Highfalutin Speechifyin’ — the Art of Rhetoric
The word rhetoric today has a negative connotation meaning blank talk or blather, which of course it usually is. But oratory as a science has been around since the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was they who developed various techniques whose sole purpose was persuasion. These methods have been shown to be most effective in grabbing the listener’s attention and holding it. Today we call it neurolinguistics. I’ll go over several of these tricks and give examples, past and present, so that you can recognize them during this campaign season.
The first and by far the most important is the Rule of Three. No other number seems to have such a mystical resonance with the human psyche, which is why we see it everywhere: the three wise men, the three Graces, a genie offers three wishes, Three Blind Mice, the Holy Trinity, Three Men and a Baby, the Three Musketeers, the Three Stooges. It just works. When I said everywhere, I meant it: ready, set, go; faith, hope, and charity; stop, look and listen; ready, aim, fire; lights, camera, action; three strikes and you’re out. It’s a central tenet of comedy. Think of the typical story joke. The first two components are normal and set a pattern, then the third element breaks the pattern with the unexpected. Hopefully, laughter ensues. And if it’s not one guy doing something, it’s three: A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar. As we go through the other techniques of effective public speaking, note how often this number recurs.
Tricolon — Another three, this one being a series of three parallel words, phrases, or sentences in succession, one of the most commonly used devices. Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people and for the people” is a tricolon. It’s also an epiphora, but more on that later. The shortest tricolon is Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered). Barack Obama, one of this century’s greatest orators, gave a prime example in his “Yes We Can” victory speech on Nov. 4th, 2008: “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did  on this day,  in this election,  at this defining moment, change has come to America.” He had another gem in his speech at the DNC Convention in 2004: “Tonight we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation,  not because of the height of our skyscrapers,  or the power of our military,  or the size of our economy . . .” Not only is Obama skilled in speech, he has an infallible instinct for the crowd’s energy; the guy really knows how to work a crowd.
Anaphora — The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. In Winston Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech he uses it: “We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight on the beaches,” etc. He didn’t stop at three because he was really on a roll. You may be familiar with “. . . this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,” the end of a longer speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II. Muhammad Ali used it to question why he should go 10,000 miles to kill other brown people when the enemy was here at home: “You my enemy when I want freedom; you my enemy when I want justice; you my enemy when I want equality . . .” He was another skilled orator, whose style was similar to his boxing style; playful but poignant, with a rhythm like his footwork.
Epiphora — The opposite of anaphora, with the repetitions being at the end of successive phrases. The use of “Yes we can” by Obama punctuated several of his statements in that famous 2004 speech, in much the same way as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the phrase “I have a dream” in his iconic 1963 speech.
Ad Hominem — This is where one attacks the opponent rather than the issue. Donald Trump does it all the time, saying Obama founded ISIS, Hillary is the most corrupt politician in history, etc. although these are also examples of hyperbole.
Argumentum ad misericordiam — This is the appeal to pity. Look at my poor client over there, a tragic victim of circumstance; his mother died before he was born, so his father had him. In one of his court cases, the great Roman orator Cicero wanted to bring in a client’s children to gain sympathy with the jury. They looked too clean and well-fed, though, so he hired homeless street urchins.
Argumentum in terrorem — The appeal to fear. This is Trump’s favorite card to play, as it is for Rudy Giuliani and many other Republicans, who are themselves ruled by fear. They know the inconvenient truth the Democrats still haven’t figured out; that people are more easily swayed by emotion than reason.
Hyperbole — This is an exaggerated statement not meant to be taken seriously. “But mom, all the kids are doing it!” “I suppose if all the kids jumped off a bridge, you would too.” Boy, all this hyperbole is making me hungry enough to eat a horse. Trump is the undisputed master, and has even tried to reinvent it by calling it “truthful hyperbole,” a mutually exclusive term.
Antithesis — Another linguistic device that stirs the crowd. It’s the use of contrasting concepts within a parallel grammatical structure. This parallel structure amplifies the contrast, as in Muhammad Ali’s “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Or there’s Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” John F. Kennedy’s example is well-known: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In his first event as Democratic VP candidate, Tim Kaine asked the crowd: “Do you want a ‘you’re fired’ president or a ‘you’re hired’ president?” A classic I’ve always liked is from Ben Franklin. After those 56 men had signed the Declaration of Independence, knowing they would be considered traitors by the British, he said: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” This is also an example of antanaclassis, the use of two words in different contexts.
Praetoritio — This is one of my favorites, meaning ‘to deny.’ It’s when you say something bad about someone while saying you’re not going to say something bad about them. Again to the example of Cicero, who once told a jury they should consider only the evidence in the case, not the fact that the prosecutor is unfaithful to his wife and cruel to his dog. And again, Trump uses it all the time: “I won’t call Marco Rubio a lightweight, because that is a derogatory term,” and “I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo; it’s not politically correct.” I have my own example to illustrate how this can be used psychologically: “I never said Hillary Clinton was a corporate whore; I merely stated that for the right amount of money she will assume any position.” See what I did there? By using the words whore, money, and assuming a position, I’ve put certain ideas (and pictures) into the listener’s head.
Interestingly, neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders uses these rhetorical tricks. Maybe that’s one reason Hillary isn’t a very good speaker, and she readily admits it. A policy wonk, she’s better in a more informal town hall situation. Bernie has his own speaking style, which has been likened to that of a jackhammer. It’s a kind of staccato, rapid-fire cadence. Here’s an example, in which the emphasized words or syllables are in italic: “Together we are going to raise the minimum wage to a liv-ing wage. People are sick and tired of establishment politics!” Some say his is a binary us vs. them argument, identifying first an enemy — the billionaire class — against the rest of us (the 99%). In this case I absolutely agree. Trump uses the binary argument all the time, except that the “them” in his case is everyone but old white nationalists.
Nowadays, we get most of our speechifyin’ through media, but as with music or theater, there’s nothing like live performance. The synergy between the performer and audience can’t be duplicated electronically. I was blessed in 1961 to be able to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Miami Beach. I was 16, from the prairies of Wyoming. I couldn’t tell you what he said; I’m sure he spoke about justice and equality and his familiar themes. What I do remember is the rhythm and cadence of his voice, and the incredible energy in the room. His style came from the Southern church, where preachers use the same always effective rhetorical devices.
One more thing I want to mention is trigger words. “Freedom” and “Liberty” are favorites of the Right, but the most insidiously effective word is “change.” When do you remember a candidate not promising change? Right now Donald Trump is promising really big changes (that no sane person would even consider).
Well, now you know some things to listen for, but keep in mind that the vast majority of these politicians are lying. They want your vote only; after that just go away. They don’t give a rat’s ass about you, so just remember, talk is cheap.