Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Digital Strategist & Rhetorician

Artistic Feedback: 4 Rules for Constructive Criticism

It used to be a daily occurrence at the Federalist Society, where we produce about two short videos a week on legal and public policy topics, that the choice of music for a particular video got picked on. The artistic feedback went something like this:

Reviewer Reggie: “I don’t like the music.”
Me: “Why?”
Reviewer Reggie: “I just don’t like it.”

Helpful, right?

If I tried to dig in, I would get only a slightly more useful examination:

Me: “So you have no idea why you don’t like it?”
Reviewer Reggie: “It just doesn’t go with the video.”

Great. -_-

Of course, this kind of criticism went beyond music to colors, typography, animation, editing, copywriting, etc. Video review sessions turned into a bizarro-Facebook, where dislikes abounded but no one knew how to fix the hate. We would change the offending material, but new dislikes would surface in subsequent rounds.

Finally, we decided to step off the unmerry-go-round and implemented four rules for artistic feedback. These aren’t comprehensive, of course. In fact, I’m interested to know how you make the artistic feedback process more productive, interesting, and efficient. Shoot me at tweet @DanielTRichards and share your insights.

Here’s what we implemented…

Rule #1 – Have a Reason

This might seem obvious, but every criticism should have a reason. It’s not good enough to suggest a change. The writers, editors, animators, producers, etc. all worked hard on the content under review. They’re professionals, and they deserve a reason for changing their work.

Avoid at all costs “…because I don’t like it.” That’s not a reason, and it has the wrong focus. What we’re trying to accomplish with our feedback is to make the experience better for the audience—not the critic.

Acting without audience-focused reason leads to arbitrary changes. What eventually happens is that changes made in early rounds are changed backed in subsequent rounds or when new people review the work. It’s a maddening circle. At least if you have a reason, you have something to evaluate if you’re so inclined. You have something to check against reality.

So what is a reason in this context? A reason is a conclusion that follows from evidence. In artistic feedback, the evidence doesn’t have to be peer-reviewed science—although it could be. Evidence for this purpose is a collection of facts that relate to what you’re doing, and it can come from a plethora of angles. Let’s concretize this process by looking at a few appeals that frequently come up…

Appeal to the Purpose

What is the purpose of the art you’re creating? What are you trying to do with it? In a Federalist Society video, for instance, we’re trying to communicate specific ideas about the law. So a good criticism might look like this:

Moviemaker Matt: “We should reduce the number of U.S. Capitol shots in the alcohol documentary.”
Me: “Why?”
Moviemaker Matt: “Because the purpose of the video is to explain how state regulations affect the industry. We don’t want to confuse that point with lots of Capitol footage. People will think it’s primarily a federal issue.”

By appealing to the purpose, Matt provided clear evidence for why an artistic choice needed to be changed. Always keep the purpose in mind when critiquing art.

Appeal to the Brand

Brand considerations are significant when considering artistic changes. If you have defined colors, typefaces, logos, etc., then why not use them?

Astute Alex: “We shouldn’t use purple for the background.”
Me: “Why?”
Astute Alex: “Because dark blue is one of our brand colors, and it would work equally well with that white text.”

Of course!

Appeal to Realism/Abstraction

When critiquing art, one reason to make changes is if the visuals should more or less represent reality.

Insightful Samantha: “We should design a new casino scene for the Christie v. NCAA video.”
Me: “Why?”
Insightful Samantha: “Because the case actually deals with sports betting and not with slots, cards, dice, etc. We don’t want to confuse people.”

In other instances, it might make sense to create an abstraction for the purpose of communication.

Detailed Daniel: “Why should make the wedding cake in our Masterpiece Cakeshop video look more like a generic cake.”
My team: “Why?”
Detailed Daniel: “Because the actual cake is controversially decorated and confuses the issue. It would be ideal if people focused less on the cake itself and more on the law. Making it generic will help.”

Appeal to Science

Reasons for artistic changes may very well come down to hard science!

Artistic Anna: “We should change one of the blues in this scene to white.”
Me: “Why?”
Artistic Anna: “Because some of our older viewers might have trouble distinguishing between the two shades. As we get older, it gets more difficult to differentiate between similar colors.”

Appeal to Persuasion

One of the more difficult elements of artistic feedback is deciding if certain elements are more or less persuasive—assuming that the purpose of what you’re creating is to persuade. There’s a lot to be said on the topic of persuasion, but for now what’s important to note is that appeals to persuasion must be evidence-based and not assertions. A bad example:

Reviewer Reggie: “We should change the character in this scene to a woman.”
Me: “Why?”
Reviewer Reggie: “Because female characters are more sympathetic. People will be more likely to accept this argument if it comes from a female.”

Is that true? How can we know? In what context? There are too many questions and assumptions to consider this a genuine appeal to persuasion. On the other hand…

Justified Jenny: “We should make the setting of this animation the founding era in American history.”
Me: “Why?”
Justified Jenny: “Because the social media metrics show that our audiences respond particularly well to the Founding Fathers and all things related to that time period. I think they’re more likely to be persuaded if the animation is stylized after 1789 Philadelphia.”

Even if you’re not convinced by this appeal, it’s a reason. It’s not arbitrary. It’s based on evidence. It takes the audience into consideration. Nonetheless, rational people can disagree, which leads me to the next rule.

Rule #2 – Have a Decider

No matter how strong the reasons, you’ll inevitably find points of disagreement among team members. This is natural and should be encouraged. Insisting on unanimous agreement is both a waste of time and potentially harmful to your team culture.

Everyone who’s involved in the artistic feedback process should have their criticism heard, considered, and accepted or rejected. The question is, “By what process?”

Who Gets to Decide?

First and foremost, you must decide who gets the final say. No meaningful creation gets done by committee. If you don’t decide on who gets to decide, it’ll be whoever speaks last or whoever speaks most forcefully. Neither is a particularly good method for choosing which critique to accept or reject.

[SIDENOTE: At the Federalist Society, every video series we create has a head producer, and that’s not always me. In fact, it’s rarely me. Of course, in my capacity as manager, it’s my responsibility to make sure that no decisions get made that will fatally affect the product or brand, but those situations rarely occur with a team giving reasonable feedback. There may be times when I strongly disagree with an artistic change, but as long as that change is reasonable and non-fatal, I let it proceed. This builds trust and a strong sense of responsibility among the producers.]

The person who gets to decide should be the person with the most responsibility for the project. There should be stakes. This doesn’t mean he can’t delegate certain responsibilities, but it means that, ultimately, the responsibility for the decisions falls on him.

An important note about the decider’s behavior: The decider should critique last. Why? Because people have a tendency to agree with the person in charge. It’s also a way to demonstrate that everyone’s feedback is welcome and encouraged.

Other Clear Roles

Whoever has decision rights should make it clear to feedback participants what their role is. For instance, are we reviewing for story? For brand considerations? Just for spelling and grammar? Everything? Having a checklist of things to review and delegating certain elements is a good method for both reviewing “everything” and making sure that reviewers aren’t missing the tree for the forest (or vice versa).

Accepting/Rejecting Feedback

It’s important that everyone participating in the artistic feedback process gets a genuine opportunity to participate. For this reason, we often separate decision rights from who’s running the review. That way, one person can make sure all voices are heard, and the decider can focus on collecting, analyzing, and integrating all the feedback.

The person deciding doesn’t have to decide at that moment to accept or reject a change, but they should have a mechanism for recording all the notes and a method for choosing which to implement. Nothing is more frustrating than giving a reasoned critique in one round, not seeing it changed in the next, and having the decider show no record of the critique or have no idea why it wasn’t incorporated.

If feedback isn’t accepted, that’s fine! But the person deciding should have a reason why it wasn’t accepted (if asked).

Rule #3 – Take Initiative

Sometimes it’s difficult to express a clear reason for why something should change. In most cases, this means the person making the critique hasn’t thought about it enough. It’s fine to ask that person to table the critique, think it over, and come back later with a reason or a change of heart.

But in some cases, expressing a reason is hard because we’re not well-equipped with language that can convey what we mean. Decisions about music most often fall into this category. Music speaks so directly to our “sense of life” that it can sometimes be difficult to talk about in terms of reasons and conclusions. It’s tempting to let these “sense of life” critiques slip by without consideration, but we’ve found a different way to handle them.

Specific Samantha: “This music makes me cringe.”
Me: “Why?”
Specific Samantha: “I’m not sure, but whatever the reason, let me find three tracks that I think fit better with the video.”

Taking initiative to provide additional creative material is a good way to resolve these types of conflicts. Providing options allows the person critiquing and the decider to actively compare elements. It’s usually only through comparison that “sense of life” critiques can be resolved.

This doesn’t mean, however, that initiative is a substitute for reasons. Indeed, it’s best when they’re combined.

Musical Matt: “Of these three tracks, I like track three the best.”
Me: “Why?”
Musical Matt: “Because the interview subject speaks a bit slow, and this track is upbeat. If we go with anything slower, it might seem like the video is dragging.”

Even with options and reasons, though, it can be difficult for the decision maker to make up her mind. That’s when the final rule comes into play.

Rule #4 – Move On

Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
– Leonardo da Vinci

Don’t chase a Platonic form of your product. Always keep in mind that there are multiple correct ways of doing something—especially art—and that any particular project is one person’s vision, not the singular end-all-be-all version of whatever it is you’re creating.

::deep breath::

Could we do another round of feedback on the animation? Of course. Would it make it better? Perhaps so. But what’s the cost/benefit of doing so if we’re already four rounds over our agreement with the animator? How much better will the video be if we change the typography one more time?

Creative endeavors are endless, so it’s essential that you create boundaries for artistic feedback—deadlines, budgets, specific rounds of revision, etc. Make decisions, move on, and don’t second-guess yourself on artistic matters unless presented with overwhelming evidence.

* * * * * * * * * *

So there they are—our four rules for artistic feedback. What do you think? What can we improve? Tweet @DanielTRichards and let me know. Thanks for reading! If you found this post valuable, I would greatly appreciate it if you shared with your friends and colleagues.

Being Charming: 4 Principles to Make Yourself More Alluring and Persuasive

When I started writing this post about charm, I thought it would be a “cute,” 400-word look at a topic tangentially related to persuasion. Some 6,600 words later (whoops), I felt like I should probably stop.

I released this text as an iBook last year, but I was never satisfied with the layout, design, and availability. After that, I stopped blogging for awhile, so the text got lost in the swirling milieu of life, the universe, and everything—until now.

Here it is, my friends: “Being Charming: 4 Principles to Make Yourself More Alluring and Persuasive” in long-form essay style—now with fewer grammar errors and (somewhat) updated cultural references. This essay is dedicated to Faiza, charmer and provocateur.


* * * * * * * * * *

Spellbound: An Introduction

Witches. Warlocks. Spellcasters. That’s what they should be called, those people with magnetic personalities who hold our attention in crowded rooms or make us hang on every word in quiet cafés.

They have it. That certain something that makes us feel good about ourselves for being around them. A certain something that compels us to seek them out at parties, at work, and online. But what is it that they have? And how can I get some?

It’s charm.

We hear a lot about charm in pop culture. Cartoon princesses await their Prince Charming. Suave men try to charm the pants off their sexual conquests. Kids are incessantly chasing after that leprechaun’s lucky charms. (OK. Not the same.) What exactly is charm?

To be clear, this isn’t an extended essay about enchanted trinkets or magic. That’s a different kind of “charm.” (Sorry, Potter fans.) It’s an essay about disposition and demeanor. In the broadest possible terms, charm is:

Having an alluring personality.

Pretty simple, really. Let’s all go home and have a beer.

But that doesn’t tell us too much about charm. Digging deeper into the meaning, it’s clear that charm is a particular type of personality. To understand, let’s first look at what charm isn’t.

  • Charm isn’t “likeableness,” which is a kind of personality that inspires simple positivity.
  • Charm isn’t “charisma,” which is a kind of personality that inspires devotion.
  • Charm isn’t “flirtatiousness,” which is a kind of personality that inspires arousal.

You might find these qualities in charming people, but they’re not enough to create a charming personality.

Part of the confusion about charm, I think, comes from the fact that the “pickup artist” community has appropriated the term for their…“philosophy.” Google “how to be charming” and most of the results will feature psychological techniques to pick up women.

I’m not saying these aren’t valuable skills. (Except for negging. That’s totally useless.) But I think there’s more to charm than sexual conquest. You can be charming when you’re pursuing sex and relationships or you can be charming in business, with your family, or out with friends. Charm isn’t under the exclusive purview of pickup artistry.

For people looking to be more alluring and persuasive, in the office, social circles, OR the bedroom, I offer a different take on charm.

My definition of charm.

If I were a psychologist, this essay might be about the neuro-fundamentals of charm. Brainy stuff. If I were a philosopher, I might write a treatise about the “concept” of charm. Different kind of brainy stuff.

But I’m a rhetorician, so I look at the world through rhetor-colored glasses. Let me define my terms.

“Rhetoric,” the word, has a bad reputation nowadays but for a good reason. Few people know what it is. Media refer to politicians’ “empty rhetoric.” You might hear someone’s argument called “mere rhetoric.” But this much-maligned term is actually one of the oldest academic disciplines with origins dating back to some of the oldest Mesopotamian civilizations. That’s old.

Aristotle defined rhetoric as:

The faculty of observing, in any given case, the available means of persuasion.”

Modern scholars differ on the scope of rhetoric, but for this essay, I’m sticking with Ari. A “rhetor” is someone who engages in rhetoric, acting consciously and ethically in applying the art. Now, back to the subject at hand…

In rhetorical terms, charm is a matter of ethos, the persuasive appeal to character. Ethos—as opposed to the other appeals of logos (logic) or pathos (emotion)—deals with the trustworthiness, expertise, and ethics.

Many rhetoricians, myself included, consider ethos the most important appeal. “More important than logic or emotion,” you ask in shock and awe!? Absolutely.

Your argument might be logically thought out and emotionally compelling, but if your audience thinks you’re a bad person, then it’s over. Finished. Done. They’re not buying what you’re selling.

Charm as a matter of ethos deals not only with how an audience initially perceives you but also with the kind of person they think you are after they’ve had time to make an informed judgment.

For the purposes of this essay, I consider charm as:

Having an alluring personality driven by a personal character that’s simultaneously trustworthy, empathetic, and fascinating.

This definition follows with the rhetorical tradition of character-driven ethos. (More on this in a moment.) Each quality—trustworthiness, empathy, being fascinating—informs each of the four basic principles of charm:

  • Show Interest
  • Entertain
  • Be Appealing
  • Timing

I’m not claiming these are the only principles of charm, but they’re necessary and sufficient to create a charming personality in beginners.

But there’s something else about charm that must be addressed before we delve into these principles: a matter of conduct.

“A good man speaking well.”

Charm, like money, is a neutral tool. Neither is good nor bad in themselves. It’s your moral character that determines it. You can charm to nefarious ends, or you can charm to proper ends.

All elements of ethos, indeed all elements of rhetoric, are morally neutral. This is what made philosophers like Plato leery of rhetoric and what drives the disdain for rhetoric today. There’s no guarantee that you’re being persuaded of something good or by a good person. That’s why, as someone interested in charm, you must be particularly mindful of how you use your abilities.

Ancient rhetoricians, we’re talking early Greek and Roman thinkers, thought of rhetoric not just as an art or a science or a practice. They thought of it as a lifestyle.

Rhetoric wasn’t divorced from ethics in their worldview for two reasons, both related to ethos:

  • It’s easier to convince someone of what is good if you embody that goodness.
  • Bad people who can persuade are dangerous.

Cicero, a master orator, argued that rhetors must study and understand all the important knowledge there is to learn, insofar as that’s the basic field of rhetorical study: Everything.

But more than Renaissance Men (since the Renaissance hadn’t occurred yet), Cicero wanted rhetors to be virtuous and to understand the power they possess. To quote him at length:

Eloquence is one of the supreme virtues, which after compassing a knowledge of facts, gives verbal expression to the thoughts and purposes of the mind in such a manner as to have the power of driving the hearers forward in any direction in which it has applied its weight; and the stronger this faculty is, the more necessary it is for it to be combined with integrity and supreme wisdom, and if we bestow fluency of speech on persons devoid of those virtues, we shall not have made orators of them but shall have put weapons in the hands of madmen.”

Quintilian, another important Roman rhetorician, concerned himself not only with the content of a rhetors’ studies but with the content of their character. He argued that orators must take ideas seriously and practice what they preach.

In fact, Quintilian’s definition of rhetoric is often boiled down to “a good man speaking well.” He felt so strongly about the necessity of character training that he advocated for a sort of rhetorical boarding school where wise mentors would oversee the development of young orators to make sure they grew up to be morally outstanding men.

While I’m not suggesting that charmers attend a sort of moral boot camp, I think Quintilian’s heart was in the right place. Creating a disconnect between tactics and principles creates a vacuum of morality.

Important: The study of charm cannot be separated from the character development of the charmer.

Good charm must be judged not only by its means but also its ends. Let Quintilian inspire you:

Let us then pursue, with our whole powers, the true dignity of eloquence, nothing better than which has been given to mankind by the immortal gods. Without it, all nature would be mute and all our acts would be deprived alike of present honor and of commemoration among posterity. Therefore, let us aspire to the highest excellence, for by this means, we shall either attain the summit or at least see many below us.”

Ready. Set. Charm!

Inspired by Quintilian and armed with the rhetorical know-how, you’re ready to dive into the principles of charm. Can you feel the excitement?

On to the charm!

Principle 1 – Show Interest: Let Them Know You Care

Charming people care. Genuinely. They don’t feign interest or put on a good face during conversations. Charmers make the effort to learn about, understand, and empathize with their audience.

Demonstrate that you’re listening.

We only remember 25% of what we hear. To be clear, that’s not a lot. Showing you’re a good listener, showing that you understood what’s being said or that you can at least derive something meaningful, is crucial to being charming.

People want to be listened to. That doesn’t mean simple acknowledgment. It means taking in what’s being said, processing it, and demonstrating that you understand.

You can’t passively listen.

Start with names. It’s the easiest way to acknowledge something personal about your audience, and it’s a great way to build rapport. I try to picture a name tag on someone’s shirt. The visual cue helps me remember who I’m talking to. If I must remember someone’s name in the long term, I usually write it down in a notebook or in my Notes app.

You can also demonstrate that you’re listening by recalling facts from earlier in the conversation or, if possible, previous meetings. Callbacks show that you’re integrating the whole conversation instead of just listening piecemeal.

The Patagonian Mara doesn't like to be interrupted. No one does.

The Patagonian mara doesn’t like to be interrupted. No one does.

One of the most important elements of listening, though, is proper feedback. People want to know they’re not boring you or that you’re not preoccupied with fantasy football. Make eye contact, nod your head, and show appropriate emotion for the topic. (Now I sound like I’m writing for Sheldon Cooper.)

Charmers listen patiently for a cue to jump in, like a question or a pause. Never interrupt. Even if your audience drones on about the mating habits of the Patagonian mara, wait it out. Interrupting makes you seem eager to stop the other person from talking.

Ask sincere questions.

There are other ways to show interest, of course, and one of the best methods is to ask questions. Be sincere and make sure they’re related to the conversation. No non-sequiturs about Guatemalan cardamom (unless you’re talking to a Central American economist).

The best kinds of questions are the ones that allow people to answer however they’re most comfortable. Don’t ask leading or endless questions:

Non-charmer: “Was it difficult to work on such a controversial movie like FrackNation? Did people send you nasty letters? What did your mom think? Or did she even see it?

How do you answer that!? Be direct and simple:

Charmer: “What was it like working on FrackNation?”

Audience: “It was a lot of fun! Controversial at times, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. …[minutes later]… Thanks for asking!”

Circling back to my previous point, acknowledge that you’re listening while your audience responds. (Nod!) Now is not the time to Snap that selfie. (But is there ever really a good time?)

You should also ask questions when you don’t understand something. Know-it-alls aren’t charming. Child-like wonder is. In fact, asking someone to explain a word or point that wasn’t clear boosts your ethos by showing that you’re both honest and humble. DoublePlus Good.

Open-ended questions tend to yield the best results. (As opposed to questions that can be answered “yes or no.”) And don’t be afraid to ask the “big” questions:

  • Why were you motivated to move to Austin?
  • How do you balance personal life and work?
  • Who are your favorite people in town?
Learn to take and give compliments, but don’t make them huge public displays. That can get awkward.

Learn to take and give compliments, but don’t make them huge public displays. That can get awkward.

Give compliments. Know how to take a compliment.

It’s a shame that we don’t appreciate enough. I mean we don’t engage in the verb “appreciate” enough. Charmers do. They don’t focus on the negative. They seek out the things they like about other people:

Charmer: “Before I tell you about what I do, I just want to mention that you have great taste in art. Every painting in this house is outstanding.”

Practice complimenting by trying to find some positive attribute of everyone you meet. This can be tough because of something called the “halo effect,” when we make judgments about someone’s entire character based on one thing we know about them. In other words, if I don’t like your pants (or politics), you must also kick puppies.

The principle here is sincerity. Don’t force compliments and don’t overdo it. Appreciation takes effort, but it will be worth the hard work.

Charmers must know how to take compliments. Neither dismiss the kindness (which can come off as rude) nor play it up (which can come off as braggadocios). There’s a middle ground of acknowledging and moving forward:

Audience: “Loved your talk!”

Charmer: “Thank you. I appreciate it. I’m happy you could attend. How often do you attend conferences like this one?”

Throwing in a question at the end only enhances your charming personality by putting the spotlight back on the audience. You’re acknowledging the nicety but showing that you don’t have to dwell on it.


Embrace debate.

When we think of showing interest, arguing typically isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But strategic debate done in a way that shows deep respect can be one of the most profound and charming ways of showing interest in your audience.

If someone in your conversation says something you disagree with, speak up. Dedication to values can charm a group of even the most bitter antagonists. Don’t be preachy and condescending—even and especially if your audience is hostile—but instead politely dissent and, if you’re comfortable doing so, express your counter-arguments.

The most important point here is to recognize when a debate will be seen as positive interest and when it will be seen as grandstanding. It’s hard to give a definitive rule for how to tell. You’re going to have to trust your instincts in the moment.

When in doubt, stick by your principles, but *always* be polite and deferential.

Enthusiasm above all else.

Implicit in every section of this chapter is the notion of enthusiasm. You can only achieve peak charm when you develop an intense, genuine interest in the people, places, and things around you. This isn’t a political enthusiasm that lasts for the length of a handshake. I’m talking about a passionate and unending eagerness to know about the world and its inhabitants.

Demonstrating enthusiasm is a lot like demonstrating charm overall. The best way to show it is to live it.

One way to develop a natural sense of enthusiasm is to determine what you enjoy about people or situations and actively seek that information. Perhaps you enjoy hearing about people’s career paths or their exotic hobbies or their favorite booze. Start with little things and work them into your conversations. Slowly expand on what you find fascinating and create a library of go-to questions where you can demonstrate genuine enthusiasm. Pretty soon you’ll be an enthusiastic, charming person.

ADVANCED TACTIC: Introduce people.

Ready to take your charm to the next level? Try introducing people who you think will either become good friends or have something interesting to discuss. When making introductions, it’s important to keep in mind the context of the people you’re introducing and the setting you’re in. If you’re introducing an employee to a boss at a conference your tactics would be radically different from introducing a friend to a potential date at a block party.

WARNING: Introducing people is harder than it sounds because it’s the ultimate test of your listening skills. You have to know two people so well that you can match up their personality, interests, or business goals. Succeed and they’ll think of you as the most charming person in their lives. Fail and it’s a long road back to the top of charming mountain.

Principle 2 – Entertain: Dance, Monkey, Dance

Being entertaining doesn’t mean you have to juggle. (Couldn’t hurt.) “Entertaining” from a charming and rhetorical perspective means that people want to be around you. They find you fascinating. There are many ways to create this pull.

Positively positive.

No one likes a Depressing Danny. And even if they do like him, he’s not charming. We’re attracted to positivity. Not mindless optimism but sensible, upbeat positivity—the kind you get from problem solvers and Apple product launches. Positivity is related to happiness, and humans like happiness. (Duh.)

We’ve already discussed focusing on what you like about your audience as one element of positivity, but beyond that, think about the things you like about yourself. I’m not saying you have to brag, but bringing up accomplishments in the right context creates an aura of positivity:

Charmer: I hear you like to run long distance. I’ve been training for my first half marathon. It’s a lot of work, but I’m happy with how it makes me feel. I’m almost ready! Do you have any tips?

Being positive can mean a lot of things, and I won’t try to define them here. Suffice to say that charming people tend to focus on what’s good about the world, the positives in the conversation, and the valuable traits of their audience. Also, smile. (More on this later.)

Make ‘em laugh.

It’s hard to explain puns to kleptomaniacs because they take things literally.”

Humor is charming. Funny people usually have a personal entourage awaiting their next amusing anecdote or one-liner. It’s a no-brainer to say that people like to laugh.

But being funny doesn’t come naturally to everyone. My best advice is: observe and practice. Watch comedians. Watch non-comedians you find funny. What do they do that you like? Don’t like? How can you mimic their tactics (without plagiarizing)? Like any skill, being funny requires effort and time. Honing the art of comedy isn’t an easy task, but it’s also not impossible.

Memorize jokes for a given occasion. Just know your audience:

Charmer: “I love attending these liberty dinners. I had the libertarian salad to start. Lettuce alone!”

[Wah, wah, wah, waaaaaah.]

Maybe not the best joke, but I hope you get my point.

If you’re not up for memorizing and want to take your humor to the next level, learn the basics of improv comedy. Improv helps you deal with unexpected context, and it’s a great way to keep conversations moving. Take a class at your local comedy shop or watch a few YouTube videos. (Learn to say, “Yes, and…” a lot.)

Ultimately humor is about observation, about seeing aspects of the world that people don’t notice or give much thought. Jerry Seinfeld puts it nicely:

I do a lot of material about the chair. I find the chair very funny. That excites me. No one’s really interested in that—but I’m going to get you interested! That, to me, is just a fun game to play. And it’s the entire basis of my career.”

So write down things you see. Make notes about the random thoughts that pop into your head while you’re on a walk or falling asleep or drinking booze. Pretty soon you’ll have a library of material from which to cull your jokes.

Tell epic stories.

For the more serious among us, humor might not be the best option. But being funny isn’t the only path to entertainment. Being able to tell great stories is another charming skill. Drama, especially, can hold a room like nothing else. It’s in our DNA!

[Humans] can’t help telling stories, and that they turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.”

Adam Gopnik explaining the thesis of “The Storytelling Animal”

Telling great stories means two things:

  • Having great stories to tell.
  • Being able to deliver them in a compelling manner.

If you’re not the Most Interesting Person in the World, you might not have a plethora of great stories from your life to draw on. But who says the stories have to be about you? Read about interesting people, listen to podcasters (modern storytellers), retell other people’s stories. Become a collector of history.

As far as presentation, it’s much like humor. You just have to practice. My blog has tips for being a persuasive and elegant presenter, but there are thousands of great resources on the Interwebs. Or you might join a local Toastmasters (@Toastmasters).

Bring the conversation around.

OK, so you’re telling jokes and making people weep with epic stories. Now it’s time to step back and bring it around to the other folks in the room. Charming people make the conversations about their audience.

Once there’s a suitable opening in the conversation, start asking questions again or make an observation about someone else in the audience. Better yet, integrate them into the story! Don’t keep the focus on you for longer than the length of an amusing tale.

Master a skill.

Origami cranes are both impressive and aesthetically striking.

Origami cranes are both impressive and aesthetically striking.

I brought up juggling in the introduction earlier because I think mastering a skill is an important element of charm. A flawless performance is fascinating.

Of course, you could learn something deeply artistic like singing, playing an instrument, or painting. But those aren’t great skills for the kind of situations where you’re trying to charm. I’m thinking, instead, about portable skills:

  • Juggling
  • Origami
  • Reciting poetry
  • Magic (with caution)

You wouldn’t want to take any of these skills to the extreme. If it takes more than a minute to set up or it requires a costume change, then it’s likely not going to be charming.

Peak charm, though, comes when you can integrate the skill with a story or joke.

ADVANCED TACTIC: Talk to the loners.

Charming people often find themselves the center of attention, despite the fact that charm increases the more the charmer puts the focus on others. That’s why the ultimate charming move is to shine the spotlight on the person who has had the least attention.

WARNING: To pull this off requires an ethos of unquestionable sincerity. That is, you can’t be seen as trying to make fun of the person you’re spotlighting. Don’t attempt to engage a loner if you’re known for being sarcastic. That can only hurt your charm.

Start by talking to a loner one-on-one. Unlike a general audience where charmers can create smooth conversation by asking questions of other people, it’s best to start by talking about something general or about yourself. Give the loner an opportunity to warm up to you before you ask them to participate.

Once you have a rapport going, start introducing people into the conversation slowly. One at a time. And make sure to keep bringing the loner back into the discussion. Pretty soon the conversation will run itself.

Learn from Improv: Yes, And...

SIDEBAR: Learn from Improv (Yes, And…)

Anyone familiar with improv comedy knows that the quickest way to kill a scene is the word “no.”

In rhetoric, too, a fast way to kill the argument and inflame emotions is to continually say negative things to your opponent. Not many people like to be told “no”—especially in a debate.

But why do we have to use the word at all? Of course, you should acknowledge if you disagree with something, but avoid the word “no.” In fact, replace it with “yes.”

“Yes” is the verbal equivalent of a head nod. It’s a type of agreement but not necessarily with the point at hand. When your opponent makes a point that you strongly disagree with, follow it with, “Yes, and….” Then make your point. (Another helpful improv phrase is, “Not only that, but also….”)

You might be surprised how cordial your opponent will become when you use this technique, a favorite of improv artists around the world. It keeps the conversation flowing, helps you emit an amicable aura, and keeps tension down by perpetuating a positive mood. Why, yes, it’s one of my favorite rhetorical tactics.

Principle 3 – Be Appealing: Dress Up, Stand Straight, Smell Nice, and Smile

Where charm and flirtation have the most overlap is in the value of appeal in appearance and demeanor. Charm requires an alluring personality, so it’s important for charmers to present themselves in a way that people want to be around.

Be a snappy dresser.

Study after study has shown that we judge people based on how they look, and an outfit is a significant part of the visual. You don’t have to throw on a bow tie or raid Cam Newton’s closet, but dressing with class will aid your charming personality. When we look good we feel good, and feeling good (read: confident) is a big part of charm. Coordinating colors/patterns/stripes helps, too.

You should always be aware of what the occasion calls for in terms of dress. A tux and tails won’t add to your charm at a beach party, for instance. As a general rule charming people are slightly overdressed compared to the general audience.

But even if you choose simply to fit in with the dress around you, there are other considerations. To start, make sure that your clothes are clean, pressed, and flattering for your body—no matter its type. It also helps to be fashionable, but that doesn’t’ necessarily mean brand-laden. It simply means understanding what look is “in” or “classic” and wearing it well.

Finally, you might consider a piece of flair, something that accentuates your personality without detracting from it. That might something as innocuous as a pocket square or as flashy as a futuristic watch.

Whatever it is, make sure it’s something that has personal meaning or a cool story.

Body language cues.

Sometimes body language tells us a lot. (Do not pet.)

Sometimes body language tells us a lot.

Charm, like any presentation of yourself, is multi-faceted. It’s not all words and fancy suites. Your body language, too, can make an impact on how people perceive you. If you stand with your arms crossed, are you coming off as defensive or angry? Will someone get weirded out if you stand too close? Should you really be jumping up and down right now? All things to consider with body language. Let’s start with posture.

People with great posture look (and feel) like they’re in command. It boosts your confidence. Standing tall, strong, and proud is a surefire way to add to your charm. And sitting up straight in a chair, even away from the back slightly, is the seated counterpart.

But posture isn’t the only important aspect of body language. Positioning can boost or diminish your charm. If you’re having an intimate conversation with someone, standing face-to-face and making eye contact is appealing, but if the conversation is more casual then standing at an angle or shoulder-to-shoulder might be better. Knowing how far to stand from someone is also important. The general rule is that closer means more intimate and further away means less intimate.

Mirroring the audience’s posture and position is a good way to establish rapport. If your audience is leaning on a table, then you might want to lean on the table. If their arms are crossed, you should try crossing your arms. This is, admittedly, a bit of pop psychology, and mirroring doesn’t guarantee a connection. As with every bit of advice in this essay, you should be aware of the context and act accordingly.

Smell like you mean it.

This one might be obvious. Don’t stink. Sure, charmers might enjoy interesting hobbies like cliff diving or antique car repair, but that’s no excuse for smelling like sweat and motor oil. Charmers wash behind their ears.

Smell can be a powerful emotional trigger. One researcher explains:

The association of fragrance and emotion is not an invention of poets or perfume-makers. Our olfactory receptors are directly connected to the limbic system, the most ancient and primitive part of the brain, which is thought to be the seat of emotion.”

This means it might behoove you to invest in a casual cologne. Not something you would wear to a nightclub, but a less intrusive scent that’s pleasant on the nose. And whatever it is, don’t shower in it. A little will take you far in the charm department.

Show those teeth! A lippy smile is good, but one where you show your pearly whites is even better.

Show those teeth! A lippy smile is good, but one where you show your pearly whites is even better.

Smile your face off.

Your smile is a messenger of your good will. Your smile brightens the lives of all who see it. To someone who has seen a dozen people frown, scowl or turn their faces away, your smile is like the sun breaking through the clouds.”

Dale Carnegie from “How to Win Friends and Influence People”

Who doesn’t love a smile? It’s benevolent and caring and a sign of respectful positivity. You cannot be a charmer without a smile.

But exactly how important is smiling? In his book Brainfluence, Roger Dooley (@RogerDooley) writes about a University of California study that showed how bar patrons exposed to pictures of smiles, even for a brief moment, were more likely to drink more and pay more (double!) than patrons exposed to frowning faces. Happiness indeed.

That being said, there’s little worse than a forced smile, teeth that betray uncomfortable muscle tension. If it’s not genuine, don’t do it. But like most things, practice makes perfect. That’s right. You should practice your smile in the mirror. Practice smiles have the added benefit of giving you a psychological pick-me-up every time you pass a mirror. Win-win.

Don’t be easily offended.

An important, non-physical element of appeal is demeanor. It’s difficult to say if there’s one particular demeanor that’s more appealing than others, but a consistent trait among charmers is that they’re not easily offended.

It’s difficult to have a prolonged conversation with someone, let alone a friendship, if everything you say offends them. This doesn’t mean, of course, that in order to be charming you must become a sociopath or moral relativist. It simply means that charmers are mature about how they deal with what they find offensive. They think before they react.

There is a vast difference, for instance, between someone telling you they’re a member of the Ku Klux Klan (go ahead and walk away) and someone telling you they voted for a candidate you don’t support (go ahead and stay put).

If your goal is to charm, manage your reactions. Feel free to disagree, but don’t turn your disagreement into righteous indignation—especially if your long-term goal is to use your charm to be more persuasive.

Occasionally being offended shows that you have strong principles, but being offended by every story, sentence, or word uttered by your audience is not only uncharming. It’s immature.


We’re sensory beings: sight, sound, smell, taste, and of course touch. Sometimes touch can be the most evocative of the senses in a social context. Touch helps build bonds between people, likely because touch can cause the release of oxytocin, the chemical in our brain that helps us assess if a person is trustworthy.

Also, we’re not a touchy-feely culture, so when someone touches you, it’s bound to cause a reaction. To be clear, I’m talking about appropriate, social kinds of touch: touching an arm, putting your arm around shoulders, hugging, etc. Nothing creepy, creeper.

WARNING: It’s difficult to know if your touch is going to be well received. People are finicky about this issue and if there’s any doubt, simply keep your hands off.

If you’ve just shared an emotional moment with someone, touching their arm might deepen their positive feelings. A hug can release stress and make someone feel at ease. Touch can be a powerful way to increase your charm. Start with a handshake (firm but not crushing) and go from there.

Principle 4 – Timing: Know When to Charm and When to Run

It’s hard to sell volcano insurance in Rhode Island, and it’s just as hard to charm in inappropriate situations. In fact, nothing kills charm faster than bad timing. Kairos is the rhetorical concept of knowing the supreme moment for persuasion. Understanding kairos can make you a better charmer.

The right setting.

The physical setting can make a huge difference in whether or not it’s appropriate to be charming. Just as proposing marriage in the total darkness of Crystal Cave will likely get you a “no” (and a swift kick you won’t see coming), trying to be charming in the wrong place can hurt your reputation.

It would be impossible to list the objectively best places to charm because it’s integrated with the next point (time). Charming in a bar, for instance, is likely fine…unless you’re there to help a buddy discuss his relationship problems. Turning on the charm at a social gathering is likely great…unless it’s a funeral.

Be mindful of your immediate surroundings, too. You might look like a fool and not a charmer if you’re telling a serious story standing next to an “I’m With Stupid” poster. The principle of a charming setting is one where your efforts don’t distract from something more important and where your surroundings don’t distract from you.

Frame of Mind Matters

The right time.

Observe due measure, for right timing is in all things the most important factor.”

Hesiod, Greek poet

You might describe the best time for charm as social and casual. It’s a context where you’re free to be the center of attention but can put the focus on someone else if need be. But that doesn’t mean you should charge ahead at all parties or bar outings.

Indeed, part of what makes someone charming is that the moment seems to call them into the position of charmer. It’s neither forced nor contrived. Charmers don’t come off as charmers, at least not initially. It’s a reputation built on a foundation that, like physical foundations, no one notices.

The key here is understanding context. This can be difficult in a social situation where you’re entering without prior knowledge.

If you walk up to a group and tell a joke, for instance, it’s not going to go over well if they were just talking about Rhonda’s medical scare.

When in doubt, ask what a group is talking about! Remember that admitting you don’t know something isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s charming. And it will help you with timing.

An important element of kairos, both setting and timing, is observation. Don’t jump into charming “routines.” Take in your surroundings and make conscious decisions about what you should do. Adapt if necessary or forgo the charm altogether. Being eloquent on occasion is far better than being a dolt often.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered.

Timing isn’t only important on the macro level. It’s equally important on the micro level. How you deliver specific words to an audience can make a profound impact—positively or negatively.

Comedians spend as much time perfecting timing as they do writing jokes. Emphasis A will get result B, delay C will get result D, etc. Like every aspect of charm, delivery takes practice and repetition. The core elements of delivery are emphasis, time, volume, and physicality.

Emphasis is simply the act of distinguishing which points should stand out and which shouldn’t. In writing, we can show emphasis by making certain words stand out. The visual clue gives readers a sense of what’s important and how to read the text.

When speaking, emphasis comes from any number of clues but one of the most charming is pronunciation. Make a word stand out by saying it with affect and your audience’s ears will Perk uP with Pleasure. (Alliteration!)

Time, too, is a crucial element of delivery. Never underestimate the power … … of the pause. A well-timed pause will have your audience waiting with baited breath for your next syllable. It’s most effective, of course, during moments of drama. But don’t take the pause for granted in comedy as well. We all know a friend who rushes into the punch line of a joke. Not funny, Brad.

It should go without saying, but no one will know if you’re charming if they can’t hear you. Conversely, it’s rarely charming to scream. (Though Gilbert Gottfried has given it his best.) Volume is an underappreciated element of delivery that can affect how you’re perceived.

A good volume is one that’s appropriate for the setting. Amplify or tone down as necessary, but consider using volume strategically. Loud doesn’t have to equal “important.” Soft-spoken rhetors usually find themselves in a position of having the audience’s undivided, if physically strained attention.

As a final note on delivery, I would suggest paying a lot of attention to your hands and arms. Watch carefully how you gesticulate. Compare yourself to great rhetors.

Do you flail wildly like a flightless bird? Or do you use your hands with purpose to amplify important points?

We talked about physicality a bit in Principle 3 when we talked body language and smiling. That advice applies here, too. The idea is: Move like you mean it.


Toasting can be tough, but when done right, there are few things more charming.

Toasting can be tough, but when done right, there are few things more charming.

At the intersection of setting and time, there’s an action that might be the epitome of charm in our age of informality: the toast. When done with tact and eloquence, a toast can feed the spirit and make you an unforgettable charmer.

WARNING: By its nature, a toast makes you the center of attention. Even though you’re likely toasting someone else, the primary focus will be on you—your demeanor, dress, expressions, words, etc. Toasting requires not only that you understand the context of your immediate surroundings but of the greater “room.” Raise your glass with caution.

There are a few principles that apply to just about every toast:

  • Keep it short.
  • Make the message simple.
  • Don’t read it.
  • End with sincerity.
  • Don’t forget to drink.

I could write another essay about toasting in various contexts. (Hmmm…) So suffice to say that there are many resources out there for the would-be toaster.

SIDEBAR: Frame of Mind Matters

It’s crucial that your audience is in the right frame of mind to receive your argument. Again, this correlates with ethos.

You seem inconsiderate or rude if your argument occurs when your audience doesn’t expect it, or if your argument seems out of place.

For instance, if you have a great idea for a product, pitching your idea at a company happy hour after a gallon of margaritas probably isn’t the best idea. Better to wait until the next morning’s staff meeting.

Bring Aspirin.

Conclusion: All Good Things

Being charming doesn’t have to be difficult, but it will require practice and dedication—and the realization that genuine charm isn’t a disguise, an act, or even an attitude. It’s an essential part of your character, of your moral self.

Being good is doing good.

If you remember nothing else from this essay, let your one take away be that ethos, your character, above all else, is the essential element of charm and persuasion. The now-unfortunately-cliché quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” strikes the correct chord. By being good you’re doing good.

People are more easily convinced by what you do than what you say. If you demand that people cut back on their fossil fuel consumption to save the planet, all the while traversing from country to country on a private jet, you’re going to look silly. Even if people tacitly agree, they won’t take you seriously. But if you make drastic reductions in your personal fuel use, it’s harder to dismiss your argument.

In regards to charm, the principle of ethos applies just as much. A charmer isn’t charming with friends and a jerk with family; doesn’t “pour on the charm” in a business deal and turn the cold shoulder to employees; and doesn’t praise ego-strokers or belittle people who disagree.

Don’t act charming. Be charming.

Not only will you, the charmer, know the difference, but discerning audiences will punish you for trying to pull one over on them. In the long run, it’s in your self-interest to integrate the principles of charm into your character.

* * * * * * * * * *

Thanks for reading!

I would love to hear your feedback and answer your questions. Tweet @DanielTRichards or email drichards@gmail.com. Wishing you all the best with your charm. – Daniel

* * * * * * * * * *


Thanks to Kira M. Newman for talking through these ideas with me and for her generous offer to read through a rough draft.

Thanks to Justin M. Lesniewski for helping me think through various parts of this essay, whether he realized it or not.

Cover photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels.
Dolichotis patagonum closeup | Wikipedia user Rei
Red Bar Comedy Club | Flickr user Tripp
Origami crane | Photo by Daniel T. Richards
Grumpy Alice | Flickr user mhx
Smile! | Photo by Daniel T. Richards
ARTS BEYOND TIME | Flickr user www.Michie.ru
Toast to 2012 | Flickr user hakee

Pinker’s Sensible Style – A Book Review

To write good is hard. ::ahem:: Pardon me. To consistently write well is hard. ::ugh:: Let me try again. To write consistently well is hard. (Or is it, “To write well consistently…”?) ::sigh:: (On to the book review…)

Enter Steven Pinker, psycholinguist, cognitive scientist, and author of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014). Pinker is a prolific writer with books on a variety of topics: language, violence, human nature, and the mechanics of the mind. Heady stuff.

In The Sense of Style Pinker takes on the role of writing instructor—a compelling one at that. His guidance feels more like notes from a trusted mentor than a tome of commandments. He excels at making style relevant and interesting, two qualities seldom associated with composition pedagogy. In fact, Pinker positions himself as a sort-of “anti-Grammar Nazi,” a “Grammar Ally,” interested in both prescriptive and descriptive assessments of modern writing.

This book review takes a look at Pinker’s lessons for amateurs and masters alike. Let’s dig in…

No Rules!?

D"The Sense of Style" by Steven Pinkeron’t expect stylistic dictates from this 350+ page manual. Pinker isn’t “anti-rules,” though. He’s pro-thinking:

By replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence, I hope not just to avoid giving ham-fisted advice but to make the advice that I do give easier to remember than a list of dos and don’ts. Providing reasons should also allow writers and editors to apply the guidelines judiciously, mindful of what they are designed to accomplish, rather than robotically.”

Pinker focuses on non-fiction writing, though I argue that his lessons apply to many genres. In particular, he hones in on “classic style”:

a prose style in which the writer appears to direct the reader’s attention to an objective, concrete truth about the world by engaging the reader in conversation.

Dear reader: I ask—no, beg!—that, at the very least, you read chapter 2 of The Sense of Style. Familiarize yourself with the concept of classic style. Even a basic understanding of its purpose can have a profound impact on your writing:

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself.”

And how can writers help readers see the world?

The things in the world the writer is pointing to, then, are concrete: people (or other animate beings) who move around in the world and interact with objects. […] Sometimes we do have to write about abstract ideas. What classic style does is explain them as if they were objects and forces that would be recognizable to anyone standing in a position to see them.”

Clarity above all else—achieved by taking “concepts” and turning them into something the reader can “perceive.”

Clarity’s Enemy

In a Scooby-Doo-esque fashion, Pinker unmasks the unexpected and well-disguised enemy of clarity: Knowledge. Zoinks! No, Pinker doesn’t argue that stupidity leads to clarity. He contends that knowledge can create a blind spot that curses smart people with increasingly obscure prose:

The Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. […] The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn.”

Pinker spills a considerable amount of ink explaining how to lift the Curse of Knowledge to accomplish clear, meaningful communication.

If you’re someone who learns by example, you’ll have plenty to peruse as the book contains snippets from superb writing in the genres of journalism, fiction, commentary,  journal articles, and even obituaries. Hilarious obituaries. Pinker also contrasts good style with bad and asks you to see the world of clear writing for yourself. (See what he did there?)

While I recommend most of The Sense of Style without reservation, I should point out that some chapters (4, some of 5, and 6) are not for the grammatically faint of heart. In chapters 4 and 5, Pinker gets into a complex, if understandable, discussion of syntax “trees.” This information is useful but requires intense focus—especially if you’re like me and reading on the Metro or in a coffee shop. Chapter 6, too, might be better to reference than read. It’s mostly lists of common style “rules,” their history, and how to proceed when writing. (For example: The proper uses of “who” and “whom.”) But maybe you, dear reader, find that stuff particularly fascinating(!).

I also implore the critical reader to judge for him- or herself whether Pinker accurately describes the history of using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun—or if he defers to political correctness. (I lean toward the latter. His “prevalence” argument didn’t convince me.) Regardless let’s not throw out the baby with the tired clichés.

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is worth your time and Bitcoins—especially if you’re a competent writer interested in greatness.

* * * * *

Thanks to Don Watkins, a master of clarity, for recommending this book. When Don recommends anything on writing or communication, I check it out. You should, too.

* * * * *

Thanks for reading this book review. If you’re interested in the concept of clarity in communication, you should read Leonard Peikoff’s Objective Communication: Writing, Speaking and Arguing and Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics (together). In the field of visual communication, no one is better on clarity than Edward Tufte (Envisioning Information).

The iPad Question: Where Do Rhetorical Situations Come From?

Steve Jobs with Apple's iPad. Photo by Flickr user Matt Buchanan.No one needed an iPad before they needed one. Or did they need it and just not know? Is there a difference? Asked differently, did Steve Jobs fill a need or create one?

The answer isn’t simple, and how you think about the issue can reveal a lot about your view of knowledge, persuasion, and even reality. We’re gettin’ deep!

In the field of rhetoric, the iPad question looks more like this: How do rhetorical situations happen? Do we create rhetorical situations or do they exist in the world waiting to be found?

To refresh, a rhetorical situation (as defined by Lloyd Bitzer) is:

“A complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence.”

Whoa. What does that mean in English?

A rhetorical situation is a context in which a successful argument can occur. The important parts of a rhetorical situation are a problem that can be solved with rhetoric (can’t argue with the weather), an audience that can be persuaded (can’t argue with zombies), and a context convenient for rhetoric (can’t argue during a loud rock concert). For a thorough explanation, check out my introduction to rhetorical situations.

If and only if you have all of those elements, you can respond with an argument.

Bitzer argued that rhetors find rhetorical problems (or exigences) in the world, and respond by resolving them. Voila! Rhetorical situation. But another scholar, Richard Vatz, argued that rhetorical situations are created by the rhetor and are not found “out there” in the world.

Per usual, both academics are wrong. And they’re a little bit right. (They’re wrought.) Let me explain…

Continue reading

[Figure Friday] Apophasis: The “Lantern” Figure

Apophasis (uh-PA-fuh-sis) [trope] – Invoking a topic by denying it or by saying it shouldn’t be brought up.

 Eamon: It would be petty of me to bring up my ex-wife’s various indiscretions. I’ll rise above such paltry rhetoric in this court of law.

As a simple form of irony, apophasis is often quite funny. It’s a way to say something without saying it and a great way to “hang a lantern” on a situation. Politicians love it, especially when they make a silly mistake. (Or when they want to attack their opponent, of course.)

Verna: By now you’ve all heard the news, but don’t expect me to talk about that controversial tweet an intern accidentally sent last night. There’s no way I’m throwing MARK SMITH under the bus. We just have too much respect for our team, especially INTERN MARK SMITH, to bring up one tiny, if hilariously truthful, mistake about my opponent’s hatred of strong women. But I’m not going to talk about that.

“Hanging a lantern,” a kind of apophasis, is a term often used in an entertainment context to describe when someone breaks the fourth wall and acknowledges something like an inconsistency in the art or obvious insanity but without directly mentioning it. “Hanging a lantern” can definitely make you more likable to an audience.

For example, in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Basil “hangs a lantern” on the ridiculousness of the plot.

Austin: So, Basil, if I travel back to 1969 and I was frozen in 1967, presumably I could go back and look at my frozen self. But, if I’m still frozen in 1967, how could I have been unthawed in the nineties and traveled back to the—oh no, I’ve gone cross-eyed.
Basil: I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself. (Looking at the camera.) That goes for you all, too.

Rhetorically Basil builds the ethos of the film by indirectly pointing out to the audience that the filmmakers understand and share their concerns. Something like this wouldn’t work in a serious drama, but in a comedy setting it might turn a skeptical audience member into a diehard fan.

But rhetors giving a serious speech shouldn’t dismiss “hanging a lantern” on what might be an otherwise uncomfortable situation.

Esau: I didn’t come here to talk about my past, but about the future of our country.

And somehow (amazingly) “hanging a lantern” on your accomplishments through apophasis doesn’t sound overwhelmingly conceited when done with pizazz.

I’m not saying I’m responsible for this country’s longest run of uninterrupted peace in 35 years! I’m not saying that from the ashes of captivity, never has a phoenix metaphor been more personified! I’m not saying Uncle Sam can kick back on a lawn chair, sipping on an iced tea, because I haven’t come across anyone man enough to go toe to toe with me on my best day! It’s not about me.”
– Tony Stark (Iron Man 2)

I won’t say this post is great, but it did mention both Austin Powers and Iron Man. Just (not) sayin’.

Happy persuading!

[Figure Friday is a weekly series wherein I take a look at a new figure of speech and show you how to use it to your rhetorical advantage. And I’ll feature a new “Stick Figure of Speech.”]

[Figure Friday] Metonymy: The “Don’t Be Literal” Figure

Friends, Romans, countrymen…keep your ears. Just give me your attention.

Metonymy (meh-TAHN-uh-me) [trope] – Referring to a thing by a related concept.

EvanThe Patriots didn’t look so great in their first game. [Instead of individual players]
Vinney: All of them?
Evan: Well, not every single one. I was using metonymy.
Vinney: Watch your mouth! [Instead of language]
Evan: Exactly.

We use metonymy all the time. And we all have friends who think they’re funny by taking it literally:

Waiter: The quail is our finest dish. [Instead of entrée.]
Annoying friend: Are you sure? Dishes aren’t very tasty!
Waiter: How droll.

Don’t be that guy. This is definitely a figure not to take literally.

Also don’t confuse metonymy with metaphor. While metaphors try to show similarities between two concepts, metonyms don’t require any similarity at all.

The White House‘s ISIS strategy is still unclear. [Instead of President Obama]

When we refer to the actions of the president as coming from “the White House,” we’re not saying that Barack Obama looks like a building in Washington, DC.

Metonyms are most effective when they’re unexpected, since many of the common metonyms are now clichés. Try to be creative!

Why do we love bacon? Because science. [Instead of evolutionary biology & nutrition]

Just try to be more creative than me. Happy persuading!

[Figure Friday is a weekly series wherein I take a look at a new figure of speech and show you how to use it to your rhetorical advantage. And I’ll feature a new “Stick Figure of Speech.”]

Eulogy for Thomas

You’re worthy of what they say about you, grandpa. Even if you were never good at taking a compliment.

“A great man.”
“A man of integrity.”
“The greatest man I’ve ever known.”

You would shrug off such praise with pressed lips and scowl, a gentle shake of your head, and a raised hand.

A common thread, though, the word no one neglects in their praise is “MAN.” Because you were such a shining example. Certainly, you were the one who taught me what it meant.

You used to ask me a lot: “Would I lie!?” And my “of course” was as expected as my smile and laugh. Because the underlying question (“To me?”) I never had to ask. And you never had to answer, “Of course not.”

You had an answer for all my questions. Even if the answer was, “I don’t know.” That’s a profound thing for a boy to hear from someone who could engineer anything or debate any topic, from a man whose tales from around the world seemed wildly exotic compared to the corn and beans.

“Grandpa, what does ‘inconsequential’ mean?” I remember asking. I found a middle-schooler’s joy in testing your grammar, a man who bragged about never having gone to college. It wasn’t out of superiority but out of respect. Because you always knew. And you always knew *with style.*

“Inconsequential?” you said. “It doesn’t mean shit.”

You loved your family and expressed it how you could, usually through actions more than words—seldom with a kiss, sometimes with gifts, but more so with commitment. Through vacations to Florida and spur of the moment adoptions or road trips to monuments your kids were too young to appreciate—you committed yourself.

Even when it was hard, when the rest of us wanted anything but to stay, that’s exactly what you did.

You said to me once, during a particularly difficult week of hospital visits and late nights by grandma’s side, “When I say I’m going to do something, I do it. What else is there?” And you let out an exasperated exhale. Not a sigh. But preparation for a deep breath. “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”

To me, grandpa, you could not have been a sinner if that word has any real meaning. For whatever your transgressions you repented and repaid 1000 times over. With your commitment, your love, and the way you made everyone around you feel like a friend. Through endless stories about stealing cars, pulling a BB gun on a cop, Sgt. Major Leech, the Zebra Club in Okinawa, RV road trips, grandma freaking out in a dark cave, Florida alligators, bar fights, or Kraus the Mouse.

“Gratitude” doesn’t express how deeply I thank you for everything you’ve ever done and will still do for me. And yet you were somehow always content with a simple “thanks” or a hug or my own expression of love or, when I forget to express it, a mere wave goodbye. You deserved so much more from me and the world. You deserved so much more happiness and freedom and honesty and time, and I regret that I can give but a “thanks.”

But just a few months ago, when we sat on the porch at night telling and re-telling countless stories, you stopped and paused. And you said so clearly and without a hint of guilt: “I have no regrets, Danny. If I had to do it again, I would do everything the same way. I loved my life.”

There is no greater lesson for being a man. Or for living.

Thank you, grandpa. I love you. Semper Fi.

4 Ends of Discourse: Understand, Dream, Feel, Act

Preach, rhetors! Sing the praises of persuasion far and wide. Spread the eloquent word like George Campbell, Scottish minister and philosopher. His book, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, situated the art within the age of enlightenment, and helped transition rhetoric from the era of Aristotle into a modern context. Thanks, Pastor Campbell!

Among his sophisticated contributions to rhetoric, Campbell’s four ends of discourse are his most well known. What is the purpose of rhetoric? Campbell answers:

“All the ends of speaking are reducible to four; every speech being intended to enlighten the understanding, to please the imagination, to move the passions or to influence the will.”

In other words, discourse can move us to understand, dream, feel, or act.

Why is this important? Because the purpose of your discourse—what it can do and what you want it to do—should affect its form and flourish. It’s hard to get someone to act, for instance, if you’re using arguments better suited for understanding.

I already discussed some of these ends as they relate to your motivation to persuade, but let’s have a look at what they mean for content and style…

Continue reading

Not Everything Is an Argument

Rectangles on a blue background. An excellent demonstration of the shape tool in Photoshop. Yet this painting sells for hundreds of dollars. It may be fine decoration for a Nieman Marcus, but it’s not art.

Indignant Ian: How dare you, man! Who are you to say what is and isn’t art?

A thinking man, that’s who.

It’s a “habit” of mine to use my mind for the purposes of definition and categorization. You may not like my output, and I’m open to hearing your argument, but I’m willing, able, and ready to make a judgement call in this case. Those shapes aren’t art.

One thing I know for sure is that art is something. It’s not everything. (Then it would be nothing.) Art has characteristics, attributes, features. Art has a definition.

Likewise, something I hear all the time when I talk about rhetoric is that “everything is an argument.” ::sigh:: No, it’s not.

Your Wifi key is not an argument. The Florida Keyes are not an argument. Alicia Keyes is not an argument.  Arguments, like art, are something. I’ve covered what they are in previous posts, and I’ll continue to do so. But I want to take some time to discuss other kinds of discourse. What you can engage in if you’re not making an argument.

In composition studies, there are traditionally four categories of discourse:

  • Exposition
  • Description
  • Narration
  • Argument (not covered in this post)

Let’s look at the characteristics and distinguishing features of each:

Continue reading

The “Mere Rhetoric” Podcast

Mere Rhetoric podcastFor anyone interested in learning more about the practice of rhetoric, its history, or theories, check out the Mere Rhetoric podcast.

It’s hosted by Mary Hedengren. Each week she introduces a new rhetorical idea or influential rhetor. I always learn something new! (Yes, it’s possible.)

This week she covers one of my favorite concepts: Rhetorical Situations. And yours truly gets a shout out for suggesting the topic.

You can listen on the Mere Rhetoric website or through iTunes.

Dead Sopranos Can’t Sing: Arguments “From the Stronger”

If I can’t beat my grandpa at basketball, then I can’t beat LeBron James. Fact.

We hear this kind of argument a lot. It can be humorous, poignant, often compelling. It’s a favorite of lawyers and children and a great set up for Horatio Caine jokes.

It’s called argument a fortiori (ah-four-tee-OR-ee) or “argument from the stronger.” And it can be hours of rhetorical fun.

Here’s why…

Continue reading

Superlative Rhetoric: The first, best, only post you’ll EVER need to read. Period.

FrackNation v. Gasland 2: Showdown of the CenturyI learned a lot working with the FrackNation team. (Not the least of which is that there’s always time for margaritas.) But one of my favorite lessons came from writing press releases for director Phelim McAleer.

I drafted a release for some summer screenings and sent the text to Phelim for review. He responded:

“Not exciting enough.”

Not a lot to go on, but he got his point across. So I redrafted the release, added some “exciting” language, and sent it back. Phelim’s response:


Agitated but determined to get it right, I typed another draft, filling it with superlative and explosive rhetoric. It was over the top. When my Gmail notifier dinged it was Phelim with his signature pith:

“Good. Punch it up a bit and send.”

What did Phelim know that I didn’t? Something very important about rhetoric and human action: People need motivation. They don’t just want a reason to act. They want an overwhelmingly important reason to act.

They want controversy, intrigue, explosions, destruction, mayhem, wild and crazy good times, deep emotions, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, romance, passion, etc.

Here’s the final press release and what I learned from Phelim about superlative rhetoric:

Continue reading

Exordium: A Very Good Place to Start

How do I begin? That’s a troubling question for many rhetors. With the truck loads of content being produced on a second-to-second basis, there’s a certain anxiety to creating your own. It’s more than “blank page syndrome.” It’s wondering, “Why would someone want to listen to me? What could I say that would make them want to listen?”


Luckily for modern rhetors, classical rhetorical scholars can give us some important insights about attention grabbing and introductions. They even had a special name for this part of your discourse: exordium. Basically, it means “the beginning.” The great thinker and rhetor Cicero explained:

An exordium is an address bringing the mind of the hearer into a suitable state to receive the rest of the speech; and that will be effected if it has rendered him well disposed towards the speaker, attentive, and willing to receive information.

Cicero lays out three goals for the exordium: Make the audience attentive, open (“teachable”), and/or favorable. While these aren’t the exhaustive ends of a good introduction, they’re a good place to start.

Let’s have a look at each goal…

Continue reading

6 Ways to Invent an Argument

6 Ways to Invent an ArgumentLeonardo invented flying machines. Dyson invented vacuums. YOU, my rhetor friends, are inventors of argument—molding stats into piercing logic, transforming emotion into actionable appeals, forging years of experience into an armor of ethos.

Damn. You’re good.

But inventing an argument is tough work, and it can be difficult to know where to start. Every subject gives you so much raw material to work with! You might ask yourself:

  • What is the most important element of what I’m trying to argue?
  • What context does my audience need to “get” my argument?
  • How can I present the argument in an interesting or insightful manner?

These are big questions not easily answered (and not by any means exhaustive). They’re complex, intricate, delicate. One way to start thinking about argument invention is through one of Aristotle’s favorite tools: topoi, common topics or ways of thinking about arguments that apply to any subject.

I looked at the four most common topics in a previous post, but I wanted to give some screen time to the wider categories. (If Aristotle thought they were important, then who am I to disagree?) Topoi are particularly effective if you’re looking at a broad or abstract topic and trying to narrow your approach. So whittle away!

There are six categories of topoi: Definition, Division, Comparison, Relationship, Circumstance, and Testimony. Let’s look at how they might apply to the broad subject of environmentalism…

Continue reading

If I Only Had a Brain: The Straw Man Fallacy

It’s easier to fight a punching bag than it is to fight Anderson Silva. (Certainly less scary.) Yet if you dominated a punching bag it wouldn’t be fair (or rational) to claim that you won a fight with the MMA star.

It works the same way in rhetoric. But less blood. (Usually.)

Too often when we argue we “defeat” something that doesn’t exist. We take a weak, pathetic, offensive version of our opponents’ arguments, beat them up, and announce that we’re champions. It’s the logical fallacy of building a “straw man argument.” No belt for you!

The term “straw man” has an ambiguous origin, but the concept is simple. Imagine a soldier, for instance, setting up a scarecrow, stabbing it with a bayonet, then declaring victory over the enemy. Delusional. The straw man fallacy operates in a similar way during debate. It’s the presentation of your opponent’s argument as an unsubstantial or easy-to-defeat version of itself. It may “look” like the original argument, but all the meat is gone.

The straw man fallacy is an evasion of reality, taking one proposition and replacing it with something entirely different. In the end, the rhetorical effectiveness is suspect at best. An audience can usually tell if something seems too bad to be true.

Take this debate on education for example:

Continue reading

The Power of (Splitting) Dichotomies

A dichotomy is an equal split, taking a subject and saying, “There is THIS or THAT. The end.” Implied in the dichotomy is choice. Choose one side of the dichotomy or the other because choosing both would be a contradiction.

True dichotomies follow two criteria:

  1. Everything you’re discussing fits into EITHER one side of the dichotomy or the other.
  2. Nothing you’re discussing fits SIMULTANEOUSLY in both sides.

Violate either principle and you commit the logical fallacy of “false dichotomy.” Not cool.

For instance, if Joel claims that all food is either sweet or sour, he violates the first criterion since some food is bitter, savory, salty, etc. He also violates the second criterion because some food is both sweet and sour at the same time. BOO Joel.

Legit dichotomies can be rhetorically powerful as tools for framing debates. But the greatest power in dichotomy is breaking one. Let’s discuss:

Continue reading

The Importance of “Importance” in Visual Rhetoric

Tens of thousands of years before the invention of Photoshop, ink, or even paper, humans with whom you or I would have seemingly little in common cautiously entered what we now call Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche valley in Southern France. The picture above shows one of the hundreds of cave paintings from Chauvet—horses running with bison and rhinos. Radiocarbon dating estimates the origin of some of the oldest images around 30,000 B.C. with paintings developing over the next 5,000 years.

The Chauvet paintings demonstrate a remarkable understanding of compositional technique. Line, spacing, relationship, color, etc. I imagine the artist observing the ritual of animal migration and finding something fascinating, something important about the events. He or she took some “interest” in the animals. Enough, in fact, to create the painting.

The artist could not recreate the occurrence exactly as it happened. Even if he had the modern convenience of an iPhone camera, he still had to choose which part of the event to frame, how much to film, where to zoom, etc. He could only share the massive event by oral, aural, or visual “imaging.”

He had to recreate reality. Or not. Let’s discuss…

Continue reading

Dave Barry: Master of Paraprosdokian

Dave Barry: This is the look of a humor columnist.If you’re not already a fan of Dave Barry, just stop. Whatever it is you’re doing can wait. Dave Barry cannot.

Barry is a Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist formerly with the Miami Herald. Though semi-retired, you’ll have years of entertainment with his archive of columns—not to mention his books.

Barry also writes an annual “Year in Review.” It’s a hysterical and poignant look at recent history. What makes it particularly enjoyable is Barry’s unique use of paraprosdokian, the “Jack Handey” figure of speech where you subvert the audience’s expectations from the beginning of a sentence to the end. One gem:

“In legal affairs, the Supreme Court overturns the Defense of Marriage Act, eliciting high praise from many politicians who enacted the Defense of Marriage Act.”

Just a snippet of the greatness that is Dave Barry. The review is well worth your time. And by studying his technique, you’ll become a better rhetor. Happy persuading in the New Year!

I HEART Your Sweater; Here’s Why You’re Wrong

Does the guy you’re arguing with have nice teeth? Maybe he’s an outstanding orator or just deeply passionate about his views. Perhaps he owns a sweet Christmas sweater.

Tell him.

Acknowledge what you like, what the audience likes; emphasize the positive.

Too often in arguments, we focus on “winning” or dominating our opponents. We want to make them look bad because, by contrast, we look good. This stirs up feelings of anger and aggression or sometimes fear and hatred. It’s us vs them! Aside from having detrimental effects on your poise, this attitude can harm your ethos and make you an ineffective rhetor.

Remember: the goal of your rhetoric is not “to win” but, instead, to achieve a certain goal. If you can “lose” the argument but still accomplish that goal, then what does “winning” really get you?

Learning to be a better rhetor means recognizing what’s in your long-term self-interest. Making someone look bad might make you feel good in the moment, but it’s not an effective strategy for growing your ethos, the most precious currency in your rhetorical vault.

One of the most counter-intuitive but effective ways to boost ethos is by complimenting your opponent and your audience…and meaning it!

Here’s why and how:

Continue reading

“Pajama Boy” Has Us Talking But Not About Healthcare

Whether you think a man-boy in a onesie sipping cocoa is a good mascot for ObamaCare or not, the ad has a fundamental flaw that can’t be ignored.

Conservatives are bashing the ad for its absurdity. Liberals are defending it for being sweet and funny. But here’s the problem: No one is talking about getting health insure. They’re talking about “Pajama Boy.”

No matter how clever, interesting, or sweet you think your message is, don’t forget about the ultimate goal: To get people to adopt your position. Does this ad accomplish that goal?

Poise(d) to Persuade

Robert Benchley: “My good man, would you please get me a taxi?”
Uniformed Man: “I’m not a doorman. I’m an admiral in the United States Navy.”
Robert Benchley: “Alright then. Get me a battleship.”

I bet you rarely agree with people who cry when you ask them tough questions—or buy things from salesmen who wave their arms and scream at you. (Wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube men notwithstanding.)

But what about a politician who stands on his convictions, who fights for them with enthusiasm—or a salesman who knows everything about the product and exudes confidence? Sold!

When you’re giving any form of public talk, sales pitch, or even sharing an opinion with your friends, one factor that can make or break the outcome is how you manage your demeanor. Do you get angry easily? Do you speak softly with little conviction? Do you make eye contact?

It’s all a matter of poise, and it can affect your ethos for better or worse.

We often hear about poise as a single attribute. Either someone has it or they don’t. Like the flu. But upon reflection poise seems to be a more complicated concept. I’ve seen people “lose” their poise mid-speech, and I’ve seen people “gain” it after stumbling out of the gate.

So what exactly is poise?

Continue reading

At First Glance: Visual Rhetoric for Beginners

Visual Rhetoric for BeginnersPictures are powerful. Single images have defined generations and persuaded thousands of people to action. Yet even in the formal study of rhetoric there is comparatively little to say about visual persuasion.

Meanwhile pictures are getting bigger. Sometimes literally, in the case of social media and digital communities, but also in the sense of their importance. We see hundreds of persuasive images a day. Some we notice, most we don’t. A select few capture our attention and may even convince us to do something—buy a bike, exercise, donate to a cause, etc.

If we are to be better rhetors, we need to have at least a basic understanding of the principles of visual communication and persuasion.

Let’s have a look…

Continue reading

What Bill Belichick Can Teach Us About Rhetoric

He’s the most revered and most hated, most talked about and quietest coach in the NFL. And he’s a master of rhetoric.

Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, is the hoodied wonder. Sometimes literally cloaked in secrecy, he’s known for saying little to media and eschewing the public spotlight. Yet master rhetors can learn a lot by studying Belichick at work…on the football field.

Yes, his press tactics and curt eloquence are worthy of rhetorical study, but I want to look at something I call “The Belichick Process.” It has nothing to do with what Belichick says or wears and has everything to do with how he thinks.

Let’s kick this off:

Continue reading

Mack Truck of Rhetoric: How to “Be Persuaded”

“I can’t refute your arguments. You’ve refuted all of my mine. But I still disagree.”

I sat silently for a moment. Dropping my head a bit I stood up and walked out of my professor’s office. I turned back momentarily and asked, “If that’s the case, then what does it mean to be persuaded?” But he had no answer. And at that point, I didn’t either.

It was my last week of grad school, and the professor was someone I  admired. But his response bothered me. We had been arguing about a nerdy point of philosophy. By all measurements, I “won” the argument. He even conceded my points. Yet he wouldn’t agree with me. I thought about my rhetorical approach, my logic, all the things I learned in communication theory. Everything seemed to go as planned except my opponent’s reaction.

We have free will, of course, and my professor may have been purposely dodging the issue because he was tired, confused, or simply wanted me out of his office. Nonetheless, it got me thinking. I understood, well, the obligations of the rhetor, but what are the obligations of the audience? There is a lot written about the rhetorical situation. Is there a corresponding “situation” for audiences?

Bear with me while I conjecture…

Continue reading

Description v. Prescription: Why Texts Drive You Crazy

Everyone has received one of those texts. The kind that makes you tilt your head or curse. Does he really hate your new shoes? Was he teasing you? WHAT IS HE TRYING TO SAY?

Meaning and intention rarely coalesce in written communication, and the shorter the text, the more likely you’ll misunderstand. Perhaps you read a message as “angry” when the sender was being flirtatious. Or maybe you responded to your boss with a “LOL” when she wanted your two weeks’ notice.

The problem with short, written communication like text messages is that people usually confuse description and prescription.

The basic differences between the two kinds of communication are obvious. Description focuses on what is:

Darren: Your sweater is made of wool.

Prescription focuses on what should be:

Paula: All sweaters ought to be made of wool.

But look what happens when description is confused with prescription.

Darren [to his girlfriend]: You got a haircut.
Paula: You don’t like it?
Darren: I was just making an observation!
Paula: Sounded like a judgement to me…

Oy. We’ve all been in Darren’s place—and Paula’s. Being misunderstood is no fun. And that brings us to texting. Watch what happens here:

Pierre [text]: Yo. How RU?
Daphne [text]: Super tired.
Pierre [text]: U don’t want 2 talk? (confusing description with prescription)
Daphne [text]: No! U asked how I was… (now a bit angry from being misunderstood)
Pierre [text]: LOL (not perceiving the anger)
Daphne [text]: Whatever. G’night.

I admit the conversation is a bit contrived. (Who really says “How RU?”) But it demonstrates a common issue that people experience every day—especially as the use of instant messaging and texting increases.

When emotional cues are missing, it’s easy to confuse description and prescription. That’s because statements about facts are also statements about values—but in specific contexts. This is important to keep in mind. Not every factual statement is a value statement in every conversation. To a clothing designer, “That sweater is made of wool,” might be an indictment of their work, but to your girlfriend, it should stand as an observation.

Luckily we can avoid confusing description and prescription by following a few basic guidelines for communication:

Continue reading

The Hipster Topics

If you’re a regular reader, you know about the three genres of rhetoric: Judicial (past), Deliberative (future), and Ceremonial (present). And you know about the topics of argument common to all.

But you may not know that each genre of rhetoric has its own special topics. They’re the hipsters of rhetoric, the topics who were around before the other topics came along, and they apply only to their specific genre.

Really they’re not so much special as foundational—almost obvious. The special topics for each genre of rhetoric are:


– Justice / Injustice


–  Good / Unworthy
–  Advantageous / Disadvantageous


– Virtue / Vice

Every special topic is a dichotomy. That is, there are two paths for argumentation: positive and negative. Compromise or even finding a middle road is often a great way to defuse a hostile rhetorical situation. But keep in mind that it usually works best in deliberative rhetoric.

Once you know what genre of rhetoric you’re arguing in (or want to argue in) the central dispute will likely be related to that genre’s special topic(s). They’re at least a good place to start. That’s why special topics are important to know. And special!

Now let’s take a look at how to use them…

Continue reading

Kairos: Right Time, Right Place

It’s Friday night and Ellen is grabbing a drink with her coworkers before heading home. What a long week! Everyone is ready for some down time, some sleep, and a chance to clear their heads.

The relaxing effects of the booze kick in, and Ellen’s mind starts to wander. She doodles on the napkin while her coworkers chat and laugh. She smiles and looks down at her doodling hand. Suddenly she realizes her doodles are a coherent image—an idea to resolve a stubborn issue with the Stevenson account. It’s genius! She shoves the napkin in her pocket and interrupts her colleagues to share.

But they’re not as excited—their faces stone and demeanor stoic. Their cocktail glasses hang motionless in the air. Ellen is certain the idea is good, but she can’t seem to get through to them. They keep pointing out inconsequential “flaws” in her plan, almost pushing her away with irrelevancies. Defeated she sits back and finishes her drink before walking home.

What happened?

All of us have been in Ellen’s place, felt her frustration. It’s easy to get discouraged when you have an idea that seems clearly right and yet you fail to persuade. Will Ellen try again on Monday to convince her coworkers? Or will she drop the idea, defeated, thinking it must not be as great as she thought? What would you do?

Unfortunately, too many people abandon an argument prematurely or, conversely, doom their argument to failure unnecessarily by neglecting the rhetorical concept of kairos.

Kairos is

the right or opportune moment (the supreme moment).

Author  Eric Charles White described kairos more poetically as

“a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.”
Kaironomia: On the Will-to-Invent

The rhetorical concept of kairos refers to the ideal moment for rhetoric to occur. You may have a correct audience analysis and a killer argument, but if the time and place aren’t right, the odds turn against you.

Consider a swimming instructor peddling his craft in the middle of the desert. Or a psychic who wants to read palms at a Skeptics Convention. Extreme examples, yes, but now consider your own experience. Do you always persuade under ideal circumstances? Talking politics at work, meeting a potential client at a funeral, asking a girl out on the Metro—none are ideal.

Sometimes we have no choice about where we’re called to persuade by the rhetorical situation. But I conjecture that in more cases than not we do have some say about place and time. And it’s time to start caring!

Let’s look at the two major considerations for strong kairos: Setting & Timing.

Continue reading

[Figure Friday] Asyndeton: The Julius Caesar Figure


Asyndeton (uh-SIN-duh-ton) [scheme] – Removing conjunctions from a series to add emphasis.

I came, I saw, I conquered.
– Julius Caesar

To the delight of rhetoricians—and the dismay of grammarians—Caesar’s egocentric pronouncement made asyndeton (plural: asyndeta) famous and has become the quintessential example of this mostly poetic figure of speech. Way to go, Juli!

Asyndeton shuns the use of conjunctions in a series as burdensome and clumsy. And the longer the series the better!

“Anyway, like I was saying, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creoles, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That—that’s about it.”
– Bubba from “Forrest Gump”

This scheme changes the rhythm of your rhetoric, either slowing it way down to create solemn drama (like Caesar) or speeding it up to create a sense of urgency:

“An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was thick, warm, heavy, sluggish.”
– From “Heart of Darkness”

Use asyndeton sparingly. As with most figures, it can radically change the effectiveness of your discourse. (So know the rhetorical situation.) Imagine if Caesar had decided to use a conjunction:

“I came, saw, and conquered.”

Or worse, a few conjunctions:

“I came, and I saw, and I conquered.”

The horror, the horror.

Happy persuading!

[Figure Friday is a weekly series wherein I take a look at a new figure of speech and show you how to use it to your rhetorical advantage. And I’ll feature a new “Stick Figure of Speech.”]

What Are You Arguing About?

E-loquence: What Are You Arguing About?“What do you want from me?!” The battle cry of an exhausted rhetor. Whether it’s at work, the kitchen table, or in the bedroom, everyone has felt the frustration of not knowing what an argument is about. Is there anything else in the rhetorical world that makes you feel as helpless? (Aside from bad puns?)

Many times you and your opponent are arguing about different things, so it’s necessary, in order to have a successful debate, to identify the “sticking point” of an argument. What are you really arguing about? What should you be debating? How do you reconcile the difference?

The Greek rhetorician Hermagoras of Temnos theorized that all arguments have four possible sticking points (and scholars later added a fifth):

  1. Fact
  2. Definition
  3. Quality
  4. Jurisdiction
  5. Action

Hermagoras called each point a “stasis.” Cicero later organized the stases into a method for determining the point of dispute, and called the method “stasis theory.”

Knowing the central point of an argument largely depends on your goals and your audience’s context. Regardless it’s essential to uncover the central dispute if you want to successfully persuade. Let’s see how it plays out with an example argument. Suppose a passenger gets in a debate with a cab driver about the merits of Uber or Lyft

Continue reading

Concede to Win

Eloquence: Concede to WinWe’re all guilty of letting an argument get out of hand. Where values run deep, emotions run high. It happens. The Internet is lousy with methods for avoiding rhetorical rumbles. From meditation to yoga to breathing exercises to finding “your happy place” (Nick’s), it’s hard to fathom that you might need or want another method to keep tension down during a debate.

So here’s another one: Agree with your opponent.

If it sounds crazy, that’s because it is. Crazy effective. And unlike chi-oriented or mental methods, the concede technique will not only help you keep cool but also further your rhetorical goals. Two birds, one concession.

Remember that “winning” an argument is not a rhetor’s goal. And you can often achieve your goal while “losing” the argument. One of the fastest ways to achieve your goals is to let your opponents think they’ve won.

Here are three techniques for staying calm and conceding your way to victory:

Continue reading

[Figure Friday] Litotes: The Politician Figure

Litotes (LIE-tuh-teez) [trope] – Emphasis through understatement usually by using a double negative (but not always).

The litotes, as a figure of speech, is not unpersuasive. (See what I did there.) OK, so that’s a little contrived, but litotes can create a sense of familiarity and increase your ethos if used correctly. Probably the most common example:

That writer’s not bad. [Meaning: That writer is good.]

See. You were using litotes all this time and you didn’t know it. You’re a natural rhetor. Politicians, too, use litotes all the time, since it can  make it seem like you’re saying something when you’re not (or vice versa):

My opponent is not unfamiliar with special interests and lobbying.

Sen. Feinstein’s legislation is not unlike a dictator’s decree.

I’m glad to be here in Hoopeston, IL. This is no ordinary city.

As you can see with the final example, a double negative isn’t required to create litotes, but you have to be a tad clever.

One caution when using this figure: Don’t write like I did in the second paragraph. That is, don’t contrive the situation:

President Obama’s executive order is not untotalitarian.

That just doesn’t work, and it makes you seem unserious. Happy serious persuading!

[Figure Friday is a weekly series wherein I take a look at a new figure of speech and show you how to use it to your rhetorical advantage. And I’ll feature a new “Stick Figure of Speech.”]

The 4 Common Topics of Rhetoric

Stay on Topic! The common topics of rhetoric.Do you ever feel like you’re having the same arguments over and over again? It’s probably because you are.

Comment threads and forums are especially heinous offenders. Cull the subterrane of Internet commenting and you’ll discover the same arguments over and over and over … (You’ll also discover a bounty of racism, sexism, and every other nasty/weird -ism.)

But the careful rhetor will notice it’s not the content that repeats ad infinitum. The content seems limitless—from superhero disputes to political snarl to grammar wars to fashion skirmishes. What repeats are the lines of argument. Something caused something else. Someone is greater than someone else. Somewhere is unlike anywhere else. Etc.

These are what Aristotle called topoi or “topics.” They are ways to examine or present arguments that are common to any content. And for anyone finding it difficult to discover the most effective means of persuasion, they can be a real lifesaver.

There are 7 kinds of topics (with about 27 total) and 8 special topics (specific to genres of rhetoric). But these are the four most common:

  1. Possible/Impossible
  2. Greater/Lesser
  3. Past Fact
  4. Future Fact

Can you feel the excitement? (I can.) But let’s not stray off topic

Continue reading

[Figure Friday] Paraprosdokian: The Jack Handey Figure

Paraprosdokian (pair-uh-pros-DOH-key-an) [trope] – A sentence or phrase where the latter part causes the audience to rethink the former part.

Master the paraprosdokian figure and you’re well on your way to a career in comedy—as many jokes rely on this mostly-hilarious trope:

“If I could just say a few words… I’d be a better public speaker.”
– Homer Simpson

The power of this figure come from the unusual dis/connection between the two parts of the sentence. The more unusual (but clever) the dis/connect, the more effective the paraprosdokian will be:

“Let me know if you need help fixing that grill, so I can call someone.”
– Me (at a BBQ last weekend)

For readers old enough to remember, this is the figure that made “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey” famous:

“I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they’d never expect it.”
– Jack Handey

But it’s not all fun and games with the paraprosdokian. If you’re careful about the dis/connect, meaning it’s particularly clever, you can create a powerful figure for serious topics (especially if you like Eastern philosophy):

Happiness is the absence of striving for happiness.

Happiness is persuading!

[Figure Friday is a weekly series wherein I’ll take a look at a new figure of speech and show you how to use it to your rhetorical advantage. And I’ll feature a new “Stick Figure of Speech.”]

Know Yourself: 5 Goals of Persuasion

It has become a cliché that the first rule of rhetoric is “know your audience.”

That rule is !#@$.

OK, that’s a bit excessive. (I blame coffee.) The rule itself is fine—great, even. What I take issue with is the order of importance. Most rhetoricians are obsessed with audience analysis…and for good reason. Understanding your audience’s context is vital for being a successful rhetor.

But even more important is a rule that people don’t usually consider. And it should be the new cardinal rule of persuasion:

Know yourself.

Not only is knowing yourself essential for establishing genuine ethos (the most important rhetorical appeal), it’s also the foundation for the construction of every argument: What do you want to accomplish?

Sounds easy, right? Yet entering an argument without a clear goal is the most common mistake I see rhetors make across the board—from amateur to professional—and it only leads to frustration, anger, and name-calling. The Dark Side of the rhetorical Force.

Most people assume that “to win” is the goal of every argument. But what does it mean to win? And what if you could get what you want without “winning”? #CharlieSheenNotHappy

Before spending  energy in an argument, consider these broad rhetorical outcomes:

Continue reading

[Figure Friday] Anastrophe: The Yoda Figure

Anastrophe (uh-NASS-troh-fee) [scheme] – Rearrangement of the parts of a sentence or phrase that changes the proper or accepted word order.

Think of anastrophe as the Yoda Figure:

“Powerful you have become, the dark side I sense in you.”
– Yoda

How boring would Yoda be if he talked like the rest of us?

“You have become powerful; I sense the dark side in you.”
– NOda

The typical arrangement of an English sentence is subject –> verb –> object: Yoda eats hot dogs.

But apply the Yoda Figure and you end up with object –> subject –> verb: Hot dogs Yoda eats.

When using anastrophe arrange the sentence any way you want! Limited you are not by Yoda’s preferences. But make sure it’s still intelligible to your audience, unlike: Eats hot dogs Yoda. In this case verb –> object –> subject doesn’t really work unless you add a helping verb: Eats hot dogs Yoda does.

When to Use Anastrophe

The most common use of anastrophe would be in a rhetorical situation that calls for humor, especially levity:

A slick coif and white teeth do not a president make, Mr. Romney.

The “X does not a Y make” is a very common form of anastrophe. But, again, please experiment! You never know what creative arrangement will work best:

Does a president not have an obligation, Mr. Obama, to have never eaten a puppy?

Heard any great examples of anastrophe? Share them in the comment section below. Happy persuading!

[Figure Friday is a weekly series wherein I’ll take a look at a new figure of speech and show you how to use it to your rhetorical advantage. And I’ll feature a new “Stick Figure of Speech.”]

Figures of Speech: Speak Like a Master Rhetor

Do you have a way with words? Ever been told you can “turn a phrase”? Realize it or not you might be naturally adept at using figures of speech. You’re in good company. Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Homer Simpson: All masters of figures of speech. Join Twitter right now.

Broadly speaking a figure of speech is a word or phrase that, in context, is used metaphorically or non-literally. They can add flavor and memorability to your rhetoric and make you sound like Abe Lincoln in his prime. Invest in a top hat. Master figures and you master style.

Ancient rhetoricians and modern linguists have extensively cataloged these poetic flourishes. There are hundreds! But don’t start packing your Tweets, Facebook posts, or YouTube videos with all manners of lexical twists and turns. True, using figures can make you sound like a rhetorical genius, but the overuse of figures can make you sound like a pretentious jerk.

Let’s take a look at these stylistic gems:

Continue reading

An Introduction to Argument

Valid but not sound!No Candy Crush coating: Arguing is hard.

I don’t mean shouting down your opponent until he relents. I don’t mean repeating the same discredited point over and over again. I don’t mean name-calling or bringing up irrelevant facts. That’s what we accept as argument these days (especially on the Internet), but it’s all #ArgumentJunk.

Let’s define our terms.

Holding a gun to someone’s head and commanding them to empty their wallet is not an argument. Blackmailing someone is not an argument. Hypnotizing someone is not an argument. The use of force is never an argument.

A picture by itself is not an argument. Stats by themselves are not arguments. Emotions and feelings are not arguments. Disintegrated data are not arguments.

Telling your child to sit down is not an argument. A Biblical commandment is not an argument. An order from a drill sergeant is not an argument. Unsupported assertions are not arguments.

So what the heck is an argument?

Continue reading

The 5 Canons of Rhetoric (Boom)

Peanut butter and jelly. Gin and tonic. Talking heads and online videos. Some things are just made for each other. Other things…not so much. And unfortunately two things that don’t often correspond are well-constructed arguments and YouTube.

We’ve lost our culture of rhetoric—that is, we’ve lost the ability to reason well and eloquently. YouTube ranters are particularly heinous offenders, taking to the medium in droves with long-winded diatribes, semi-coherent arguments, and a penchant for personal attacks. There’s a lot of #ArgumentJunk. Stuff that mimics an argument but doesn’t really count.

Luckily this guy named Cicero developed a method for constructing arguments in 55 B.C. No one has topped him since, IMHO. So before you make your next YouTube video, consider these five steps (or “canons“) to build your argument:

Continue reading

The 3 Rhetorical Appeals

Ethos, Pathos, Logos: OneThink about the people you know and what it takes to convince them. (I’ll give you a moment. …) You probably know a guy who needs an argument spelled out step-by-step. And you definitely have a “tug-at-their-heartstrings” acquaintance. And you likely have a friend who will “take your word for it” because she trusts you.

You naturally approach these folks differently, probably without even realizing it, because you’re familiar with them. But if you take a moment to think about it (I’ll give you a moment …) I bet you can identify patterns. Aristotle did. He realized there are three primary appeals when you’re trying to persuade: Appeal to logic, appeal to emotion, and appeal to character—logos, pathos, and ethos respectively.

We use every rhetorical appeal in every argument, but knowing when to shift the emphasis of your argument appropriately—from emotion to logic or from logic to character—can be the difference between convincing or repulsing your audience.

Sometimes it also means knowing where your argument will thrive and where it won’t. Here’s some advice for using each appeal and a social network to hone your skills…

Continue reading

3 Genres of Rhetoric

Birds TweetingTwitter is the digital version of passive-aggressive Post-It notes left by your roommates—multiplied by 554 million. And it’s a lot of fun.

Are you dumping Ramen noodles down the drain? Someone is going to let you know. Forget to take the trash out? Shame on you! Hold an opinion that someone disagrees with? Be prepared for a 140 character rebuttal.

There’s clearly a lot to do on Twitter other than debate (hashtag games!), but to be a successful rhetor via Tweet—or anywhere, really—you must know the kind of rhetoric you’re participating in. The genre will help you determine the type of argument you should make and, in some cases, save you from an endless loop of #ArgumentJunk.

There are three genres of rhetoric:

Continue reading

4 Tips to Make Office Email Less Painful

Pacman EmailEmail often feels like a necessary evil—or an outright, unequivocal evil when using it for work.

OK, so maybe it’s not that bad. But most work email needs improvement, right? Here’s some advice for being a better communicator via electronic mail. (I’m talking to you, too, managers.)

The problem most people have when sending work email is they don’t anticipate what the person they’re talking to doesn’t know. Put differently: it’s hard to get out of our own heads. We know what we want (usually), and we know what we know (usually). But we’re not good at giving that information to other people because we assume they know what we know!

That assumption is wrong. And it can lead to frustrating strings of email asking for clarification and passive-aggressive responses. To avoid email Hell, include these four points in your office communiqué:

Continue reading

Am I Arguing with a Wall? Defining the Rhetorical Situation

Internet Argument by Flickr user fixedgearMy Facebook feed is filled with political commentary. My friends are my personal, 24-hour stream of punditry. (Bless their hearts.)

And if you’re like me there’s usually one post you can’t resist commenting on. You know the type. Maybe it’s purposefully incendiary. Maybe it’s just plain wrong. Maybe you’ve imbibed a few too many Mangrias, and the temptation is just too strong. Whatever the reason, we’ve all been there. And we’ve all experienced the joy and despair—though mostly despair—of arguing on Facebook.

My friends complain about it all the time. They tell me, “With some people, it’s like arguing with a brick wall!”

They’re exactly right. (And in most cases I prefer the wall.) But why?

Continue reading

3 Reasons You Should Care About Rhetoric

“For the genuine orator must have investigated and heard and read and discussed and handled and debated the whole of the contents of the life of mankind, inasmuch as that is the field of the orator’s activity, the subject matter of his study. […] And if we bestow fluency of speech on persons devoid of those virtues, we shall not have made orators of them but shall have put weapons in the hands of madmen.”
– Cicero

Rhetoric gets a bad rap nowadays but for a good reason. Few people know what it is…

Continue reading