Category: Rhetoric

Original iPad

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…

[Figure Friday] Apophasis: The "Lantern" Figure

[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.”]

Stick Figure of Speech: Metonymy: The "Don't Be Literal" Figure

[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 Anthony Richards | AKA "Grandpa"

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.

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

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…

Not Everything Is an Argument

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:

The "Mere Rhetoric" Podcast

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"

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…

FrackNation Facebook 2014

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:

“*yawn*”

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:

Exordium: A Very Good Place to Start

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?”

::sigh::

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…

6 Ways to Invent an Argument

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…

If I Only Had a Brain: The Straw Man Fallacy

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:

The Power of (Splitting) Dichotomies

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:

The Importance of “Importance” in Visual Rhetoric

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…

Dave Barry: Master of Paraprosdokian

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

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:

"Pajama Boy" Has Us Talking But Not About Healthcare

“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

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?

At First Glance: Visual Rhetoric for Beginners

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…

What Bill Belichick Can Teach Us About Rhetoric

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:

Mack Truck of Rhetoric

Mack Truck of Rhetoric: How to “Be Persuaded”

“I can’t refute your arguments. You’ve refuted all of 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…

Description v. Prescription: Why Texts Drive You Crazy

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:

The Hipster Topics: Special or Foundational?

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:

Judicial

– Justice / Injustice

Deliberative

–  Good / Unworthy
–  Advantageous / Disadvantageous

Ceremonial

– 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…

Kairos: Right Time, Right Place

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.

Julius Caesar Stick Figure of Speech

[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?

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

Concede to Win

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:

Politician Stick Figure of Speech: Litotes

[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

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

Comic Stick Figure of Speech: Paraprosdokian

[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

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:

Yoda Stick Figure of Speech: Anastrophe

[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.”]

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:

An Introduction to Argument

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?

The 5 Canons of Rhetoric

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:

The 3 Rhetorical Appeals

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…

3 Genres of Rhetoric

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:

4 Tips to Make Office Email Less Painful

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:

Am I Arguing with a Wall? Defining the Rhetorical Situation

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?

3 Reasons You Should Care About Rhetoric

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…