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:
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:
Do you want to change your audience’s mind?
Do you want to speak to your audience’s emotions?
Do you want to get your audience to act?
Do you want to show off your rhetorical muscles?
Do you want to accomplish … nothing?
A complex argument may employ several or all of these outcomes in a single speech / article / paper, etc. But simpler arguments, at a bar or office or gym, usually hinge on one kind of outcome. Take this political argument at a coffee shop between strangers for example:
Eugene: What do you think about all this fracking in Ohio?
Vlad: I’m all for it. The more energy the better.
Eugene: But what about the flaming faucets?
Here Vlad needs to decide what he wants to accomplish:
1. Accomplish nothing.
This is the easiest outcome to explain, but a legitimate outcome for consideration. In many instances, it’s not worth your time or effort to engage in debate. And sometimes the rhetorical situation makes it impossible. Don’t underestimate choosing to accomplish nothing. It might save you a lot of time and hassle.
If Vlad wants to finish his coffee and leave, completely uninterested in changing Eugene’s mind, emotions, or choices, he might say:
Vlad: From what I’ve read, those aren’t as big of concerns as the media makes them out to be. Are you enjoying that Frappuccino? Looks delicious.
Vlad’s response is polite, demonstrates disagreement, but also indicates no desire to continue into a debate. Or he could stare blankly and walk away.
2. Change your audience’s mind.
But if Vlad wanted to start a serious discussion, one where he wanted to change the mind of his new coffee talk buddy, he might say:
Vlad: I’m not too worried. People were able to light their water in the United States for decades before fracking was invented. There’s that much natural gas in the ground! We’re incredibly lucky to have such abundant resources. Don’t you think?
Vlad’s reply works toward his goal in two ways. It presents a counter example for the original concern and puts forth a positive claim for his case. If your goal is to change someone’s mind, then you have to construct a strong appeal to logos. Give your audience facts they may not have considered. Give them reasons for believing other than they do.
3. Move your audience emotionally.
But what if Eugene revealed a deeper ideology instead of purely factual concern? What if his arguments were more emotionally driven?
Eugene: Abundant resources? You mean more dirty fossil fuels!? We’re destroying the planet, man. And the capitalist-industrial-complex is just trying to put profits before people.
With this context, the rhetorical situation changes. Vlad may not be willing to engage in the necessary debate to convince Eugene. (Or Eugene might not be a persuadable audience!) Instead of getting bogged down in a quagmire of #ArgumentJunk, Vlad might choose, instead, to give a more emotional, positive response that plants a seed of emotional doubt in his opponent:
Vlad: Well, it sounds like you already made up your mind on this issue, but before you condemn so swiftly consider that fossil fuels have made human life all the world cleaner, healthier, and longer. Places where there is no industry or energy production are some of the dirtiest, environmentally destructive locations on the planet. Tens of thousands of people die every year because they don’t have access to electricity produced by fossil fuels. Industry can’t be all bad, right? Enjoying your mocha?
Notice that Vlad is speaking to emotional issues that will likely resonate with his opponent: human suffering, environment, health, etc. Remember that changing someone’s emotional response to anything does not happen immediately, and usually, coffee shop debates are not the place to try.
4. Get your audience to act.
But if changing someone’s emotions seems difficult, try getting them to take action. In the rhetorical situation given, it won’t be possible for Vlad to convince Eugene to take an “extreme” action like join a pro-fracking group or sign a petition to open the Monterey Shale for fracking. Vlad, instead, should focus on the smallest action with the largest potential consequence. For example:
Vlad: You sound passionate about the topic. Can I suggest a movie for you? It really changed the way I think about fracking and energy production. It’s a documentary called FrackNation. It was crowdsourced, and they even rejected money from oil and gas companies. If you want to hear all sides of the debate and see an entertaining film, then I recommend it. Will you check it out?
Granted, even this action might be too much for Eugene to handle, but it’s an example I’m partial to. Notice that Vlad ends by asking Eugene directly, “Will you check it out?” In polite debate opponents usually want to look reasonable, and these sorts of requests will almost always get a positive response. Whether or not there’s follow up…it’s hard to know.
5. Show off.
Vlad might also choose to forgo debate and just score some rhetorical points (for his own ego or a surrounding audience, perhaps):
Vlad: OK, tree-hugger, keep putting puppies before people and see where society ends up. Recycling and wearing hemp clothes do not an environmentalist make. Not if you care about the human environment. Enjoy your corporate latte.
I don’t advocate this tactic (though I always advocate for using figures of speech). It’s not productive or worth your time just to be creatively mean to a stranger or even to practice argument on a non-audience.
But despite my aversion, I understand that some people enjoy rhetorical jousting as such—especially in the realm of politics. If it’s your “thing,” have at it. But make the choice. (I’m talking to you, Internet commenters.)
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The point of this post is not to give an exhaustive list of possible motives for debate or to provide every kind of response. I’m no Aristotle. I want to encourage you to consider and decide your goals for an argument before you engage. Look at whether or not you can accomplish them without driving yourself rhetorically insane. Doing so will make you a happier, better rhetor.
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Photo by Just Ard. Check out more of his work at http://JustArd.com.