Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Digital Strategist. Rhetorician. All Around Swell Guy.

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:

Showdown of the Century!

A documentary battle is set to erupt this summer as rival fracking documentaries will screen in towns and cities across America on the same nights.

FrackNation, a controversial “pro-fracking” film, will face off against Gasland 2, Josh Fox’s sequel to his anti-fracking documentary.

“The support in Boulder on May 22 was overwhelming and amazing,” said McAleer. “Concerned groups invited me to screen FrackNation as a counter to a Gasland 2 screening. With only three days notice, they packed the house with 170 enthusiastic residents. Standing room only. People are clamoring for the truth.”

Sparks are sure to fly!    [emphasis added]

Superlative rhetoric works. Not only did people attend these “battles,” but local media was eager to interview us to discuss the tension. Some venues sent police(!) to make sure fights didn’t break out. (None did.)

Phelim is a master of superlative rhetoric. He understands human motivations and communicates accordingly. All rhetors should take note.

When you’re thinking about your argument, consider the kinds of things your audience might require to act. Whether you’re selling a product, getting people to attend an event, or trying to convince people of a position, most audiences have tipping points for action. Think in terms of superlatives:

  • This phone is the first to outperform the iPhone.
  • Only subscribers to our email list get the discount.
  • Sign up here for the best newsletter on the web!
  • This is a must-see film.
  • We guarantee you’ll never attend a louder concert.
  • Laisezz-faire is the most moral politico-economic system.

Principle: Creating urgency encourages action. When people feel like something is overwhelmingly important or that they might miss out, then they tend to do something about it.

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Of course some arguments require more nuance and subtlety. Rhetoric is contextual. Know your argument, know your audience, and act now to become a better rhetor.

Happy persuading!