The English Language: Going for Gold?

Voice and Communication Skills Top Tips: Figures of Speech

If public speaking were an Olympic sport, would you win a medal? How would you perform? And, most importantly, what criteria would the judges use?

The first objective of any speaker is to be clear. If your message isn’t clear, then it won’t fulfill its purpose. Once simplicity of style has been mastered, the careful addition of figures of speech can be a very powerful way to add impact to your message.

Figures of speech (also known as rhetorical devices) fall into 2 categories:

1. Those relating to word choice (tropes)

2. Those relating to word/sentence arrangement (schemes)

Both types of figure of speech create an effect out of the ordinary. An unusual choice of word used in exactly the right place, or a sentence arrangement which surprises, will add power to your message and evoke the desired emotional response in the listener. Figures of speech intrigue, inspire and motivate - and in so doing, they assist in the process of persuading your listeners to agree with your viewpoint or proposal. The ability to speak well and the ability to influence go hand-in-hand.

Use of language must, however, be appropriate for the occasion.

Commentators and journalists, describing the events of the 2012 Olympic Games, used a more elevated style than usual to convey the magnitude of the sporting achievements on display.


Here are some examples of figures of speech they used during the Games:

1. “The Games serve to enthrall, to inspire and to unite”.

This is an example of tricolon (also known as rule of three), where sentences or phrases are constructed in three parts. Tricolon usually has an escalating effect, building the phrase towards a definite climax, and here that escalation is used to generate excitement.

2. "Bleasdale saved one of her worst performances of the season for the most important competition in her pole vault career."

This is an example of antithesis, another word for contrast. Antithesis, particularly when used in parallel phrases (as above), captures the disappointment of Holly Bleasdale’s sixth place Olympic finish. 

3. "It dawned on me over time that the synchronized swimming is all quite warlike, angular, robotic – they're often making hands like claws, and their legs often jab sharply out of the water, like two giants having a fight in a bar with cocktail sticks."

 The first underlined phrase is an example of asyndeton, a technique in which the speaker leaves out the conjunctions (and, but etc) in places where you would normally expect them to be present. Here it creates a rhythmic mechanical effect, mirroring the subject being described.

The other underlined phrases are examples of vivid similes (or comparisons). They create instant visual images in our minds.

4. “And Ennis, ubiquitous in the lead-up to the Games, feeling the weight of the country on her shoulders, but delivering an almost faultless display in the heptathlon."

The metaphor (an exaggerated image or comparison) used here communicates the magnitude of the pressure under which the athletes perform - and Jessica Ennis’ achievement in becoming an Olympic gold medallist.

And did you also notice that the writer has used tricolon here?


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