We hear a lot about charm in pop culture. But what is it? For people looking to be more alluring and persuasive, I offer a rhetorical take on charm.
For 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.
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:
“What do you want from me?!” The battle cry of an exhausted rhetor. Whether it’s at work, the kitchen table, or in the bedroom, everyone has felt the frustration of not knowing what an argument is about. Is there anything else in the rhetorical world that makes you feel as helpless? (Aside from bad puns?)
Many times you and your opponent are arguing about different things, so it’s necessary, in order to have a successful debate, to identify the “sticking point” of an argument. What are you really arguing about? What should you be debating? How do you reconcile the difference?
The Greek rhetorician Hermagoras of Temnos theorized that all arguments have four possible sticking points (and scholars later added a fifth):
Hermagoras called each point a “stasis.” Cicero later organized the stases into a method for determining the point of dispute, and called the method “stasis theory.”
Knowing the central point of an argument largely depends on your goals and your audience’s context. Regardless it’s essential to uncover the central dispute if you want to successfully persuade. Let’s see how it plays out with an example argument. Suppose a passenger gets in a debate with a cab driver about the merits of Uber or Lyft…
We’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:
Comment threads and forums are especially heinous offenders. Cull the subterrane of Internet commenting and you’ll discover the same arguments over and over and over … (You’ll also discover a bounty of racism, sexism, and every other nasty/weird -ism.)
But the careful rhetor will notice it’s not the content that repeats ad infinitum. The content seems limitless—from superhero disputes to political snarl to grammar wars to fashion skirmishes. What repeats are the lines of argument. Something caused something else. Someone is greater than someone else. Somewhere is unlike anywhere else. Etc.
These are what Aristotle called topoi or “topics.” They are ways to examine or present arguments that are common to any content. And for anyone finding it difficult to discover the most effective means of persuasion, they can be a real lifesaver.
There are 7 kinds of topics (with about 27 total) and 8 special topics (specific to genres of rhetoric). But these are the four most common:
- Past Fact
- Future Fact
Can you feel the excitement? (I can.) But let’s not stray off topic…
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:
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.”
How boring would Yoda be if he talked like the rest of us?
“You have become powerful; I sense the dark side in you.”
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.”]
Do you have a way with words? Ever been told you can “turn a phrase”? Realize it or not you might be naturally adept at using figures of speech. You’re in good company. Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Homer Simpson: All masters of figures of speech. Join Twitter right now.
Broadly speaking a figure of speech is a word or phrase that, in context, is used metaphorically or non-literally. They can add flavor and memorability to your rhetoric and make you sound like Abe Lincoln in his prime. Invest in a top hat. Master figures and you master style.
Ancient rhetoricians and modern linguists have extensively cataloged these poetic flourishes. There are hundreds! But don’t start packing your Tweets, Facebook posts, or YouTube videos with all manners of lexical twists and turns. True, using figures can make you sound like a rhetorical genius, but the overuse of figures can make you sound like a pretentious jerk.
Let’s take a look at these stylistic gems:
No Candy Crush coating: Arguing is hard.
I don’t mean shouting down your opponent until he relents. I don’t mean repeating the same discredited point over and over again. I don’t mean name-calling or bringing up irrelevant facts. That’s what we accept as argument these days (especially on the Internet), but it’s all #ArgumentJunk.
Let’s define our terms.
Holding a gun to someone’s head and commanding them to empty their wallet is not an argument. Blackmailing someone is not an argument. Hypnotizing someone is not an argument. The use of force is never an argument.
A picture by itself is not an argument. Stats by themselves are not arguments. Emotions and feelings are not arguments. Disintegrated data are not arguments.
Telling your child to sit down is not an argument. A Biblical commandment is not an argument. An order from a drill sergeant is not an argument. Unsupported assertions are not arguments.
So what the heck is an argument?
Peanut butter and jelly. Gin and tonic. Talking heads and online videos. Some things are just made for each other. Other things…not so much. And unfortunately two things that don’t often correspond are well-constructed arguments and YouTube.
We’ve lost our culture of rhetoric—that is, we’ve lost the ability to reason well and eloquently. YouTube ranters are particularly heinous offenders, taking to the medium in droves with long-winded diatribes, semi-coherent arguments, and a penchant for personal attacks. There’s a lot of #ArgumentJunk. Stuff that mimics an argument but doesn’t really count.
Luckily this guy named Cicero developed a method for constructing arguments in 55 B.C. No one has topped him since, IMHO. So before you make your next YouTube video, consider these five steps (or “canons“) to build your argument:
Think about the people you know and what it takes to convince them. (I’ll give you a moment. …) You probably know a guy who needs an argument spelled out step-by-step. And you definitely have a “tug-at-their-heartstrings” acquaintance. And you likely have a friend who will “take your word for it” because she trusts you.
You naturally approach these folks differently, probably without even realizing it, because you’re familiar with them. But if you take a moment to think about it (I’ll give you a moment …) I bet you can identify patterns. Aristotle did. He realized there are three primary appeals when you’re trying to persuade: Appeal to logic, appeal to emotion, and appeal to character—logos, pathos, and ethos respectively.
We use every rhetorical appeal in every argument, but knowing when to shift the emphasis of your argument appropriately—from emotion to logic or from logic to character—can be the difference between convincing or repulsing your audience.
Sometimes it also means knowing where your argument will thrive and where it won’t. Here’s some advice for using each appeal and a social network to hone your skills…
Are you dumping Ramen noodles down the drain? Someone is going to let you know. Forget to take the trash out? Shame on you! Hold an opinion that someone disagrees with? Be prepared for a 140 character rebuttal.
There’s clearly a lot to do on Twitter other than debate (hashtag games!), but to be a successful rhetor via Tweet—or anywhere, really—you must know the kind of rhetoric you’re participating in. The genre will help you determine the type of argument you should make and, in some cases, save you from an endless loop of #ArgumentJunk.
There are three genres of rhetoric:
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?
“For the genuine orator must have investigated and heard and read and discussed and handled and debated the whole of the contents of the life of mankind, inasmuch as that is the field of the orator’s activity, the subject matter of his study. […] And if we bestow fluency of speech on persons devoid of those virtues, we shall not have made orators of them but shall have put weapons in the hands of madmen.”
Rhetoric gets a bad rap nowadays but for a good reason. Few people know what it is…