Archives For rhetoric

Don't confuse your audienceOne of the cardinal rules of public speaking is Never Confuse Your Audience.

There are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t confuse your audience.

First, if you confuse an audience, you lose them.

People will do their best — for a while, at least — to follow your logic, to ferret out your main point, to understand what you’re getting at.

But when they can’t make sense of what you’re saying, they’ll tune you out. They’ll stop listening. And you’ll have to do something dramatic to win back their attention.

Second, if you confuse an audience, you risk making them mad.

They’ll resent you for making them feel stupid or for wasting their time. And then there’s almost nothing you can do to win back their goodwill.

Third, if you confuse an audience, they’ll oppose you and whatever you’re proposing.

When you lose their attention and their goodwill, you lose their respect as well as their willingness to cooperate with you.

Fourth, if you confuse an audience unintentionally, you’re inept, but if you confuse them intentionally, you’re ethically challenged.

But intentionally confusing an audience can be an effective rhetorical strategy.

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Rhetoric + RageI’m both fascinated and appalled by Donald Trump’s popularity in the political arena these days.

As a student and practitioner of public speaking, I think his popularity is rooted in his skillful appeal to people’s sense of rage.

He has perfected “the rhetoric of rage.”

What is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is the artful use of words to persuade.

The goal of rhetoric is not to educate or inform, not to entertain or amuse, not to convince or convert.

The goal of rhetoric is to move people to take action.

To induce people to act, you may have to educate, inform, entertain, amuse, convince, and/or convert them. But the goal of rhetoric is always action, action, action.

Logic and reason don’t move people to act. Emotions do.

What is Rage?

Rage is anger that is so intense it threatens to explode into violent action.

We may seethe with anger, but rage makes us want to lash out at someone.

Rage, like anger, is a reaction to the perception that someone has deprived us of something we value.

There are, therefore, three elements of rage:

  1. Loss: We no longer have something of value that we once possessed or think we had a right to.
  2. Deprivation: We don’t have it, because it was taken from us.
  3. Adversary: “They” took it from us.

By itself the sense of loss does not fuel rage. The appropriate response to loss is grief.

At the root of rage (and of anger) is a sense of injustice. “It’s not right.”

Whereas anger is the impetus to make things right, to restore justice, rage seeks revenge.

Rage isn’t satisfied with reclaiming what was lost. It wants to punish those who stole it in the first place.

Rage requires an adversary, an enemy, a villain, a them. (They are specific people or a specific class of people, not impersonal forces or events.)

The Rhetoric of Rage

Rhetoric and rage are made for each other.

Rhetoric wants to move people to act. Rage makes people want to act.

To use the rhetoric of rage:

1. Remind people of what they’ve lost.

Have they lost their social status and the rights and privileges due to them? Have they lost their jobs or financial security? Have they lost the right to impose their beliefs and values on others? Have they lost their confidence in government, social institutions, and the very future?

Don’t confuse them with facts or logic. They may not have possessed in the first place what they think they’ve lost. Or they may not have had the right to it. That’s not the issue. What matters is that they think – or more importantly – they feel that they’ve lost it.

2. Frame that loss as deprivation.

Losing something of value makes people sad and powerless, which they don’t like. So tell them it was taken from them. It’s not their fault they lost something valuable: it’s someone else’s fault.

3. Identify the adversary.

This is easy. Given the right mind-set, there’s always someone to blame: immigrants, gays, women, terrorists, criminals, the one-percenters.

Make it personal. “We’re losing the cultural war” isn’t as powerful as “Gays are destroying the very definition of marriage.” “We [whites] are becoming the minority” doesn’t move people as much as “Mexicans are streaming across our borders, bringing drugs with them, and taking our jobs.”

What do you think? Am I on to something? What would you add, subtract, or refute?

Rhetoric is the skillful use of language in speaking or writing in order to influence how people think, feel, and act.

Rhetoric is neither good nor bad in itself. Its legitimacy is determined by how it is used (honestly or deceptively) and for what end it is used (for good or for ill).

The deceptive use of rhetoric is nothing new, certainly not in politics, nor is it limited to any particular faction.

Karl Rove’s comments “questioning” Hillary Clinton’s mental health are the most recent example. (For an account of his tactics, check out the Atlantic piece, “Why Karl Rove Uses Dirty Tricks: They Work.”)

I would like to take a page from Rove’s playbook as a lesson.

A Common Technique of the Rhetoric of Deception

Make a malicious statement so that the idea, image, or phrase you used becomes part of the public discourse.

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