Public Speaking Secrets of the Ancients

The Ancient Greeks and Romans knew a thing or two about the art of convincing people through the power of words. After all, they didn’t have blogs or PowerPoint to help them, so they had to be good. Their secret was a battery of techniques they used to great effect. Here is your instant guide to 5 of the best ones.


Secret 1: The Tricolon

A tricolon (plural: tricola) is a sentence with three clearly defined parts of roughly equal length, each increasing in power to produce a noticeable driving force. Some examples:

“Veni, vidi, vici” Julius Caesar. Translated: “I came; I saw; I conquered.” In the original Latin, each verb is of equal length, but you get the point.

A tricolon that comprises parts that increase in length is called an ascending tricolon. You can see that the power of the phrase grows with each step. You can create the opposite effect with a descending tricolon, decreasing the length with each part.

Secret 2: Anaphora

An anaphora (Greek for “carrying back”) is a rhetorical device that consists of repeating a sequence of words at the beginnings of neighbouring clauses. You can see it’s relationship with the Tricolon, but don’t confuse the two, they are different beasts. The anaphora is used effectively in this poem by William Wordsworth:

Five years have passed;

Five summers, with the length of

Five long winters! and again I hear these waters…

William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”

Similarly, in speech you could say: “ask not what Twitter can do for you. Ask not what Facebook can do for you. Ask instead, what you can do for your customers via social media”.

Secret 3: Epistrophe

By contrast, an epistrophe (plural: epiphora) is repeating words at the clauses’ ends. Epistrophe (Greek for “return”), also occasionally known as antistrophe, is the counterpart of anaphora. It involves repeating the same word or words at the end of successive phrases, clauses or sentences. It is a powerful device because of the emphasis placed on the last word in a phrase or sentence. Here’s a great example, from Thomas Wilson:

“Where affections bear rule, there reason is subdued, honesty is subdued, good will is subdued, and all things else that withstand evil, for ever are subdued.”

Use this device when you want to convince your audience of the importance of what you are saying. The rhythmical build-up generates a tension that is punctuated by the repetition of the final word.

Secret 4: Metabasis

Our fourth secret is called Metabasis and it consists of a brief statement of what has been said and what will follow. It is perfect for linking and keeping your audience connected with the flow of your speech. Metabasis works well in keeping the discussion ordered and clear in its progress. It is a great device for moderators of debates.

Secret 5: Alliteration

Alliteration is a technique beloved by newspaper sub-editors and advertising slogan copywriters alike. It consists of combining words that begin with the same initial letter. Examples include the famous advertising slogan: “Guinness is Good for You” and the rather wonderful Daily Express headline: “Pompey Pipped at the Post as Pippo Pounces”. It is a great way to draw attention to particular points and is especially effective when used with subtlety.

Why? Why? Why?

There is no doubt that many people who are perfectly competent speakers don’t know anything about metabasis, anaphora or their cousins. But who wants to just be competent?

Wouldn’t you rather be outstanding? Wouldn’t you rather be worth talking about? Wouldn’t you rather be so good that people would be glad to pay to hear you speak?

Here’s how you do it: try one new device from this article each time you speak.

One final tip:

If you’d like to improve your public speaking skills there is no better way than joining your local public speaking club. Toastmasters International is the world’s largest collection of public speaking clubs and there’s bound to be one near you.

Author: Ash Mashhadi

Ash Mashhadi is co-Founder of the Inspiration Zone. He is also co-Founder of the successful website and Partner in the highly successful web design and social media consultancy Design Inspiration. Ash is a popular and lively speaker and frequently trains and mentors owners of small and medium-sized businesses. He is often called The Inspiration Guy, and if you want to discover why, just talk to him.

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