Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

What Is Rhetoric?

Have you ever heard a really good story? You know, the type that people tell around campfires late at night. Or maybe when you were younger, you went to the library, and the librarians could tell a story that just kept your attention, even though there were no pictures or actors.

Of course, it would be impossible to keep your attention without the story being compelling, but there was surely something about the way that the storyteller actually told the story. Did she say ‘the dog chased the robbers away,’ or was it more like ‘the canines doggedly hounded the thieves until they fled, terrified to tarry in their thievery!’ Sure, the two express the same thought, but the second does so in a much more vivid way.

This application of language to heighten visualizations, encourage emotion, and bring the listener more into the story is called rhetoric. In this lesson, we’ll look at some common rhetorical techniques to make storytelling more effective.

Tempo and Metaphor

Surely, you’ve listened to a really boring person talk. It sounds like they are chewing the words before they come out, as if they have no emotion when they talk. In fact, it’s like they just randomly chose words to string together.

Now, think about a great coach’s pep talk. She builds up her language, building tempo. It’s almost like her speech is set to the beat of a very big drum. This is done to make sure that stressed syllables are emphasized even more. However, it’s not just the sound of the language, but what is said.

Chances are that a very vivid speech uses metaphor. Metaphor is when you directly compare something to something else. A coach may say that ‘we are not going to lose to a bunch of babies. ‘ Now, I seriously doubt that any team your age or above has ever taken the field or court against a bunch of infants. However, it does sound a lot better than ‘we are gonna win.’


Another really great technique used in storytelling is to be repetitive. Earlier in the lesson, I made reference to a story about hounds chasing thieves. It comes from a story that I was told when I was a child. I’ve forgotten most of the story, but I still remember the repetition of the language. The storyteller used two devices that I had no idea about at the time, but I know they worked to great effect.

First of all, she used polysyndeton, the repeating of conjunctions, to illustrate just how far the protagonist had to travel. Words like stream, hill, valley, and ridge might have sneaked past us had she not said ‘through the stream and over the hill and through the valley and over the ridge’.

Using the same constructions of ‘over the’ and ‘through the’ is an example of anaphora, another device that involves repeating the same specific language. Of course, it doesn’t have to be actually words. You could even use anaphora with the sounds of the dogs barking or the men panting as they ran away!

Directing Attention

Finally, sometimes it’s useful for a storyteller to direct attention towards something. Let’s face it – one of the fun things about hearing a story is trying to predict what will happen next. It also increases the amount of interaction between the storyteller and the audience if she occasionally says ‘I know what you’re thinking, but….’ This is called procatalepsis. It anticipates what the audience is thinking and then counters it. Sometimes it is not so obvious. If you slow down the language, it forces the audience to pay attention.

The repetitive techniques we learned earlier do this, but there is one repetitive technique that does it better than anything else – alliteration. That’s right, simply repeating the same initial consonant sound. Take, for instance, ‘she sells sea shells by the sea shore’ – that’s alliteration. In many cases, this means that you create a tongue twister. What is everyone’s response to a tongue twister? They try to do it themselves, meaning it makes a mark on their memory!

Oh, and one other thing. You see how I’ve been asking you questions throughout this lesson? I don’t actually expect you to answer them out loud, often because I answer them the way I want them answered right afterwards. These are examples of rhetorical questions – a device that lets me point you exactly where I want your mind to go.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, we looked at rhetorical devices used in storytelling. We saw how the best storytellers often build a tempo into their stories, both with the stress of the words as well as the metaphors that they use. These metaphors also lend themselves to very vivid language. Further, repetition forces the audience to slow down and pay attention. Finally, devices like procatalepsis and rhetorical questions direct the attention of the audience to what the storyteller wants to highlight.

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