Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


The Greeks invented the science of persuasion – they called it rhetoric. The posts in this category give a brief overview.

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Physics Versus Rhetoric

Persuasion is more important than physics.

Most social sciences have a bad case of physics envy. They covet physics’ certainty, precision, and predictability. That’s certainly the case with rhetoric, the discipline that deals with the art and science of persuasion.

Physics allows us to make precise this-then-that statements. If we do this, then that is certain to happen. Those of us who teach rhetoric would love to have the same certainty. We would love to say, “If we arrange our argument like this, then the audience will certainly agree with us”.

But rhetoric deals with human beings whose behavior is anything but certain. Rhetoric teaches us to argue without anger so that we may find the best choice among multiple options. If we allow the rhetorical process to work, we can often find the best alternative. But we can never guarantee it. Rhetoric reigns in any human endeavor where uncertainty is certain.

So let’s compare physics and rhetoric. What are they good for and how do they complement each other? Further, let’s ask a simple question: which discipline is best for the planet? I’ll focus on deliberative rhetoric, which asks us to make choices about the future. (Two other major forms are demonstrative and forensic rhetoric).

Physics starts from what is true. Rhetoric starts from what we agree to.

Both physics and rhetoric use arguments in which propositions lead to a conclusion. We typically call these syllogisms, with major premises and minor premises. In physics, the major premise is always verifiably true. Here’s an example of a syllogism in physics:

Major premise: Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light

Minor premise: We are travelling in a nuclear-powered space ship.

Conclusion: We are travelling slower than the speed of light.

The point of this somewhat simplistic syllogism is that the major premise is verifiably true. We start from the truth.

Now let’s look at a rhetorical syllogism, which is often referred to as an enthymeme (though the technical definition of an enthymeme is slightly different).

Major premise: Lower taxes are better for our society.

Minor premise: My party will lower taxes (more than the other party)

Conclusion: You should vote for my party.

Note that the major premise (also known as a commonplace) is debatable. But, if your audience agrees with the commonplace, you can proceed step by step to a conclusion that they will also agree with. It’s important to know what the audience believes. Rhetoric start where they are, not where we are.

Physics seeks the truth. Rhetoric seeks the best choice.

Physics makes predictions and tests them to determine if they’re true. Typically, a prediction is either true or not.

Rhetoric, on the other hand, deals with choices. To discover the best choice, we first have to identify all possible choices. We then present evidence (which may or may not be verifiably true)  to identify the best choice.

Physics is based on facts. Rhetoric is based on benefits.

Physics has a well-defined set of verifiable facts. Rhetoric, by contrast, depends on benefits, which may or may not accrue to a given set of people.

We state the benefits (often known as the Advantageous) to persuade people to agree with us. We might say, for instance that lower taxes will benefit the middle class. This may well be true but, again, there is no certainty.

Physics cannot live without facts. Rhetoric cannot live solely with facts. We must be able to state benefits and advantages to persuade people to agree with a given proposition.

Physics follows rules of logic. Rhetoric follows rules of agreement.

The rules of logic are formal and specific. It’s easy to tell if we have violated logic. Even a computer can do it.

The rules of agreement are much more open-ended. Credibility is important. Arguments may be emotional and may include enticing benefits and emoluments. Arguments do not have to be strictly logical. We may use various psychological and sociological tools of influence, including consistency or social proof or scarcity. We may do favors for you and influence you to like us. The goal is to gain agreement.

Physics is more like chess. Rhetoric is more like poker.

In chess, we first need to know the rules and the pieces. After that, logic takes over and guides our efforts.

In poker, we need to know the rules and the cards and the people. Thinking logically is important. But reading people is probably more important.

Physics is about the past. Rhetoric is about the future.

Physics explains what happened. Rhetoric probes what will happen. If we can argue without anger, we can consider and evaluate all possible options. We can evaluate benefits and possibilities. We can decide what’s fair and what’s not fair. We can agree on the best possible course of action.

Of course, we can’t prove that we’ve made the best choice. But the process of considering, evaluating, arguing, and influencing, gives us a better chance of success than any other alternative.

The act of reaching an agreement also improves our chances of future success. As Lincoln noted, a house divided against itself cannot stand. The opposite is not necessarily true. A house united in agreement may not stand … but it has a much better chance than a house divided.

So, which discipline is more important to our future: physics or rhetoric? Physics has brought us awe-inspiring insights into the world around us. It has also given us the knowledge to destroy the world. Rhetoric, on the other hand, has taught us to argue without anger, gain agreement, and move people to action. Physics is about knowledge. Rhetoric is about wisdom. Physics could destroy the world. Rhetoric could possibly – just possibly – save it.

Preparing Persuasive Presentations

Canons to the left of me. Canons to the right of me.

My clients often ask me what they should think about when they think about preparing a persuasive presentation. Should they write the script first? Create the images? Write an outline? Select a few key phrases and figures of speech? All of these are important elements of a persuasive presentation. But I usually tell them to think back 2,000 years to a Roman orator named Cicero.

Cicero was the best orator in the Roman forum. He could move audiences to tears or — more importantly — to action. He wrote down five rules for creating persuasive presentations in the first century BCE. Over time, these have become known as the five canons of rhetoric. They’re as relevant today as they were in ancient Rome.

For Cicero, the five canons are: 1) Invention; 2) Arrangement; 3) Style; 4) Memory; 5) Delivery. Let’s look briefly at each one.

Invention — Aristotle said that rhetoric is the ability to “see the available means of persuasion” in a given situation. Invention is about seeing all the ways you might persuade an audience and picking the best ones. First, you need to decide what you want the audience to do. You may simply want them to agree with you. Or take some specified action. Or buy your product. If your audience largely agrees with your message, you may select certain persuasive tactics. If your audience is largely hostile to your message, you’ll probably need other tactics. In today’s world, this is often known as creating the message strategy.

Arrangement — You’ve created your strategy, now you need to identify the elements of your argument and arrange them, in the best possible order. Let’s say you have three key points to make: A, B, and C. Your recognize that A is your strongest point, B is the second strongest, and C is the weakest. Knowing what you know about audiences, which order would you put them in? People often put them in descending order. But you’re typically better off putting them in A –> C –> B order. Why? Because audiences remember the beginning and end of your speech (primacy and latency) and forget the middle. You might as well put you weakest point in the middle — they’re going to forget it anyway. You also need to consider ethos, logos, and pathos. How you use these and when you use them depends on what you’re trying to achieve. You can learn more here.

Style — you’ve outlined your thoughts, now how do you want to sound? Do you want to sound like a college professor? A preacher? A business leader? A rabble-rousing politician? What does the audience expect? Which persona will be the most persuasive? This is about positioning yourself — the audience will ask, who is this person and why should I trust her? Once you decide the persona, you need to select the vocabulary. As you know, college professors use different words than rabble-rousing politicians. What words best fit your message strategy?

Memory — you probably have a big storehouse of knowledge. How easily can you access it? In my prepared remarks, I usually memorize certain keywords that trigger a chain of thoughts. Once I’m on the chain, it’s easy to follow. I appear to be in command of my material, which enhances my credibility. Memory is also important in the Q & A session.  If you can answer questions easily, fluidly, and clearly, your credibility will soar. The trick is to know your way around the storehouse. The Greeks invented the memory palace to help orators remember and retrieve relevant information.

Delivery — You’ve now got it all organized. Can you deliver the goods when the time comes? Where style focuses mainly on what is said, delivery focuses more on how you say it. Do you want to speak quickly or slowly? Do you want to stand or sit? Podium or not? How will you dress? How do you want your voice to sound? How will you modulate your voice — or your body language — to emphasize key points? The goal is twofold: 1) to fit in with your audience (good decorum); 2) to appear comfortable and confident as you speak.

Using the five canons is like using a checklist. If you can fulfill each canon, you’re likely to have a very persuasive presentation indeed.

Too Much Rhetoric? Or Not Enough?

When will we learn to argue without anger?

In the Western world, the art of persuasion (aka rhetoric), appeared first in ancient Athens. We might well ask, why did it emerge there and then, as opposed to another place and another time?

In his book, Words Like Loaded Pistols, Sam Leith argues that rhetoric blossomed first in Greece because that’s where democracy emerged. Prior to that, we didn’t need to argue or persuade or create ideas — at least not in the public sphere. We just accepted as true whatever the monarch said was true. There was no point in arguing. The monarch wasn’t going to budge.

Because Greeks allowed citizens from different walks of life to speak in the public forum, they were the first people who needed to manage ideas and arguments. In response, they developed the key concepts of rhetoric. They also established the idea that rhetoric was an essential element of good leadership. A leader needed to manage the passions of the moment by speaking logically, clearly, and persuasively.

Through the 19th century, well-educated people were thoroughly schooled in rhetoric as well as the related disciplines of logic and grammar. These were known as the trivium and they helped us manage public ideas. Debates, governed by the rules of rhetoric, helped us create new ideas. Thesis led to antithesis led to synthesis. We considered the trivium to be an essential foundation for good leadership. Leaders have to create ideas, explain ideas, and defend ideas. The trivium provided the tools.

Then in the 20th century, we decided that we didn’t need to teach these skills anymore. Leith argues that we came to see history as an impersonal, overwhelming, uncontrollable force in its own right. Why argue about it if we can’t control it? Courses in rhetoric — and leadership — withered away.

It’s interesting to look at rhetoric as an essential part of democracy. It’s not something to be scorned. It’s something to be promoted. I wonder if some of our partisan anger and divisiveness doesn’t result from the lack of rhetoric in our society. We don’t have too much rhetoric. Rather, we have too little. We have forgotten how to argue without anger.

I’m happy to see that rhetoric and persuasion classes are making a comeback in academia today.  Similarly, courses in leadership seem to be flowering again. Perhaps we can look forward to using disagreements to create new ideas rather than an anvil to destroy them.

Pre-Suasion: Influence Before Influence

Trust me.

Trust me.

In Tin Men, Richard Dreyfus and Danny De Vito play two salesmen locked in bitter competition as they sell aluminum siding to householders in Baltimore. The movie is somewhat forgettable, but it offers a master class in sales techniques.

In one scene, Dreyfus knocks on a prospective customer’s door while also dropping a five-dollar bill on the doormat. When the customer opens the door, Dreyfus picks up the bill and says, “Wow. I just found this on your doormat. It’s not mine. It must be yours.” Somewhat confused, the homeowner accepts the bill and invites Dreyfus inside where he makes a big sale.

Robert Cialdini would call Dreyfus’ maneuver a good example of pre-suasion. Before Dreyfus even introduces himself, he has already done something to show that he’s a stand-up guy. He has earned some trust.

Cialdini himself gained our trust in his first book, Influence, which details six “weapons of influence”: reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. In his new book, Pre-Suasion, he invites us to look at what happens before we deploy our weapons.

Pre-suasion is not a new idea. It’s at least as old as the traditional advice: Do a favor before asking for a favor. Like Dreyfus, however, Cialdini seems like a stand-up guy so we go along for the read. It’s a good idea because the book is chock full of practical advice on how to set the stage for persuasion.

A key idea is the “attention chute”. When we focus our attention on something, we don’t see anything else. The opportunity cost of paying attention is inattentional blindness. Thus, we don’t consider other alternatives. If our attention is focused on globalization, we may not notice how many jobs are eliminated by automation.

As Cialdini points out, the attention chute makes us suckers for palm readers. A palm reader says, “Your palm suggests that you’re a very stubborn person. Is that true?” We focus on the idea of stubbornness and search our memory banks for examples. We don’t think about the opposite of stubbornness and we don’t search for examples of it. It’s almost certain that we can find some examples of stubbornness in our memories. How could the palm reader have possibly known?

The attention chute is also known as the focusing illusion. We believe that what we focus on is important, but it may just be an illusion. If we’re focused on it, it must be important, right? It’s a cognitive bias that a palm reader or aluminum siding salesman can easily manipulate.

What’s the best defense? It’s a good idea to keep Daniel Kahneman’s advice in mind: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.” If the media is filled with horror stories about the Ebola virus, you’ll probably think it’s important. But really, it’s not nearly as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it.

Cialdini takes the attention chute one step further with the idea that “what’s focal is causal.” We assume that what we focus on is not just important; it’s also the cause of whatever we’re focused on. As Cialdini notes, economists think that the exchange of money is the cause of many transactions. But maybe not. Maybe there’s another reason for the transaction. Maybe the money is just a side benefit, not the motivating cause.

The idea that focal-is-causal has many complications. For example, the first lots identified in the famous Tylenol cyanide attacks were numbers 2880 and 1910. The media broadcast the numbers far and wide and many of us used them to play the lottery. They must be important, right?

Focal-is-causal can also lead to false confessions. The police focus on a person of interest and convince themselves that she caused the crime. (This is also known as satisficing or temporizing). They then use all the tricks in the book to convince her of the same thing.

Cialdini is a good writer and has plenty of interesting stories to tell. If you like Daniel Kahneman or Dan Ariely or Jordan Ellenberg or the brothers Heath, you’ll like his book as well. And who knows? It may even help you beat the rap when the police are trying to get a confession out of you.

Politics — Lying Versus Bullshitting

You talkin' to me?

You talkin’ to me?

The presidential campaign is about to lurch into high gear and the lying is flying. Or is it? Are the candidates lying or are they bullshitting us? The two concepts are related but not the same.

Let’s take an example from Donald Trump. Trump says that he will build a wall along our southern border and make Mexico pay for it. Many neutral observers claim that it would be prohibitively expensive to build a useful (that is, impenetrable) wall along the entire border. They also suggest that it’s ludicrous to believe that Mexico would pay for it. So is Trump lying or is he bullshitting?

To answer the question, I dug out an essay by the Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt. Originally published in 1986, the essay is aptly tilted, On Bullshit. * Frankfurt lays out the essential differences between lying and bullshit (with a side trip through humbug).

Frankfurt argues that both bullshit and lying are deceptive – but they’re deceptive in different ways. The liar aims to deceive us about reality and “the way things are.” A liar might say that he has a million dollars when he’s actually flat broke. A bullshitter, on the other hand, aims to deceive us about his purpose. Frankfurt writes, “His eye is not on the facts at all…. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

Further, a liar knows the truth and seeks to conceal it. He opposes the truth. By contrast, a bullshitter may or may not know what the truth is – and certainly doesn’t care. Indeed, he may even be telling the truth. Making a true statement or a false statement is beside the point. As Frankfurt notes, “…the truth … of his statements is of no central interest to him.”

A liar is under numerous constraints. He knows the truth and, “…to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.” A bullshitter has no such constraints. He can make everything up, including the context and the backstory. Instead of making a statement about reality, he invents his own reality.

Indeed, the bullshitter avoids the “authority of the truth” altogether. Frankfurt writes that, “He pays no attention to [the truth] at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

So is Trump lying or bullshitting about the wall? I’m guessing that he’s bullshitting. He doesn’t seem to care whether his statement is true or false. That’s beside the point. He just makes stuff up to suit his purpose.

So, if making a true statement (or a false one, for that matter), is beside the point, what is his hidden agenda? I think there are two:

  • To maximize attention and press coverage – every time Trump makes an outrageous statement, journalists write about it. Often times, they point out that the statement is not true. But that’s beside the point. Trump doesn’t care – nor do his followers, apparently. The point is to get elected and that requires attention and saturation coverage.
  • To soak up his opponents’ time – Trump’s opponents often make detailed rebuttals of his claims. They want to set the record straight. But as long as they’re doing that, they’re on Trump’s turf. He’s the center of attention. It’s political rope-a-dope. I’ve noticed that Trump rarely defends his points in any logical way. He simply repeats them, thus causing his opponents to redouble their efforts to prove him wrong. He gets their goat because they think he’s lying when, in fact, he’s bullshitting. Setting the record straight is useless if truth and falsity are beside the point.

So how can Trump’s opponents – Johnson and Clinton – best deal with his bullshitting? To the maximum extent possible, they should ignore him. Don’t get caught up in the trap of making him the center of attention. When a journalist asks about an outrageous Trump statement, don’t take the bait. Just say something along the lines of, “Well, we all know that he’s a world-class bullshitter. Let’s talk about something more useful.”

* Frankfurts’ essay was originally published in The Raritan Quarterly Review in 1986. It was then republished in 2005 as a small book. I’ve depended on the version that’s found here.

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