Rhetorical Techniques: Powering A Story

bang idea  Driving An Idea!

Presently, the WordPress posting are “Today’s Illustrations”  — Monday-Friday.  *

Nevertheless, every so often I hear another great speech or message.  When that happens, I am pushed to go analytical and attempt to lay out what the speaker is doing which makes it as great as it is!

This speech was given by a politician — the classic writers on rhetorical theory saw politics as one of the three areas of life where public speaking was central (Law, politics, and religion).

Uniquely, even though the speaker is presently a politician, he is also an attorney-trial lawyer, and is a Christian, speaking to a religious audience.  His speech is actually a combination of those three classical professions.

Here is the link to the entire message — (After an introduction, the speech actually begins @ the 7:52 minute mark).  The follow is a transcribed copy of the portion I would like to highlight to illustrate the power of a well-chosen story, and which drives the point which is being made!

(@ approximately the 30 minute mark of the speech)

I work in a town that is named for Washington,

I fly into an airport named for Reagan.

I pass monuments to Jefferson and Lincoln and King

and every street is named after somebody famous

and there are statues and portraits in every one of the office buildings.

I don’t even–they’re so famous I don’t even know them — lots of famous people,

and when you fly in on an airplane into Reagan, the pilot usually says you may
want to look off to this side to see this monument or, “You want to look here and see the Washington Monument,” or the White House.

I don’t lean forward for any of that, not anymore.

Seen it.

You know what I think about when I fly into Reagan?

I think about a guy you’ve never heard of.

You’ve never heard of him.

I was about your age — I was exactly your age — watching television with my father.

February in the throes of a terribly frigid winter in Washington, and a plane crashes into the Fourteenth Street Bridge, and all the passengers except a half-dozen were killed on impact.

and those half-dozen were in the icy waters of the Potomac River.

And I’m watching this on television with my dad. This is before twenty-four hour news, but it was captivating the country.

So you got these people in the icy waters of the Potomac,

and you got the whirl of the helicopter coming,

and that helicopter lowers a rope ladder into the waters of the Potomac

and it falls into the hands of a man you’ve never heard of before.

If I called his name right now, you don’t know him.

So he has life in his hands, and he passes it to a stranger,

and that person is hoisted to safety and the helicopter takes her away

and it comes back and the same scene repeats itself four more times,

and every time, he’s got his hands on a rope ladder.

He is this close to saving his life, and every single time he passes it to a stranger

– not his wife, not his daughter, not his best friend.

– a stranger.

And when the helicopter came back for him, he had succumbed to fatigue and drowned.

His name was Orland Williams.

I’m not asking you to be Reagan.

I’m not asking you to be Lincoln.

I’m just asking you to live a quiet life of conviction and virtue

and actually live out what you profess to believe,

and if you can do that,

you’ll be a leader,

you’ll be persuasive,

and your generation will get this country headed back in the direction that you want it to be in.

— Trey Gowdy of South Carolina


Going analytical, notice how Gowdy . . . .

Sets up a contrast —  Famous vs. Ordinary:  With most any story, a contrast can be set up.  In this case it was a contrast of the famous versus the ordinary.  However, the story can be set up with a contrast of . . . .

  • easy times versus hard times — i.e. — Those were easy times to be able to do this-or-that, but this happened in days when it was hard to . . . .
  • resources versus lack — i.e.  — There were many who had the resources to be able to do this-or-that, but he/she/they didn’t have such resources.
  • rich versus poverty — i.e. — Now if you have a lot of money you would have found this fairly easy to accomplish, but this person came out of poverty and . . . .
  • education versus limited educational opportunity
  • opportunity versus no hope in sight
  • caring family versus no family support
  • etc.


Identifies with the audience:  Gowdy references the fact that he was about the age of those in the audience when this happened.

Personalizes the story: Gowdy relates the national story in a personal way by laying out the circumstances of  — where he was — his age — at his home with his father — doing what the audience does.

Highlight the needed details:  There is much which could be said about the event he is calling up, but Gowdy stays focused on the basic details which make the point.  That is important, because a true story can so engross the speaker, as to its many interesting and poignant points, that we can get too involved in telling the story (been there and still do that myself).

Uses patience and/or suspense:  The point and ending of the story is not given away and is unknown until the last lines of the story.  It comes as somewhat a “shocker” that he died. Rather than directly saying or implying (i.e. There are unknown men who have been willing to help others and even die . . . ) early on that Orlando died trying to save the lives of others, and then relating the story — he held off the audience and left it for the end of the account!

Fulfills the promise or prediction:  Gowdly said “a guy you probably never heard of.”  When Gowdy says, “Orlando Williams” —  there is a realization that indeed his name is not even connected with the true story — Wow — a guy who did that and we never heard his name — “Orland Williams?”

States & matches the point:  The point Gowdy is making fits the story, is what Orlando Williams did, and is exemplified in the statement “a quiet life of conviction, virtue, and live out what you believe”


*There are 250 articles which are available on the WordPress site which all revolve around rhetorical techniques as they apply to primarily preaching, as well as public speaking.

After writing one a day — Monday-Friday — every week throughout the past year. This is article number 251 and there are about 150 plus more in the hopper.  My aim is to go back to many of them and finish them up over the next year.

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