Classical Rhetorical Strategies for Contemporary Speakers and Writers

Detail of a mural by Raphael painted for Pope Julius II - In the center Plato (Leonardo da Vinci) discourses with Aristotle. 1509. Raphaël. Room of the Segnatura. Vatican Museum.
The School of Athens. Getty Images / Pascal Deloche

Since ancient times, the rhetorical figures of speech have served three main purposes:

  • to instruct and entertain people through the play of language,
  • to persuade people of the truth or value of the message that a figure conveys, and
  • to help people remember both the meaning of the message and its figurative expression.

In 1970, Richard E. Young, Alton L. Becker, and Kenneth L. Pike described rhetoric in their work "Rhetoric: Discovery and Change."

The word rhetoric can be traced back ultimately to the simple assertion 'I say' (eiro in Greek). Almost anything related to the act of saying something to someone--in speech or in writing--can conceivably fall within the domain of rhetoric as a field of study."

In speech and writing, you'll find that these 10 classical rhetorical strategies can be just as powerful and effective today as they were 2,500 years ago.


An analogy is a comparison between two different things in order to highlight some point of similarity. While an analogy won't settle an argument, a good one may help to clarify the issues.


Aporia means placing a claim in doubt by developing arguments on both sides of an issue. . . . Here we'll look at three examples of this rhetorical strategy--from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Samuel Beckett's novel The Unnamable, and our favorite animated father, Homer Simpson.


Chiasmus (pronounced kye-AZ-muss) is the crisscross figure of speech: a verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first with the parts reversed. If you want to leave your audience with something to remember, try employing the Power of X.


Welcome to the Department of Verbal Abuse, you "snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings." Invective is language that denounces or casts blame on somebody or something—and it's not for the weak-hearted.


"To say one thing but to mean something else" be the simplest definition of irony. But in truth, there's nothing simple at all about this rhetorical concept.


Maxim, proverb, gnome, aphorism, apothegm, sententia--all mean essentially the same thing: a short easily remembered expression of a basic principle, general truth, or rule of conduct. Think of a maxim as a nugget of wisdom--or at least of apparent wisdom.


Some people think of metaphors as nothing more than the sweet stuff of songs and poems: Love is a jewel, or a rose, or a butterfly. But in fact, all of us speak and write and think in metaphors every day.


Personification is a figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstraction is given human qualities or abilities. It's a device commonly used in essays, advertisements, poems, and stories to convey an attitude, promote a product, or illustrate an idea.

Rhetorical Questions

A question is rhetorical if it's asked merely for effect with no answer expected. A rhetorical question may serve as a subtle way of insinuating an idea that might be challenged by an audience if asserted directly. 


A tricolon is a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses. It's a simple enough structure, yet potentially a powerful one. (Just ask former President Barack Obama.)