Rhetoric & Homiletics: “Topoi” – Illustrated Again


Help For The Creative Side Of Message Preparation & Presentation

The purpose of “topoi” is to help a speaker or pastor generate ideas.  To mentally brainstorm in the realm of public speaking, as to way which a point can be made, clarified, driven home, illustrated, explained, described, compared, reasoned, argued, defined, etc.

Alex Osborn’s “Checklist” does not provide rhetorical topoi, but his “Checklist” may help in understanding what topoi are designed to do.  In a sense, he has established “brainstorming topoi” which can be used by creative thinkers.  They are, in one sense, “topoi.” but put to another use.

Alex Osborn, one of the main figures in the area of “classical brainstorming,” established a “Checklist” which could be used to generate ideas — moving from an existing idea to a new one.

It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.
– Alex Osborn

How can we take an existing idea and adapt, modify, magnify, minify, substitute, rearrange, reverse, or combine it to create a new product, come up with a different approach, solve a problem?  Can we . . . . .

Adapt: Can we adapt something else so that it works with this?
Modify: Can we modify what we have, in some way, so that it will then work?
Magnify: Can we add more time, size, strength to it so that it works?
Minify: Can we just go smaller and that will make it work.  i.e. take smaller steps?
Substitute: Can we just replace this with that and then it will work?
Rearrange:  Can we change the sequence, steps, parts for it to work?
Reverse: Can we flip it around and then it will work?
Combine: Can we combine it with and then it works?



“The thinking mind is man’s exclusive gift.  All animals are endowed with memory, instincts, and emotions, but lack man’s thinking power.

Our thing mind is mainly two-fold: (1) A Judicial Mind which analyzes, compares and chooses.  (2) A Creative Mind which visualizes, foresees, and generates ideas.  These two minds work best together.  Judgment keeps imagination on the track.  Imagination not only opens ways to actions, but also can enlighten judgment. “

— “Your Creative Power,” by Alex Osborn



While Osborn’s “Checklist” of creative brainstorming may help in understanding how “rhetorical topoi” work in the field of public speaking and homiletics, it may also prove serviceable in rhetorical theory.


After I became aware of Osborn’s “Checklist,” I began thinking about its rhetorical usefulness.

For instance:

Can I preach this passage of Scripture by going at it in the “Reverse.”  Can I begin with how the narrative ended, or the main point of the grammatical passage, and work my way backward with the audience?

Paul is leading to this point — found in I Corinthians 8:13 — “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.”  That is where he is headed.

Paul is willing to forgo the eating of mean for a lifetime, if that will help a brother in Christ grow and experience victory in Christ.

What kind of thinking leads to that conclusion?  Paul is going to lay out the thinking which got him there in his mind and in his life.




Can I Magnify a biblical truth or principle by pointing out where or when this is happening?

i.e. Paul is saying this while he is in jail.

i.e. Paul and Silas are singing — where?  Not only in jail, but after James has been killed by the Roman authorities — while in an uncertain situational outcome.

Can I Magnify an application?

i.e. Let’s put you in an extreme situation.  Our situations are typically unlike those of the Old Testament prophets because we live in a country which is marked by religious tolerance and freedom.  But let’s magnify the situation — and put you in a country where there is no tolerance. . . . .

i.e. Now add time to the equation.  What are you going to do when the situation extends from days into weeks- months – years . . . .




Can I Substitute?

i.e. Joseph ran out of the house — He fled and left his coat behind.  What would have Samson done?  Samson who had been gifted with God-given powers — who was not taken away from his family — what would have he done based on his track record.  And Joseph’s life ended far different than Samson’s because of godly decisions!


Creativity in preaching is not about coming up with your own human ideas in respect to biblical truth, it is about how do I . . . .

go about driving home the point (s)
structure the message
layout the main points
make that point clear or more clear
help people feel this-or-that truth
assist the listeners in seeing the context of the passage
word that thought / truth / Big Idea
illustrate this-or-that

How do I go about effectively communicating the truth or principle which is found in the passage? 

How do I create a message — an expository message, a message that exposes the truth of a passage — which is understood and felt by the listeners?

Can I go about the task of sermon preparation and presentation in a way that is different from the well-worn “homiletical topos” of “Three Points & A Poem”?



Osborn’s Checklist:

Adapt? Is there anything else like this? What does this tell you? Is the past comparable?

Modify? Give it a new angle? Alter the colour, sound, odour, meaning, motion, and shape?

Magnify? Can anything be added, time, frequency, height, length, strength? Can it be duplicated, multiplied or exaggerated?

Minify? Can anything be taken away? Made smaller? Lowered? Shortened? Lightened? Omitted? Broken up?

Substitute? Different ingredients used? Other material? Other processes? Other place? Other approach? Other tone of voice? Someone else?

Rearrange? Swap components? Alter the pattern, sequence or layout? Change the pace or schedule? Transpose cause and effect?

Reverse? Opposites? Backwards? Reverse roles? Change shoes? Turn tables? Turn other cheek? Transpose ‘+/-‘?

Combine? Combine units, purposes, appeals or ideas? A blend, alloy, or an ensemble?


P.S. It is similar to “SCAMPER” which is another brainstorming set of “topoi.”


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