This article was originally published on November 21st, 2008. A lot has changed in the last 7 years – unfortunately, the prevalence of bad rhetoric in our public discourse hasn’t…
Like many people on election night, I found myself glued to the TV for the capstone speeches by both candidates. I have to admit, though, that I was watching for a few reasons that were probably much different than most people. I wanted to see how the candidates would use the 2,500-year-old discipline of rhetoric – the art of verbal persuasion and argument. I was not disappointed. Both John McCain and Barack Obama delivered carefully crafted messages full of rhetorical tools.
Why was I so excited about the verbal gymnastics? Because over the past year I’ve come to realize that studying and understanding rhetoric is incredibly useful (and in my mind a lot of fun). I see a direct correlation between the tools that ancient Greeks and Romans used to influence each other and the sales and marketing of today. I think it’s one of the most obvious places where being a history nerd (which I am) can actually have modern, practical applications.
What’s great about Jay’s book is it takes the very dry study of rhetoric and makes it accessible through modern-day example and comparisons. For example, he eschews the Greek names for many rhetorical devices and instead links them up with people such as Homer Simpson and Eminem (which is impressive in itself). It’s a great mix between a speaking primer and a sociology textbook – that is fun to read!
The study of rhetoric has everyday uses in our personal and professional lives, and can make us more effective persuaders as well as more informed consumers and citizens.
Ideas, Implications, and Questions
- The biggest tool that I took away from Thank You for Arguing is the distinction between having discussions in the past, present, and future tenses (what Aristotle called forensic, demonstrative, and deliberative). This is a really important idea for me as a coach because I think the self-talk that guides most people’s actions is either in the past or present tense. By guiding it into the future, where as Jay points out, there is choice and the goal is to find the most advantageous course of action, I can help them make choices and create actions.
- With the elections this year, I’ve developed a severe distaste for the political invectives that everyone throws at each other. In my opinion, the level of American political discourse is incredibly low right now. Jay points out that this is because it has become mired in present tense values which are about tribal identification versus future tense choices which are about true deliberation. He also gives an idea of how we can solve this – train more people in rhetoric.
- As a sales trainer, I think you can look at a sales presentation as a one-on-one rhetorical argument. We can pull from Aristotle the triumvirate of ethos (credibility), logos (logic), and pathos (emotion). Look at a good sales pitch: it starts with establishing credibility, then it develops the logical supports of benefits and solutions, and then by highlighting the emotional fulfillment of the customer, it inspires them to action.
- Considering I am a public speaker, I wish I would have come across rhetoric sooner, not the least because I just learned a great way of developing a message from beginning to end (again from Aristotle – what a guy). It’s a process you can use the next time you have to speak:
- Here’s something that seems opposite to everything we’re taught these days: “when in doubt, concede” (pg 269). As Jay points out, it buys time to think of a better response, but it still seems like the higher road than being contrary every time you’re in doubt.
Should You Read This Book?
Yes – and then buy a copy for anyone you regularly argue with (spouse, children, IRS agent). Actually, you might want to hold off before you get their copy; bask in the warm glow of winning arguments for a while.