Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Innovative Strategist & Digital Expert

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…

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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.

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:

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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…

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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.

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[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.”]

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:

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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:

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[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.”]

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?

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