December 2011


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    What’s the best, most effective way to spend the pupil premium? A report for charity the Sutton Trust has produced some surprising findings. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • facefacts
    Social networking sites are routinely banned in many classrooms but one college has found they can open up new channels for engagement and be a powerful aid to learning. Millie Watts explains. More
  • Handle with care
    Department heads and other middle tier staff are leaders as well as teachers but many staff in these positions say they struggle to adapt to a dual role. Andrea Berkeley explores ways to help them assume the mantle of leadership. More
  • Feeling lost for words?
    Mike Venables looks at the devices a nd tricks that make an effective and powerful communicator, drawing on the age-o ld traditions of rhetoric and acting. More
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Mike Venables looks at the devices a nd tricks that make an effective and powerful communicator, drawing on the age-o ld traditions of rhetoric and acting.

Feeling lost for words?

Novelist Gail Godwin said that good teaching is onefourth preparation and three-fourths theatre, and whether intentionally or instinctively, effective teachers often adopt the techniques of rhetoric and drama.

The art of the orator is not a subject commonly taught in schools and colleges today. This is a pity, for the tips and techniques of rhetoric are immensely helpful for anyone who has to stand up and speak in public. Drama, on the other hand, is on the curriculum in virtually every school and college and the methods used by actors are also helpful to draw on when it comes to presenting.

According to Cicero, in order for a speaker to be persuasive, the audience needs to be trusting, be attentive and willing to be persuaded. There are three key techniques to help put your audience into this frame of mind:

  • Structure – shape the material for maximum effect
  • Voice – use pitch, pace and so forth to enhance delivery and hold an audience
  • Rhetorical devices – employ tried and tested methods to make words memorable and to enhance charisma (Often spoken of pejoratively, rhetoric is actually a treasure trove for effective speaking.)


Clarity of meaning is especially important in presentations as opposed to other forms of communication because what is said is not repeated and the audience cannot go back to check on what they have missed. In addition, u unlike a conversation – or indeed a lesson – the audience does not expect to have to contribute and so their motivation to listen is less.

Most teachers will be familiar with the following pattern, designed to hold an audience from start to finish.

Opening: Start with a hook, something to make the audience sit up and take notice. This could be a rhetorical question. You might start an assembly on bullying with something like: “How many of us ignore the signs of bullying when we see it right in front of us?”

Or you could offer up an amazing fact. Someone addressing parents about sporting achievements might choose a snippet such as: “The world’s highest cricket ground is in Chail, Himachal Pradesh in India. Built in 1893 after levelling a hilltop, it is 2,444 metres above sea level.”

Equally you could use a short anecdote, cite a famous quote or point out that there is something unique about today, the day you are delivering the speech.

Introduction and overview: Tell them what you are going to tell them without giving it all away.
The body: Audiences find it difficult to hold on to more than three main points in a presentation so keeping it simple is key.

If you are talking to prospective parents or students, there will be many aspects of life at your institution that you would like to promote, but in a verbal delivery people can only take in so much. Exam results, extra-curricular opportunities and preparation for higher education could be the priorities.
Summary: Tell them what you’ve told them.
Closing: A mirror of the opening, something with a bit of drama. Effective speakers often return to the same or similar words they used at the beginning, perhaps with a twist. The cricket ground example could be revisited with a statement along the lines of: “Here at St Peter’s we may not have the highest cricket ground in the world, but we certainly have some of the most determined and talented players – and if they were asked to move a mountain in a good cause, they would ask ‘How far?’”

Tone of voice

Varying the tone of voice is a technique used by many professional speakers if they feel things are going a bit flat and their audience’s attention is straying. Many teachers instinctively do this already. There are essentially four ways to modify the voice to hold an audience’s attention, known as the four Ps:
Pitch Moving to a higher pitch generally indicates excitement or enthusiasm; a lower pitch suggests seriousness.
Pace A slower pace of delivery normally works better in a presentation or speech but a sudden speeding up will focus an audience’s attention on the passion of the speaker. A particularly slow pace often lends gravitas.
Pause Dramatic pauses are just that: dramatic. A speaker/actor will sometimes pause before an important word to heighten expectation and suspense, and sometimes after a key word to allow its significance to sink in. When announcing the results of an inter-house school competition, you might pause before announcing who came second, for example. Or when congratulating students on a charity event, you may pause before revealing the exact amount raised.
Power Vary the volume. Suddenly speaking loudly will put the audience on high alert. Speaking very quietly after having secured an audience’s rapt attention will lend a mysterious majesty to the words.

Rhetorical devices

Rhetoric is a very broad topic; it does not mean over-blown language high on style and low on substance, although that is the way it is often characterised.

Here we look at four rhetorical devices – four systematic ways of structuring sentences for impact. These techniques are ideal in situations where there are relatively large audiences. In fact, the larger the audience, the more powerful the effect.
Chiasmus Many rhetorical devices rely on a striking contrast for their effect. The chiasmus is a particular type of contrast where the words in the second half of a sentence are an effective rearrangement of the words in the first half.

A famous example is from President Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” One which could be used in an education setting might be: “We make our habits – and then our habits make us.” Such a chiasmus could be used to encourage good habits – doing homework or exercising regularly.

The great thing about such sentences is that their symmetry somehow implies rightness, an undeniable truth. They often generate a round of applause, particularly if the speaker pauses at the conclusion of the sentence.
Anaphora This type of repetition, used for effect, involves repeating the first word or phrase in successive sentences. Famous examples include Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight...” speech, in which that phrase is repeated eight times, and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.
Simploce The first and third phrases of successive sentences are the same, with the middle phrase changing each time, as in Barack Obama’s “In the struggle for peace and justice, we cannot walk alone. In the struggle for opportunity and equality, we cannot walk alone. In the struggle to heal this nation and repair this world, we cannot walk alone.”
Anadiplosis Linking, explanatory sentences are important. The rhetorical device anadiplosis involves the repetition of the last word of one phrase, clause or sentence at, or very near to, the beginning of the next in order to suggest logical progression.

Here is an example which might have come from an address to the PTA: “…this is one of the fundamental beliefs of the school. Fundamental beliefs like this also underpin the second issue I want to address today… and I know we can rely on your support. Your support has, indeed, been vital in securing funding for...”

Presenting on any formal occasion differs from all other sorts of communication. It is high profile and a huge impact can be made. Preparation and the deployment of technique can go a long way to ensuring success. A superb presentation, carefully prepared and confidently delivered, will stay in the minds of the audience long after the event.

  • Mike Venables is director of the Persuasive Speaking Company and editor of Word Matters, the journal of the Society of Speech and Drama Teachers.

Feeling lost for words?