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.
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.
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.
Let’s say that you’re the mayor of a big city that’s growing rapidly. Traffic jams last the entire day. Tempers fray and drivers become more and more aggressive. People ignore traffic laws. Pedestrians cross the streets whenever and wherever. Accidents happen constantly. Police can’t keep track of the chaos.
You’ve tried cracking down with more police writing more traffic tickets. That only makes the drivers angrier. Traffic is constantly tangled. The air is increasingly polluted. Your popularity is plummeting. You need a persuasion strategy to convince drivers to play fair and obey the rules. What to do?
How about putting some zebras in the streets? That’s what the mayor of La Paz, Bolivia did. Here’s how the magazine Veinte Mundos described the situation:
“Vehicular and pedestrian traffic is increasing every day in the Bolivian capital. Automobiles don’t respect the traffic signals and pedestrians cross the street wherever they want. It’s total chaos. People’s lives – especially children’s lives – are in constant danger. As a result, local authorities decided to take concrete steps to improve the situation. Thus were born the ‘zebras.'”
Each day in La Paz, roughly 400 to 500 young people dressed in zebra costumes disperse through the city to guide and direct traffic. But they’re not traffic cops. They’re not there to enforce the rules. They’re behavior modifiers. Ultimately, they hope to persuade people to behave – and drive — better.
The zebras dance and chatter and interact with both pedestrians and drivers. They remind people to mind the traffic lights, buckle up, cross with the light, and generally behave like good citizens. They reward good behavior with a dance, a pat on the back, and some kind words. They make fun of bad behavior by miming “Can you believe that? WTF?”
According to El País, the zebra program began in 2001 and quickly captured the attention of Kathia Salazar, a popular local actress. Salazar volunteered to run the program and soon became known as mamá cebra. Salazar says that the program started slowly: “When we first began, people yelled at the zebras, cursed them, and even tried to run them over. Slowly, things changed. Today, pedestrians are the ones who are protecting the zebras.”
The zebra program is sufficiently popular that it is now spreading to other cities, like Tarija, Sucre, and El Alto. It’s also expanding into new services. Zebras are now visiting schools and retirement homes. Their message has expanded, too. It’s not just about traffic. More generally, it’s about good citizenship and a positive attitude. As Amanda Pinos, a 29-year-old zebra puts it: “Our principal task as urban educators is to ask citizens to reflect on their own behavior and create a kinder, more respectful attitude.”
A similar program in Bogotá, Colombia inspired the zebra program in La Paz. The Bogotá program, which used mimes rather than zebras, began in the early 1990s and claimed to have reduced traffic fatalities by as much as 50%. I haven’t seen similar statistics for La Paz but it’s a fair bet that the zebras have calmed and smoothed and enhanced traffic in a traditionally tumultuous city. Think about it. Wouldn’t you drive more safely if zebras were around?
In persuasive presentations, we often appeal to commonplaces — opinions, attitudes, or perceptions that are widely held by a particular group. Like common sense, these attitudes are (supposedly) common to all members of a group. As persuaders, we can speak to a common point of view. We’re on common ground and we can move forward together.
The problem, of course, is that commonplaces aren’t so common. Indeed, many commonplaces have equal and opposite commonplaces to counterbalance them. One commonplace advises us to look before we leap. Another reminds us that he who hesitates is lost. On the one hand, we root for the underdog. On the other hand, we admire the self-made man – who is anything but an underdog.
It seems that we can find a commonplace to suit almost any argument. Want to lower taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (The government is inefficient. You earned it. You keep it. etc.) Want to raise taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (We’re all in this together. We need to help each other. etc.) And “good” commonplaces can be twisted to support “bad” causes. As Shakespeare reminds us in The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.”
In my persuasion class, I ask students to write papers in which they argue a point. By and large, my students are quite adept at deploying commonplaces to support their arguments. I notice that they often deploy commonplaces that they believe in. To be persuasive, however, we need to consider the commonplaces that the audience believes in. I shouldn’t assume that you think like me. Rather, I should seek to understand what you think and use that as a starting point for building my argument.
The concept of using the audience’s commonplaces is as old as Greek rhetoric. It got a boost last year when the sociologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg published their research on argumentation and moral values. Their basic finding: we are more persuasive when we frame arguments for a political position around “the target audience’s moral values.”
Feinberg and Willer point out that liberals and conservatives have different moral values (or commonplaces in our terminology). They write “…liberals tend to be more concerned with care and equality where conservatives are more concerned with … group loyalty, respect for authority and purity.”
They then tested how to persuade conservatives to take a liberal position or vice-versa. For instance, how would you persuade conservatives to support same-sex marriage? They found that conservatives are more likely to agree with an argument based on patriotism than one based on equality and fairness. Conservatives tended to agree with an argument that, ““same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society.” They were less likely to agree with an argument couched in terms of fairness and equality.
Aristotle taught us that the best person to judge the quality of food is the one who eats it, not the one who prepares it. The same is true for arguments. You can’t judge how effective your argument is. Only the audience can. The moral of the story? Get over yourself. Learn what the audience is thinking.