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

Next, let’s look at three of the figures of speech we talked about in Part 1 of this series:

1. Anaphora

Anaphora uses repeated words or phrases to stir up an emotional response in the audience. We see anaphora used in political rhetoric by the most dynamic politicians.

Newly-elected Senator Elizabeth Warren’s rhetoric rallied her supporters and won her the election. In one of her most famous speeches, she uses anaphora effectively to make a direct appeal to each individual. This is a call to action made stronger by anaphora:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own – nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe...” 

Spicing up a business presentation with anaphora is pretty simple. The first step is to go back through your speech and look for phrases that you want to emphasize.  Say you’re a leader within your organization and you’re delivering the quarterly results. You want to inspire the team by sharing your success. The original lines might have been “This quarter our overall sales were up 10%. Specifically the widget product lines sales increased by 3% and doohickey sales increased by 4%.  In addition we remained the market leader despite increased competition. Good work.”

Here’s how you could modify that using anaphora.

Because of your hard work sales were up 10% this quarter. Because of your hard work widget sales were up by 3% and doohickey sales were up by 4%. Because of your hard work, we retained our market leadership. We appreciate that hard work! Thanks!”

Can you hear how much stronger that is?

2. Antithesis

Next, we have antithesis. Antithesis uses contrasting phrases to balance out a statement. With antithesis, only a few words are needed to cover a full range of thought. I used the example “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t” in the Grammar Girl episode. Antithesis can be very effective in public speaking.

Again, it’s easy to find examples of antithesis in political rhetoric.

"Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not." - Edward Kennedy

But figures of speech aren’t just for politicians. Steve Jobs knew how to use antithesis to make an important point and to keep his customers:

“It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

To use this technique, simply model others that have been successful. For example, here’s how you might model this in your marketing outreach:  

“It’s not about low prices, it’s about the highest quality products.” 

“It’s not about price. It’s about who provides the highest customer service.” 

3. Chiasmus

Finally, chiasmus is a type of antithesis that uses phrases in reverse order.  In 2008, Hillary Clinton used chiasmus in a speech to convince her audience of what was really important in a presidential candidate.

"In the end, the true test is not the speeches a president delivers; it’s whether the president delivers on the speeches."

We all know John F. Kennedy’s famous line: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

We often hear phrases like “Do you live to eat, or eat to live?” Or how about “Happiness is not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you get?” These are catchy phrases that make the audience think about your message.

You can use chiasmus to make your speeches more humorous, too. For example, here’s the title of book on chiasmus by Mardy Grothe:

“Never let a fool kiss you or a kiss fool you.” – Joey Adams, comedian

In fact, I saw funny one on Twitter just yesterday:

“A real girl isn’t perfect a perfect girls isn’t real.”

My challenge to you is to take some time to really think about these examples and how using figures of speech can add color and dimension to your words. Then, for an important speech, spend some time writing original examples of anaphora, antithesis, and chiasmus. Use them in speeches, use them in your marketing materials, or in every day conversation. The more you use them, the more memorable your words will be (and the more comfortable you’ll feel using them). Finally, my most important advice is to have fun and allow yourself to unleash your creativity. This is Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker. Passionate about communication; your success is my business. 


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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.

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