The Language of Leadership – Using Rhetoric for Effective Speechwriting

Barack Obama’s success in the 2008 US presidential election showed us the power and relevance of well crafted and delivered speeches. One of the ‘secrets’ of Obama’s speaking success is his use of rhetoric. Although the term has taken on negative connotations to mean insincere and pompous language, rhetoric can be used to enhance a speaker’s credibility and make their messages more memorable.

What is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion. In the Western world, rhetoric originated with the Ancient Greeks who defined and developed the techniques that are used to this day.

Let’s look at a few important rhetorical techniques and how they can be applied in speechwriting to express messages clearly and effectively.

Rule of Three

One of the most common and effective rhetorical devices is called the rule of three, or triad.

When using the rule of three, you include three equal elements in a sentence or series of sentences. Here are a few examples.

Veni, vidi, vici. (I came, I saw, I conquered.)

Julius Caesar

Government of the people. . .by the people. . .for the people. . . shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln (from the Gettysburg Address, a eulogy for those killed in the battle)

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

Franklin D Roosevelt

Barack Obama often uses the rule of three in his speeches.

That’s what Abraham Lincoln understood. He had his doubts. He had his defeats. He had his setbacks.

Barack Obama

Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

Barack Obama

The rule of three can also be applied on a larger scale in speeches. For example, you can reveal three interesting facts, tell three anecdotes in succession, or ask three questions in a row.


Anaphora is the technique of emphasising words by repeating them at the beginning of adjacent clauses or sentences.

In one of the most memorable political speeches from World War II, Winston Churchill used anaphora with great effect.

We shall go on to the end,

we shall fight in France,

we shall fight on the seas and oceans,

we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,

we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be,

we shall fight on the beaches,

we shall fight on the landing grounds,

we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,

we shall fight in the hills;

we shall never surrender…

Hillary Clinton used anaphora in her speech to the US Democratic National Convention in 1996.

To raise a happy, healthy, and hopeful child, it takes a family; it takes teachers; it takes clergy; it takes business people; it takes community leaders; it takes those who protect our health and safety. It takes all of us.

To writers and editors unfamiliar with rhetoric, this sentence would seem wordy. For a written format they might edit this sentence to read:

To raise a happy, healthy, and hopeful child, it takes a family, teachers, clergy, business people, community leaders, and those who protect our health and safety. It takes all of us.

But the repetition plays an important role. Repeating ‘it takes’ emphasises individual points and gives listeners time to reflect on each one.

Paul Keating used anaphora in his Redfern Address of 1993

Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless.

Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in the defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight.

Imagine if non-Aboriginal Australians had served their country in peace and war and were then ignored in history books.

Imagine if our feats on sporting fields had inspired admiration and patriotism and yet did nothing to diminish prejudice.

Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed.

Imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it.

Barack Obama uses anaphora to persuade and motivate his listeners. This example is from the speech where he announced his presidential candidacy in 2007.

Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age. Let’s set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let’s recruit a new army of teachers, and give them better pay and more support in exchange for more accountability. Let’s make college more affordable, let’s invest in scientific research, and let’s lay down broadband lines through the heart of inner cities and rural towns all across America.

It has been said that Australian audiences prefer a simpler approach and are cynical towards rhetorical language. Kevin Rudd expressed this sentiment when he said, ‘By way of personal instinct, I have an inherent distaste for grandiose rhetorical statements, which don’t have any substantive dimension to them’.

But rhetorical techniques are found in many speeches by Australian political and business leaders. Kevin Rudd’s apology speech to the Stolen Generations, which was delivered in Parliament in February 2008, included several of these.

In the beginning of the speech, he used epistrophe (also called antistrophe). This is when a word or phrase is repeated at the end of each sentence or clause.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

Prime Minister Rudd used anaphora to conclude the speech.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

Antithesis, Simile, Metaphor and Analogy

Antithesis is when contrasting ideas are juxtaposed in a sentence.

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

John F Kennedy

If we are going to make the investments we need, we also have to be willing to shed the spending that we don’t need.

Barack Obama

A simile is when you compare things that share at least one attribute. Similes usually include the words ‘like’ or ‘as’.

Education is like a diamond with many facets.

Ronald Reagan

Life is like an onion: You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.

Carl Sandburg

A metaphor compares one thing to another, but describes the thing being compared as if it were the other.

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of a nation into the beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

Martin Luther King

Nationalism is both a vital medicine and a dangerous drug.

Geoffrey Blainey

An analogy is an extended metaphor or long simile.

Politicians are a lot like diapers; you should change them frequently and for the same reason. Keep that in mind next time you vote.

Robin Williams in Man of the Year

Analogies can be helpful when explaining complex ideas or technical processes in a speech. An executive with an Australian IT company used the following analogy to explain a challenging project.

Updating the telecommunications software was like changing an engine on a 767 jet at 37,000 feet. We were changing one of the engines and needed to ensure that the plane kept running and didn’t fly around in circles.

Rhetorical techniques such as the rule of three, anaphora, epistrophe, simile and metaphor have been used in speechwriting for over two thousand years. Besides engaging audience members, they can make interesting ‘sound bites’ that are more likely to be quoted in the media and remembered.

Although rhetoric is an ancient way to persuade through language, it is equally relevant today. Speechwriters who understand rhetoric and how to apply it skilfully can enhance the credibility of leaders while making their messages more memorable.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Resources section of the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) website.