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.
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.
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.
Where will be the most appropriate physical space for your rhetoric to be successful? This was the first problem that Ellen encountered. The context of a bar is not the right place to present a professional idea. The context is too relaxed, and the audience isn’t in the mindset of work. While it’s certainly possible to have productive, professional meetings in a bar setting, the likelihood that you’re going to persuade your audience is lower—especially if you don’t determine the venue ahead of time.
It’s likely that Ellen would’ve been more successful if she had waited to present her ideas on Monday at a staff meeting. Or if she had sent an email to their work addresses. In these contexts, her coworkers are ready to receive professional ideas. They don’t have to switch their minds to a different mode.
Neuromarketers, especially, have spent considerable time analyzing the right physical space for persuasion. Researchers note, for instance, that if you’re trying to increase charitable giving you should ask for money in place with mirrors. People are more likely to give money if they can see themselves.
There is an element of ethos here, too. Ellen herself might seem disrespectful or just generally “bad” for talking about work when her coworkers are thinking about everything but.
Even if you remove the bar setting and replace it with something much more neutral, Ellen would likely not persuade successfully. It’s the end of the week. She and her coworkers are tired and stressed. They need a recharge, and they’re not very interested in talking about work issues. When people aren’t interested in hearing arguments or aren’t interested in the topic you’re discussing, they’re more likely to be hostile. This means they’re going to find flaws in your argument that may not be actual flaws. They’re just looking for ways to dismiss you. They want to get on with what they were doing.
It’s crucial that your audience is in the right frame of mind to receive your argument. Again, this correlates with ethos. You seem inconsiderate or rude if your argument occurs when your audience doesn’t expect it or if your argument seems out of place. Even if Ellen wanted to present her ideas in a more social context, she would likely be much more successful if she did so at the beginning of the week or maybe before work at breakfast.
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Like many elements of rhetoric, the application of kairos to your argument can get complex. This is a mere introduction. Setting alone could take up a few books. We’ll dive further into the topic as the blog progresses. For now, be conscientious about your kairos, and make purposeful choices about setting and timing. That’ll make you a better rhetor.