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Public Speaking for Executives: Practical Tips & Tools


Why Do Executives Need to Give Presentations? There are many traits that differentiate business executives. They are hard-working, goal-pursuing with excellent critical thinking skills. However, nothing impresses others more than the ability to speak in public. Giving Business Presentations is what turns a good executive into a great leader. Leading a company, leading a department, leading a team, involves leading from the front. This often means standing in front of others and motivating them.

What is the Secret Language of the Best Speakers? There is a secret language that all best speakers share. Shakespeare had it. Martin Luther King had it. Steve Jobs had it. They all used the tools of rhetoric to help them construct and delivery more impactful and influential speeches. Those people spoke the language of Rhetoric.

To wield the power of rhetoric as an executive speaker, is to have a strong influence over your listeners. Read on to discover tips and tools on using rhetoric to power your next presentation.

What is Rhetoric? It was the Ancient Greeks who first made a professional study of the persuasiveness of speech. They called it “Ritoriki’ or Rhetoric. In Ancient Greek, they lived in a democracy, and if you wanted to get anything at all done, you need to be able to persuade other people to vote for you.

For this reason, Rhetoric became one of the most important skills to possess and someone who could teach Rhetoric was a highly valued member of the community.

Rhetoric is the partner of Dialectic, the ability to argue in conversation. Rhetoric is the art of making an argument. That doesn’t mean being argumentative or having an argument, but arguing successful for your point to the accepted by others.

Fast-forward to today and the ability to construct a persuasive message, or decode other people’s messages is a powerful and important skill to hold still. Not just for politicians, but for business leaders, managers and executives.

The Ancient Greeks Used Rhetoric to Persuade

Which Tools of Rhetoric Can Most Help Executives Speak?

Most Business Executives do not have the time to study rhetoric. This is why some employ speechwriters, and others public speaking and presentation coaches. But there are 3 very powerful tools of rhetoric that you can use even after a brief explanation.

Below I will explain each of the tools, then I will give examples and then I will show you how they are worked into the speeches of successful business leaders too.

Using The Rule or Power of 3 for Impact The first tool of Rhetoric is what we call the Rule or Power of 3. When things come in threes, they are powerful. We enjoy these triads of words: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.” “Game, Set and Match.” “Lock, Stock and Barrel.” “No. New. Taxes.”

And when introducing the brand new iPhone. Steve Jobs used this trio of items together: “An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone … Are you getting it?” The Greeks discovered that there was something satisfying about the use of 3. The order of the three items also becomes a very important and that’s part of the skill of using the tools of rhetoric.

When Ukrainian President Zelensky claimed: “We will not surrender, we will not lose, we will go to the end,” he was using the powerful rule of 3 to spell out his defiance against the invading Russians.

Anaphora is starting sentences with the same word or phrase, if we combine that with the Rule of 3, we have powerful reinforcement to our argument.

“There is nothing, that we can’t do – as Americans. As Americans, we have traveled the world. As Americans, we have traveled to space. As Americans, we will travel beyond the stars we know, to the wonderous worlds beyond.” That repetition of ‘As Americans’, repeats the national pride and indicates that is it something innately American about adventurous outer space travel.

In Catcher in the Rye, J.D Salinger uses this combination of the Rule of 3 with Anaphora: “It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place.”

Think of how that repetition three times emphasises the impact of the rain. Using Balanced Statements to Dramatic Effect A Balanced Statement sounds like it is believable because it seems reasonable and logical. Because there is a symmetry in the statement, they somehow become stickier in the human mind. But they are not always reasonable or logical, but they appeal to our desire for balance.

“The internet belongs is part of our future, and our future belongs to the internet.” I made this up. But it sounds reasonable.

Making a Balanced Sentence: A balanced sentence is a sentence that is made up of two equal, similar parts, their grammar and meaning being also equal too.

Here’s a sentence that is not balanced: UNBALANCED SENTENCE: She enjoys reading books and swimming BALANCED SENTENCE: She enjoys reading books and going swimming.

The absence of ‘going’ causes the imbalance. Obviously these are simple examples. Here’s an example of a sophisticated balances sentence from William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar:

“Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.”

This is a balanced sentence includes ANTITHESIS, another rhetorical tool, which makes use of opposites. Using Less and More in this way has a dramatic effect on the meaning and the listener. The Power of Metaphors to Influence Your Audience Metaphor, saying something is something else is powerful. Hitler referred to the Jews as snakes. This dehumanising metaphor allowed him to lower the value of one person’s life to another. The British Prime Minister David Cameron did nothing better when he described migrants in Calais as a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean.” What is it that swarms? People do not. Insects do. Rats do. Cameron made migrants rodents and insects in the minds of the British public.

If a sales director refers to his clients as ‘cash machines/ATMs’, will he treat them with care and respect.

Trump argued that he would “drain the swamp.”

Red Bull’s advertising claims that: “Red Bull gives you wings.” It doesn’t, but the metaphor helps us to think about the uplifting power of a highly caffeinated beverage.

Senator John McCain, complaining about how Wall Street and Washington have caused the pain of the Credit Crunch said: “Homeowners are the innocent bystanders in a drive-by shooting by Wall Street and Washington.” He compared homeowners to innocent victims of an illegal spray killing. That’s a powerful message he’s sending.

If you’re using a metaphor, you can evoke emotion and feelings in your audience. Imagine that you sell anti-virus software.

You could say: Our software keeps your computer safe 24/7.

Or you could evoke a metaphor:

When your computer’s under siege, we’ll come to your rescue.

Finding Examples in Presentations Sir Kenneth Robinson was an author, speaker, educator and businessman. This TED talk has been watched over 70 million times. He is funny, inspiring and challenging. Here’s the transcript of his opening:

“Good morning. How are you? It’s been great, hasn’t it? I’ve been blown away by the whole thing. In fact, I’m leaving. There have been three themes, haven’t there, running through the conference, which are relevant to what I want to talk about. One is the extraordinary evidence of human creativity in all of the presentations that we’ve had and in all of the people here. Just the variety of it and the range of it.”

Sir Ken opens with a metaphor, it’s an exaggeration of hyperbole to suggest with “I’ve been blown away” that the revelations of the TED conference are like an explosion. Next, he starts to highlight the three themes, using the rule of three to explore the quality of the TED conference. Below, I’ve highlighted the second, about the uncertainty of the future…

The second is that it’s put us in a place where we have no idea what’s going to happen, in terms of the future. No idea how this may play out. I have an interest in education — actually, what I find is everybody has an interest in education. Don’t you? I find this very interesting. And the third example here.

And the third part of this is that we’ve all agreed, nonetheless, on the really extraordinary capacities that children have — their capacities for innovation. I mean, Sirena last night was a marvel, wasn’t she? Just seeing what she could do. And she’s exceptional, but I think she’s not, so to speak, exceptional in the whole of childhood. What you have there is a person of extraordinary dedication who found a talent.

And here’s a brilliant example of a balanced sentence:

And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said this — he said that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Here we can see antithesis, using the opposites of ‘growing’ INTO creativity being balanced for effect with the idea of ‘growing’ out of it.


Beautifully balanced sentence that powerfully makes its point well.

Sir Kenneth also makes fun of his own profession by describing academic conferences: If you want real evidence of out-of-body experiences, by the way, get yourself along to a residential conference of senior academics, and pop into the discotheque on the final night. And there you will see it — grown men and women writhing uncontrollably, off the beat, waiting until it ends so they can go home and write a paper about it.

Putting the image of these serious individuals dancing so badly that they are ‘writhing uncontrollably.” makes fun of them. He adds to this by following with a rule of 3. These people who are dancing badly are also:

Off the beat

Waiting until it ends

So they can go home and write a paper about it. (also nicely balanced sentence go home/write a paper)


COMMUNICATING YOUR VISION If you are an executive using a presentation or public speaking opportunity to communicate your vision, then you may be very confident in getting up in front of people. You may not experience fear of public speaking (glossophobia) or any confidence, motivation and focus issues.

However, you may not be making the kind of impact on your listeners that you would want. The way to make impact, to communicate your vision, then schooling yourself in the tools of rhetoric will give you a massive difference to your presentation. In this post, we’ve explored the tools of:

  • Metaphor

  • The Rule of 3

  • Balanced Statements

Write your speech bearing these 3 tools in mind and you will definitely have a greater impact. But there are many more tools.

I previously wrote about some other rhetorical tools, the powerfully persuasive tools Ethos, Logos and Pathos. Read that post here. Mark Westbrook Public Speaking Coach