How to Create and Use Figures of Speech

Make your messages more vivid, more memorable, and trigger emotional responses using anaphora, antithesis, and chiasmus.

Lisa B. Marshall
6-minute read
Episode #187

This week is a very special two-part series on figures of speech. You can find Part 1 on Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl, where I am the guest host this week. On her show, I describe five uncommon figures of speech that you can use to spice up your writing.  In this episode, Part 2, I’ll talk about to how to create and use figures of speech in your speeches and presentations.  .

Why Use Figurative Language?

Before I explain how to use figures of speech, I want to take a moment to talk about why it is so important to use them. If you want to be perceived as a charismatic leader, if you want to inspire, if you want to motivate others, then you should use figurative language. Why? Because figures of speech make your messages more vivid, memorable, and emotional. Interestingly, a 2005 research study revealed that the metaphoric density in presidential inaugural addresses was double the amount for charismatic versus non-charismatic U.S. presidents.
We don’t always use figures of speech in our everyday language because they require thought and planning. In fact, at times, using a rhetorical tool may even seem repetitive or somewhat awkward when written. However, when spoken, figurative language can make the difference between capturing the attention of your audience and putting them to sleep. Perhaps most importantly, figures of speech can help you make the emotional connection you need to inspire a skeptical audience to embrace a new idea. They’re a powerful persuasive tool to get your audience to act on your call to action.

How to Use Figures of Speech

In this week’s Grammar Girl episode on figures of speech, I shared some well-known examples. Classic lines such as “I am stuck on Band-aid brand, ‘cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me,” and “To err is human, to forgive divine.” These examples show the power of these rhetorical devices and how they can transform simple statements to timeless, memorable quotes.

In public speaking, it’s best if you create original figures of speech rather than using tired cliches. These may  not come easily, but it’s important to try to use your creativity to convey your ideas in a new way.

For example, in my latest book, Smart Talk, I used this boring sentence in my original draft:

"Business diplomacy means sharing ideas in a helpful way." 

The concept I was trying to convey was that it's the manner in which you convey your ideas that’s important.  It was a critical point and needed some spice, so I tried this:

“It's the difference between sending an email or tying a note to a brick and throwing a brick through a window.”

This gave a better visual image of my message. Better, yes, but still I wanted to sharpen it up, make it more specific and visual. I realized that the way it was written emphasized not being diplomatic, but I wanted the focus to be on effective diplomacy. Here’s what ended up in the book:

“It's the difference between tying a note to a brick and sending a polite letter hand-written with a fountain pen on fancy rose-scented stationary.”

Notice that using the rhetorical tool makes the sentence longer, so you’ll want to be sure to focus adding rhetorical language to only the important points, and plan to revise them more than once. If it runs a little long, just remember to balance that in other parts that are much shorter.


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.