZagreb

Body of Work: Nelson Mandela’s Speeches

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison because of his fight against apartheid, the system of oppression maintained by the violent white racist regime in South Africa. He smashed the apartheid system and brought democracy to South Africa, creating a rainbow nation where people of all colours, castes and creeds, can live side by side. He came to be considered the ‘George Washington’ of South Africa; father, architect and leader of a new nation.

His life is an example of peace and forgiveness. When he came to power in 1994, instead of preaching against the apartheid government who imprisoned him for so long, he called for reconciliation. He taught love over hate, forgiveness over rancour, and peace over revenge. “It is possible to forgive one’s enemies,” he said.

Here is a collection of four of Nelson Mandela’s most famous speeches, constituting a Body of Work. They span his life from activist to president, including: his famous ‘I Am Prepared To Die’ speech from 1964; his inauguration speech; ‘Sport Can Change the World’; his warmly received retirement speech from 2004. While seminal choices, these speeches only scratch the surface of Nelson Mandela’s contributions to politics, society and equality. With a little wider research you can discover more about this important and impressive speaker who, with the help of his powers of oratory, truly changed the world. Read the speeches for yourself and find out what he has to say about:

  • Dignity
  • Humility
  • Perseverance
  • Resilience
  • Altruism
(Video) How to Stop Holding Yourself Back | Simon Sinek
  • Sacrifice
  • Rights
  • Poverty
  • Justice
  • Education

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Nelson Mandela’s speeches would make ideal texts to use in this assessed activity. Here are suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks:

  • Field of Inquiry:Power, Politics and Justice
  • Global Issue:How individuals act in the face of injustice
  • Rationale:

During his 27 years in prison, Mandela became an icon of the injustice of the apartheid system. He was the global face of the anti-apartheid movement. When the calls to free him were finally answered in 1990, the country was on the verge of civil war. White people still controlled the economy and South Africa’s vast natural resources; Black people, who’d been oppressed for generations, were tired of waiting for change. Yet, at his inauguration as president in 1994, Mandela resisted the temptation to seek revenge for the injustices he and his country had faced – instead calling for national reconciliation and forgiveness.

(Video) The Speech that Made Obama President

possible literary pairings
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – in Act 4 Scene 1 Portia delivers a powerful speech to try and persuade Shylock to be merciful – yet Shylock insists on having his pound of flesh. Yet, when the situation is turned back upon Shylock, Portia isn’t able to practice the mercy she so eloquently preached.
  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – you could explore Doolittle’s character, both in Act 2 and Act 5, and see what he and Higgins have to say about the deserving and undeserving poor, and the justice of Doolittle’s entitlement to a little piece of what Eliza’s got.
  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare – the Kanun demands eye-for-an-eye justice in the land of vendettas that go on forever. An extract from this text could provide an excellent pairing with Nelson Mandela’s speeches.
  • The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy – perhaps The Devil’s Wife would be a good choice to pair with Mandela’s speeches. By adopting the voice of a convicted murderer, Duffy subtly persuades the listener to change the way they think about a woman who was widely condemned as evil.
  • J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians – another excellent pairing, in this novel the reader is able to witness gross acts of injustice, and explore the way people (like the unnamed magistrate or the nomadic girl he tries to help) responds to them.
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang – in this powerful novel, Yeong-hye experiences injustice first-hand when people around her are unable to accept her personal decision to give up eating meat. Instead, they label her ‘crazy’, ostracise and eventually institutionalise her.
  • Charlotte Mew’s Selected Poetry – throughout Mew’s works, the reader glimpses acts of injustice, and Mew’s speaker’s often seem to empathise with individuals. However, they rarely try to intervene in the face of injustice, and the conclusions Mew leads us to can be rather harsh and unforgiving nevertheless.

Wider Reading and Research

Categories:Readers, Writers, Texts


1. Speak like a leader | Simon Lancaster | TEDxVerona
(TEDx Talks)
2. Improve Your Speaking
(Conor Neill)
3. Think Fast, Talk Smart: Communication Techniques
(Stanford Graduate School of Business)
4. Do elephants understand Beethoven? Speech and music after poststructuralism
(Theory Creep)
5. Matt Abrahams: "How to Make Your Communication Memorable"
(Stanford Graduate School of Business)
6. A speech by The Duke of Cambridge at the third International Illegal Wildlife Trade conference
(The Royal Family)


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