RHETORIC (OVERVIEW)

“RHETORIC, WHICH IS THE USE OF LANGUAGE TO INFORM OR PERSUADE, IS VERY IMPORTANT IN SHAPING PUBLIC OPINION. WE ARE VERY EASILY FOOLED BY LANGUAGE AND HOW IT IS USED BY OTHERS.”
-RAY COMFORT

WHAT IS RHETORIC?

Rhetoric, as Aristotle once put it, is the “available means of persuasion.” Broadly defined, rhetoric is the collective communicative elements that affect the way people perceive or understand something as a result of the way it was communicated to them.

If that all sounds like a bunch of gibberish, think of it this way: rhetoric is the combination of the words, fonts, layouts, colors, designs, organizational strategies, sentence structures, photographs, and so forth that you use to make someone think a certain way.

Consider a Diet Coke advertisement featuring Taylor Swift. The Coca Cola Company has strategically chosen several communicative elements with the hopes of persuading you, their target audience, to buy their product. In this particular ad, the rhetorical devices chosen include their logo, a couple different fonts, an image of Taylor Swift (including the clothes she is wearing and the position in which Swift is positioned), a catch phrase (“the perfect duet”), the concept of lyric writing, the colors red, black, gray, and white, along with many other things.

The rhetorical elements in this ad collectively communicate a message to intended (or even unintended) audiences. The rhetorical elements may communicate to some viewers “Coke is sexy” or “Coke is good for creativity” or “Coke protects your body image,” or “Coke is endorsed by famous people, so you should love it, too.” Whatever is interpreted will change depending on the viewer and it’s certainly possible that the rhetorical choices made for the ad will actually dissuade people from purchasing Diet Coke. If, for example, you can’t stand Taylor Swift or if you have some personal issue or offense to her lyrics or lifestyle, then this ad won’t work for you–it may even turn you away from Coke. Regardless, the point is that “rhetoric,” as an idea, is about communication. It’s about making choices that will affect the way people interpret messages.

WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT RHETORIC?

If the description above about the Taylor Swift ad didn’t persuade you that you ought to know a thing or two about rhetoric, think about this: we communicate every day, almost incessantly. If we’re talking to people, our facial movements affect the way they interpret our mood or our intentions. The tone of our voice, word choice, and body movements all impact their interpretation. Shoot, even the way we dress can affect the way a person thinks about us (so many unintended assumptions are made about how a person looks, from their age to their culture to their level of concern about professionalism).

We write emails, we send letters, we design reports and PowerPoints, we make phone calls. At any point where we are communicating, we are making rhetorical choices that affect how people will interpret our message. The more you understand about rhetoric, the more you will be able to control messaging and persuade people. Rhetoric is not just about cheap advertising tactics (though rhetoric does include this as well); rhetoric is important in nearly every walk of life: in teaching; in parenting; in politics; in negotiation; in business; in friend-making; in relationships; in, well, functioning in society. Whether you know it or not, you’re always using rhetoric and you’re always affected by it. The more you know, the better off you’ll be.

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT RHETORIC?

Rhetoric can be as simple or as complicated a topic as you wish to make it. Obviously, the more you know, the more informed you will be about not only how you are communicating to other people, but how they are communicating to you and how you are affected by it. Truth is, you can get doctorate degrees in the field of rhetoric and there are, literally, thousands of books that cover the topic. For most people, that’s too much to worry about, though. But having a fundamental understanding of how rhetoric works in various areas of communication is critically important. Consider a few different ways we communicate: orally (face-to-face or in a presentation); visually (when we design stuff, take pictures, or even choose fonts); textually (in the way we write and craft messages); non-verbally (with body movements, etc.); and so forth. Often, you’ll use all of these forms of communication at once.

But while you could read for a lifetime about rhetoric, there are a few recommended areas to study and learn:

  • The Appeals (also known as the “rhetorical triangle,” the Appeals identify three basic ways in which people are persuaded or “appealed” to);
  • The Branches of Oratory (how to persuade, dissuade, defend, praise, or blame);
  • The Five Canons (how to effectively assemble a message, particularly in regards to oral presentation);
  • The Figures of Speech (idioms, puns, metaphors, personification, and so forth);
  • The Rhetorical Devices (similar to the figures of speech, but a more exhaustive list of the ways to use language to make an impact);
  • The Logical Fallacies (mistakes made when attempting to be persuasive by using gaps in logic);
  • The Rhetorical Criticisms (ways to review communicative elements that shape messaging);
  • The Elements of Visual Rhetoric (which may be simplified into what we now call “information design,” or the visualization of information).