Elements of Rhetoric



I waste a lot of time arguing on Facebook or through email. I love debate. I like hammering out different issues and trying to find an answer two parties can agree on. When it's clear people have an entrenched belief I often turn to the attack mode and come out with all guns blazing. I relentless "attack" the other party in order to "win" the argument. Communication devolves into an amicable exchange to a heated assault. 

While such combative language might be helpful in asserting some sort of intellectual dominance it does little to sway the other person or to convince an onlooker who might happen to read the exchange. In short, these sorts of exchanges lack persuasion. The other person stops listening and others feel uncomfortable associating with someone who uses such harsh tactics/language (even if they feel the "attacker" is right). 

After a new friend frankly said to me "you are too harsh, you aren't going to convince anyone with your style," I began to reflect on my delivery and the idea more broadly. 

As we are in the midst of an election cycle, the two campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney offered a nice comparison of two styles. With the increased "popularity" of voting (which is always common during presidential elections) "relatability" was a deciding factor. I saw one poll which asked "which candidate cares about me?" Obama won with nearly 85% of the vote. Throughout the year I have curiously reflected on key differences. Below are the nuggets I was able to glean from the race. 

  • Speak to the the future, not the past
  • Say what you hope for, not what you don't like
  • Switch between facts and stories
  • Switch between formal and informal 

On the second point, rather than criticizing one thing to make a point, use the opportunity to praise another. Recently I wanted to say a person at our office wasn't responsible for growth. Rather than discounting that person's efforts, I gave credit to the other person. Rather than making an enemy, I actually made a friend. I still made the same point. It also made it easier for others to agree with what I was saying since I wasn't indirectly attacking anyone.


I was also surprised to read an article which detailed the use of social scientists who have studied motivation and persuasion. They offered a few insights

If attacked, don't say you are "not" what you are accused of... State what you are. In Obama's case he didn't not say he was not a Muslim, he said he affirmed he was a Christian. People tend to remember the association. 
To encourage people to go to the polls they highlighted that nearby neighbors were voting, rather than highlighting the loss of their vote if they abstained. It seems social pressure and conformity are key.
Another tactic was to encourage voters by reminded them they had voted in the past. People are keen on maintaining (or maybe pressured to keep) consistency in their outward public image. 
People also seem to be more likely to do things when they make a small plan. The campaign used small cards with a photo of the president to get people to commit to voting at a certain time. 

In particular, it seems the two most important aspects for winning over people are competence and warmth

Interestingly my most common attribute (my laugh and smile) turns in to an entirely different show of teeth when I engage in serious debate. I need to work on this a good bit. It will be an area of focus for me in the coming weeks/months. 

Another thing I need to avoid is the use of extreme words (draconian is a good example). They just sort of make others roll their eyes and don't help to make your point. Instead of "draconian budget cuts", say "the effects of the cuts will be acute and deeply effect average Americans". People want a reason to believe something, not just facts.