Imagine watching someone give a speech. If the speaker is simply looking down at a piece of paper and listing facts in a monotone voice, you likely won’t be very interested in the speech and may not remember what the speaker said. Good speakers know how to avoid boring the audience, and good authors do, too. In fact, authors may have an even tougher job engaging their audiences than speakers. That’s why they use certain techniques and devices to capture their readers’ interest.Rhetoric
Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speaking or writing. The way authors use rhetoric is tied to their purpose for writing an informational text. It is also influenced by the author’s perspective on the topic they are writing about. Authors use rhetoric to advance their purpose for writing. They make their texts more effective by including figures of speech and other devices that resonate with readers.
Rhetorical techniques, or rhetorical devices, are ways of conveying meaning or persuading an audience. Such techniques can transform an average piece of writing into something more powerful and appealing. Think about a topic that you’ve never given much thought to. In a text written to inform you about this topic, straight facts and details could bore readers and turn them away from the topic. Using rhetorical techniques helps hold readers’ interest, which helps authors achieve their purpose. In the case of persuasive writing, rhetorical devices help to bring readers around to the author’s perspective.
You have already seen rhetorical techniques used in both informational and literary texts, where they can be equally effective. Some rhetorical techniques that may already be familiar to you include:
Word choice – Authors choose words with specific connotations to advance their purpose. For example, describing someone as “curious” makes them sound interested in things, and describing someone as “nosy” makes them sound annoying and prying, though both words have the same general meaning.
Irony – This is when someone expresses something that is different from how they feel or what they mean. Irony can draw more attention to the situation at hand, and it can be used for humor.
Allusion – An allusion is an indirect reference to something. For example, an author might call someone a liar by saying that their “nose was growing.” This is a reference, or allusion, to the story of Pinocchio that doesn’t use the character’s name.
These are only a few of many rhetorical techniques that authors use to enliven their writing and engage readers.
Anaphora is the technique of repeating the same words or phrases in consecutive sentences for emphasis. This gives the writing more of a cadence, which can help readers better remember the ideas expressed in the sentences. Here is an example of anaphora in a persuasive speech about preventing bullying:
Will you commit to helping your friends? Will you promise to stand up for others? Will you refuse to let others be taken advantage of?
The repetition of “will you” at the beginning of each sentence can cement the message in readers’ minds.
An anecdote is a very short story told to generate interest in the reader and to illustrate a point. Using anecdotes can also help connect the topic to the reader’s own life. For example, in a persuasive essay about why election day should be a holiday, the author might start with an anecdote such as:
My neighbor, Mrs. Cole, works two jobs during the week. On the last election day, she knew exactly who she wanted to vote for and was determined to make it to her polling place. But she had to be at her first job before the polls opened, was running late to her next job so couldn’t stop in between, and got off work for the day after the polls were closed.
This anecdote helps readers understand from the beginning why this topic is important.
Hyperbole is an extreme exaggeration that should not be taken literally. It is used for comedic or satirical effect. Hyperbole helps emphasize the situation even though readers should not take it seriously. Here is an example of hyperbole:
We climbed out of our tents at dawn. The temperature had dropped so low, my fingers were about to fall off and my lips turned blue.
This is hyperbole used to emphasize how cold it was, which is effective for readers who have never experienced the situation being described.
Paradox is a statement or idea that seems contradictory on the surface, but that reveals an element of truth. Using paradox makes readers think more about the idea at hand. For example, in a text about the rise of artificial intelligence, the author presented this paradox:
Robots would not exist if not for humans; now humans may not be able to exist without them.
These two ideas seem to contradict one another but reveal an underlying truth.
A rhetorical question is a question posed by an author that does not need to be answered. The author asks the question to make a point rather than to get an answer. For example, in an essay on the dangers of contact sports, the author posed this question:
Would you willingly engage in an activity that you know might cause permanent brain damage?
This rhetorical question makes readers think about the issue of the risks involved in contact sports and their feelings about it.
An understatement is a technique that creates emphasis by intentionally giving less significance to a situation than it really has, or saying less than is actually true. For example, in a text about the effect of playing video games on teenagers, an author might use this understatement:
Kids get home, need to relax, and what better way to do that than staring at a screen and shooting zombies for hours on end? No big deal.
Despite the language used, the author clearly thinks the behavior is detrimental, but makes it clear with an understatement.
As you read informational texts, pay attention to the rhetorical devices the author uses to advance the purpose of the text. These can include anaphora, anecdote, hyperbole, paradox, rhetorical questions, and understatement. Each has its own way of emphasizing the author’s ideas or helping readers connect to the ideas. Think about how the rhetorical techniques are driven by the author’s purpose and perspective on the topic.