I 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:
“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?