When you imagine an eloquent speaker, you might have a picture of someone charming, smooth, persuasive, and intelligent who expresses their ideas with lots of sophisticated words.
That may be part of it.
However, the first key to coming across as eloquent is to choose a subject or subject matter that resonates well with your audience.
Eloquence begins with an idea.
If the facts ‘speak for themselves’ there is not much more that you need to do.
If eloquence is the art of persuasion, your audience may already be persuaded, or want to be persuaded.
It is when your argument is not so conclusive, that you may need to think more about how you structure your argument, how you deliver your argument, and how you present the content of your argument.
Therefore, before anything else:
1. Be a problem solver
An ice-cream seller on a hot sunny day does not need to be exceptionally good with words to be very persuasive in selling ice-creams.
Therefore the first big step to towards eloquence is to find a need or a desire and offer a solution.
Think about what people want or what people fear and address it. Talk about a subject that is close to your audience’s heart. Look for things that you already agree upon.
2. Play on the negative
Some politicians who advocate preventing immigrants and asylum seekers from entering their country make very forceful arguments to persuade their fellow citizens why they should erect bigger barriers to entrance.
They talk about criminal gangs, how the social infrastructure would collapse, and play on all the fears and prejudices that are already lurking at the back of each of our minds. By highlighting our worries and then promoting their argument as a solution to those worries, the speaker tries to win us over. However, on the whole, the people who find that argument particularly persuasive and eloquent are those who are already disposed to believe what the speaker is saying! Many of the populist politicians that prevail in the world today – I will let you supply your own names – base their appeal on, firstly stoking our fears and prejudices and then, claiming to offer us protection from the overwhelmingly negative picture that they paint. Stoke up fear of criminals and predators in the neighbourhood and it becomes much easier to persuade people to lock their doors and turn strangers away.
3. Build on the positive
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, Republican President of the United States of America, was regularly described as the ‘great communicator’. I am not sure that many Democrats would have agreed!
Equally Boris Johnson has always been characterised as a man capable of reaching voters that other politicians could not reach because of his very up-beat message.
He understands that if people want things to improve, then they will be more inclined to want to believe someone who is constantly telling them (sometimes against all evidence) that things are going to work out well.
Therefore the first step to eloquence is to talk to people in a language, whether positively or negatively, that resonates with their beliefs, relates to their situation, and then promises a solution.
Clearly, an ice cream seller on a hot day does not need to be a great master of words in order to be highly persuasive.
I remember the moment I realised that my oldest son had the potential to be a great communicator.
We were quietly sitting at the seaside together. Bear in mind he was about six years old at the time.
I was sitting down with no intention of moving when he says:
‘Dad, would you like an ice-cream?’
‘Yes, I think I would.’ I replied
‘Good. Can you get me a milk chocolate magnum?’
Genius! I thought. He did not try to persuade me to buy him an ice cream. He simply awoke my desire and the rest was easy.
So the first step to eloquence is all about finding a want and satisfying that want.
If the door is already half open, pushing it all the way will not be so hard.
It is easy to persuade someone to do what they already want to do!
And then everyone thinks you are an eloquent persuasive speaker.
However, what does the ice cream seller do on a cloudy day?
And then what happens if there are other ice cream sellers nearby?
Most of the time when we are trying to persuade an audience there will be another point of view vying for their attention.
How do we set ourselves apart? How do we win over our audience?
If the argument no longer automatically speaks for itself, what do we need to do to carry the day?
4. Organise your thoughts
Plan the route of your argument. You could base it around what is known as ‘Cicero structure’.
It is a 6 step process.
(i) Introduction. Set the scene, set the context, and gather your audience together, typically by highlighting a common experience, belief or principle that everyone can rally around.
(ii) Statement of facts. Narrow down to establish the broad subject matter you wish to address.
(iii) Division. Focus even further on exactly what part of the subject you wish to speak about
i.e. establish your terms of reference.
(iv) Proof. Put your case, give your supporting examples; share supporting stories or case studies.
(v) Refutation. If required you can discredit an opponent’s point of view or discredit contrary arguments.
(vi) Conclusion. Appeal to the audience’s interests, beliefs, or their sense of justice and finish with a flourish!
5. Use rhetorical devices
This is how you will make the biggest impression on your audience as an eloquent speaker.
These are the creative use of words or structures that stick in the listener’s memory.
There are many many. One great source is
Some examples (without their fancy rhetorical names):
words that alliterate – ‘clear, concise and confident’
words that set up contrasts – ‘Barak Obama, the first black man in the White House.’
words that dramatise – ‘crushing weight’, ‘blind panic’ ‘stream of consciouslness’
phrases of threes – ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’
phrases of expansion - ‘you, your children and your children’s children’
phrases of repetition – ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ ‘Education, education, education.’
As you develop your argument, look for neat patterns or arrangements that could sum up your key message.
6. Body language
Stand strong! Look like the impression you want to give. A solid argument will be reinforced by a solid stance. A clear, strong argument will be supported by clear, strong gestures. A confident message will be aided by confident eye contact with the room. Use your hands to support your voice.
7. Be sensitive to your audience
Respond politely and respectfully to questions from your audience. Listen attentively. Nod to show you understand or empathise with the questioner. Show how your argument relates to them. Keep calm.
8. Use stories
All great speakers are great storytellers and often that means no more than having a simple personal example that illustrates your point and at the same time relates to the audience. Stories are the quickest way to make a connection. We do it all the time when we tell our friends and loved ones about what happened during the day. And more often than not we will be doing it by sharing experiences that they can relate to; my boss, your boss; my children, your children; bad train journey, bad train journey.
When I am running a storytelling training session, I know that it is working when fairly quickly I lose control of the room. One student shares their story; it resonates with the others and immediately there is an exchange of similar experiences and everyone is chipping in with their own examples.
If you want your audience to understand that it is OK to make mistakes, tell them how you made mistakes.
Make your examples visual and compelling so that when they leave the room and forget much of what you said, they will still have that one clear picture in their heads that helps them retain your message.
Look for the emotional connection within the story. If it is OK to make mistakes, focus on the embarrassment you felt when you made your mistakes.
9. Use metaphors
Be aware of examples and images from outside that might reinforce your message
When I was teaching Public Speaking to 15-year-olds, maybe not surprisingly, they were not very keen on the idea of Public Speaking.
However a lot of them were keen on sports and athletics, so I would look for images that could relate to them:
- comparing preparing to speak to lining up at the start of a one-hundred-meter race
- comparing preparing to speak to getting ready to take a penalty
A team of UK Health workers were very ‘eloquent’ in persuading young people to take a Covid vaccination during the Corona Virus pandemic, by comparing the virus to the dark force of the Empire in Star Wars and the injection to the rebel alliance.
Most of their audience loved Star Wars, so the connection was made.
10. Develop your vocabulary
Be careful on this one. I am not suggesting swallowing a dictionary. Your words are not spoken for you to look clever, your words are there for you to express your ideas better.
Most of the time, particularly when speaking, the simplest words are the best.
However, it is always worth expanding your vocabulary so that you have the right word when you need it.
(An old study in the USA apparently found that your breadth of vocabulary was somehow over time connected to your level of income!)
To be considered an eloquent speaker
- Find a subject that relates to your audience and if that is not possible, look for ways to make your subject more relatable.
- Structure your argument in a logical, easy-to-follow way
- Make sure your delivery projects clarity and confidence
- Create content that is memorable, accessible, and easy to retain.