14 – Oral Communication

Rhetorical Devices for Improving Clarity in Oral Communication

David McMurrey; Anonymous; Matt McKinney; Kalani Pattison; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; and Gia Alexander

Just as you consider the different elements of the rhetorical situation when writing and reading texts, these same elements also apply to preparing for oral communication. This section discusses rhetorical devices as they specifically apply to these forms of technical and professional communication. Refer to Chapter 2: The Rhetorical Situation for a more general overview of these concepts.

Consider Your Audience

In addition to precise words and clear definitions, contextual clues are important to guide your audience as they listen. Spoken contextual clues are words or short phrases that clarify complex ideas or unfamiliar words, as well as indicate where the speaker is in their talk.

For example, if you are speaking to a general audience and choose to use a professional jargon term that may be understood by many—but not all—of the people in your audience, follow it by a common word or short explanation that clearly conveys its essential meaning. With this positive strategy, you will be able to forge relationships with audience members from diverse backgrounds.

Another useful spoken guide for your reader is the summary. Summaries can be placed not only at the beginning of a presentation, thus signaling what information is to come, but also at the end of a presentation to remind the audience what they have heard. Internal summaries, which occur within the presentation, combine these uses by telling listeners what they have heard and forecasting what is to come. It’s not just the words, but also how and when people hear them that counts.

One of the best ways to display respect for your audience is to keep to the expected time in a presentation or length in a document. Also note that if you say the magic words “in conclusion,” you set in motion a set of expectations that you are about to wrap up. If, however, you then introduce a new point and continue to speak, the audience will perceive an expectancy violation and hold you accountable. You said, “in conclusion,” but did not honor the implied promise these words made. Your careful attention to contextual clues will demonstrate that you are clearly considering your audience.

Check for Understanding

When speaking to someone face-to-face, you have the advantage of seeking and receiving immediate feedback. Many listeners will offer visual cues signaling when they are excited, upset, or perplexed. If your listeners are confused, you can ask questions and clarify right away. That gives oral communication, particularly live interaction, a distinct advantage. Use this immediacy to gain beneficial feedback. When preparing for a presentation, allow time to specifically practice and collect feedback from multiple people who share characteristics of your anticipated audience.

If you were presenting to a group who you knew, in advance, was of a certain age, gender, or professional background, it would only make sense to connect with someone from that group prior to your actual performance to check and see if what you have created and what they expect are similar. In oral communication, feedback is a core component of the communication model; we can often see it and hear it, and it also requires less effort to assess.

Using Signposts in a Presentation

Plan carefully for the spoken headings you will use in your presentation. These verbal signposts indicate you are moving from one subtopic to the next, or they announce a new subtopic. They help your listeners understand how your presentation is organized. Spoken headings may also be turned into written headings on a slide or handout.

Signposts are keywords that alert the audience to transitions that occur in a document. These transitions can vary in form, including a change in topic, a tangential explanation, an example, or a conclusion. Especially in longer sections of documents and speeches, readers and listeners can sometimes forget what point is being made or lose track of where the speaker or writer is. You can help your audience avoid losing their place by signaling to them when a change is coming.

Verbal signposts serve the same function as headings in printed documents. Common signposts include “on the one hand,” “on the other hand,” “the solution to this problem is,” “the reason for this is,” “for example,” “to illustrate,” and “in conclusion” or “in summary.” Signposts can also use strategic repetition to achieve the same effect as traditional transitions or organizational words. Some speakers, for example, use a series of questions to indicate new subtopics. Take a look at Table 14.1[1] to review the verbal headings and signposts from an oral report.

Table 14.1. Examples of spoken headings and signposts in an oral presentation. Verbal headings are indicated in bold; transitional signposts are italicized.-spoken-headings-and-signposts-in-an-oral-presentation.-Verbal-headings-are-indicated-in-bold-transitional-signposts-are-italicized.-2022-06-29.csv

Excerpts from the Oral Report Suggested Verbal Headings
As you can see from the preceding information, our fairly average-size city produces a surprisingly large amount of solid waste. What is the cost of getting rid of it? I can tell you from the start that it is not cheap...” The first sentence refers to the topic (“amount”)—what the speaker has just finished talking about.

The next sentence indicates that the speaker is moving on to a new topic (“cost”).

“Not only are the costs of getting rid of our garbage high, as I have shown, but it’s getting harder and harder for city officials to find disposal sites. The geographical problems in disposal...” At the beginning of the next section, the first half of the first sentence refers to the previous topic—this time, it’s “costs.” The second half of the same sentence indicates that we are moving on to another new topic—"geographical problems in disposal.”

Internal Summaries and Foreshadowing

Like signposts, internal summaries and foreshadowing help the audience to keep track of where they are in the presentation. These strategies work by reviewing what has been covered and by highlighting what is coming next.

As a simple example, suppose you are presenting information on how to assemble a home emergency preparedness kit. If you begin by stating that there are four main items needed for the kit, you are foreshadowing your message and helping your audience to watch or listen for four items. An internal summary, by contrast, refers back to content that has been addressed. For example, as you cover each of the items, you can say, “Now we’ve got X and Y in our kit; what else do we need?,” and so forth. This internal summary helps your audience keep track of progress as your message continues.

With this strategy, you reinforce relationships between points, examples, and ideas in your message. This can be an effective strategy to encourage selective retention of your content.


Saying the same word over and over may not seem like an effective strategy, but when used artfully, repetition can be an effective way to reinforce your message and help your audience remember it. Many of history’s greatest speakers have used repetition in speeches that have stood the test of time. For example, Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and early Black feminist, gave a famous speech in 1851 remembered as “Ain’t I a Woman?” because she repeated this question four times to anchor her points and engage her audience.[2] Similarly, in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. repeated the phrases “I have a dream” and “let freedom ring.” Not only did the repetition cement these phrases in the minds of his listeners, it reflected the value Dr. King placed on them, contributing to this speech’s historical and rhetorical legacy. [3]

Another form of repetition is indirect repetition, or finding alternative ways of saying the same point or idea. Suppose your main point was “climate change is raising ocean levels.” You might offer several examples, citing the level in each of the major oceans and seas while showing them on a map. You might use photographs or video to illustrate the fact that beaches and entire islands are being submerged. Indirect repetition can underscore and support your points, thus helping them stand out in your audience’s memory.

This text was derived from

McMurrey, David. Online Technical Writing. n.d. https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

University of Minnesota. Business Communication for Success. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing, 2015. https://open.lib.umn.edu/businesscommunication/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


  1. David McMurrey, “Example of Spoken Headings in an Oral Presentation,” Oral Presentations: Stand Up and Tell 'Em How It Is!” Accessed July 15, 2020. https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/oral.html. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
  2. Truth, Sojourner. “Ain’t I A Woman?” Speech, Women’s Rights Convention, Old Stone Church, Akron, Ohio, 1851. National Parks Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/sojourner-truth.htm.
  3. Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," (speech, Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D. C., August 28, 1963).


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Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication Copyright © 2022 by David McMurrey; Anonymous; Matt McKinney; Kalani Pattison; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; and Gia Alexander is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.