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Anyone who’s done public speaking will have likely heard the term "rhetoric," or the ability to speak or write persuasively, usually used in debates or arguments. Professional rhetoricians are well versed in all of the available methods to persuade.
Most of us aren’t professionals, but knowledge of rhetorical strategies can still help with presenting a topic, whether in a classroom or a business meeting.
There are three basic points to consider before forming arguments, and those are to know your audience, know your topic, and the words you may prefer to use.
Before doing anything, you need to know who you’re speaking to. Different audiences will require different vocabulary and different methods of speaking. A group of scholars is likely going to be looking for different words than a group of businessmen.
As an example, let’s say the person you’re speaking to is a friend. Here, you’d be free to use more familiar language than if you were speaking to strangers.
Next would be to think about what this particular friend is like. If he’s a pretty sensitive guy, appealing to his emotions might work better; if he’s skeptical, using logic and credibility is more likely to bring him to your side.
Figuring out what makes your audience tick is relatively simple when focusing on just one person, especially if that person is someone you know well. You’ll have to think a little more broadly and make a few more generalities when talking to larger groups.
One way to do this is to create an audience persona. Simply speaking, this is a sketch of the speculated core members of your audience, used to help understand how people think.
For example, to create a profile of your typical audience member, you can ask yourself any of the following questions:
Unsurprisingly, different topics will naturally lend themselves to different types of arguments. If you’re giving a presentation on statistics, you’re likely to focus more on logical aspects than you would if you were giving a presentation on abstract art. This doesn’t mean to ignore other types of argument, just to know what your subject may be more inclined towards.
What’s more important is to be as informed as possible on your chosen topic. While this may seem like common sense, it’s important to know your subject in enough depth so that you can be prepared for counterarguments. This usually involves learning about views that may oppose yours.
Say, for example, you’re discussing the rather hot-button topic of abortion. You’d want to look at the arguments for the other side—why people either are for or against the subject—as well as arguments for your own belief before creating your argument, or else you risk being stymied by powerful arguments from opposition.
Try to consider what your audience may ask. This functions much like creating an audience persona, as it allows you to prepare for answers ahead of time. Create a few questions that seem most likely to be asked--or get a friend to help by having them ask questions--and write down some potential answers to practice.
Word choice is stressed by professors and writers alike as incredibly important, and with due reason. Different words carry with them different weight, and so may affect audiences in different ways. While this relates very strongly to the previous two points, it is also important to consider the topic alone.
In rhetoric, there are considered to be two main types of language: connotative language and denotative language. Connotative language is generally more symbolic and encompasses the emotional meanings behind words. An example would be to call someone who expresses extreme empathy a “bleeding heart.” The phrase carries somewhat derogatory connotations, as it implies that the individual is easily moved to any cause that stirs their sympathy.
Denotative language focuses more on logic and appeals to an audience’s knowledge rather than their emotions. Examples of denotative language include such statements as “the facts state” and “as you know.” Denotative language usually revolves more around the textbook definition of a word, rather than what an audience might associate with it.
There are many words that have different connotative and denotative meanings. The word “shrewd” by a dictionary definition means “clever,” but carries with it a negative connotation. Likewise, the word “gay” originally meant “happy,” but modern audiences would latch onto the connotative meaning of “homosexuality.”
Connotative language likely differs between audiences, so this acts as another aspect of “knowing your audience.” For example, one audience may associate “liberal” with something negative, while another may associate the word with something positive. Keeping certain trigger words—or the connotative words that will produce an extreme reaction—in mind will help you understand what words to avoid or use for different audiences.
Even words like pronouns can have a profound effect. For example, using “I” less often expresses confidence, as the speaker seems to feel less need to refer to him- or herself to prove a point. Conversely, using “I” more often makes an individual seem more open, since the speaker is perceived as expressing deeply-held personal opinions. For further reading on this subject, check out James W. Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns.
Once you have these three elements in mind, it’s time to decide how to make your argument. There are three different rhetorical appeals—or methods of argument—that you can take to persuade an audience: logos, ethos, and pathos.
Logos is most simply known as an argument from logic. In essence, you’re taking a subject and giving the reasons why a certain position is positive or negative from the point of view of the facts.
Arguments from logic aren’t necessarily restricted to the subjects you’d expect, such as math or science, but can appear just as easily in such subjects as morality or public relations. Environmental concerns use this method quite frequently when they compare energy-efficient methods like solar power with fossil fuels.
Take an example from the movie Captain America: Civil War. While many methods are applied throughout to debate whether or not to sign the Sokovia Accords, logos is used when the heroes are reminded that, whatever their intent, collateral damage was caused and, therefore, some measure of control should likely be exercised over the group. The character Vision uses it specifically when relating the increase of gifted individuals to increased damage (see video above).
Let’s take a scenario and examine how you might argue it from a logical perspective. You are discussing a book series with your friend and wish to convince him that the stories have merit. To argue from logos, you might start by giving him statistics on how many books have sold and then point out the lingering popularity in pop culture. If a story has managed to stick around so long in the public mind, there has to be something in it that people find interesting, and that might be enough of a reason to take a look.
Ethos is, like the name suggests, an argument from ethics. Generally speaking, making an argument from ethos requires showing you have good will for your audience, though it can also mean that you’re using your own credibility to show why you have authority to speak on a topic.
Arguments from ethos pop up all the time with political campaigns. For example, in one of the Republican political debates in 2015, Senator Rubio states, “I’m not new to the political process; I was making a contribution as the speaker of the third largest and most diverse state in the country well before I even got into the Senate.” Here, Rubio is using his previous experience to help support his bid for the presidential candidacy.
Arguing from ethos is likely something you’re already familiar with through job applications. When writing cover letters, people often include their qualifications, trying to convince potential employers that they should receive a job through prior experience and their enthusiasm for the job. You’ve probably also been subject to this sort of argument, especially in the variety of movie commercials that state, “Critics are calling it the best movie of the year.”
Let’s take the same scenario mentioned under logos and argue it using ethos. You would probably start by reminding your friend of the times you’ve been right about similar topics, such as movie suggestions your friend later enjoyed. Maybe you’d add something like the rhetorical question, “Would I lie to you about this?”
Perhaps you’ve read a lot of books. Remember that ethos is also your authority to speak on a subject. Having read widely shows your knowledge of the book market in general, even if not all of the books have been enjoyable. Perhaps you are an actual authority on this subject—an author, an English professor, or something of the like. In an argument from ethos, this is the time to invoke that authority.
Another strategy would be to draw on the ethos of others to help support your claim. This is something often seen in research, such as a paper citing experts on a subject to help prove a point. To put this into the context of the proposed scenario, you could show your friend reviews from professional critics.
Pathos, the last form of argument, is argument from emotions. Here, rhetoricians appeal to the audience’s emotions and try to elicit a response from them to win them over.
In the modern day, pathos tends to get the short end of the stick; basing arguments on emotions is usually believed to make the argument flimsy and less credible. However, emotions are powerful motivators and are incredibly useful in convincing others to see a subject from your point of view.
President Obama’s speeches supply some examples of pathos. Take this example from his speech on Syria in 2013:
“The images from this massacre are sickening: Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas.”
The words have a heavy emotional impact. “Sickening” primes the listener to expect something horrible and repulsive, and then mentioning the people killed—especially children, who are usually seen as innocent—creates the automatic emotional reaction that this is wrong.
This is, of course, a rather brutal example, and not all appeals to pathos have to be so reliant on extracting negative reactions in the audience. A friendlier example would be appealing to an audience’s sense of community.
You’ve likely seen pathos arguments used quite a bit in movies. The “You burn with us” scene from Mockingjay: Part One is an example of a scene based almost entirely on pathos.
Let’s take the scenario examined under the previous two methods and examine it through pathos. A way to start might be to explain the emotions the stories evoked in you.
For example, you might call the works “action-packed” or “moving,” two popular pathos buzzwords. If you are truly enthusiastic about the series, this is the point where you would most likely want to allow that enthusiasm to overflow.
The best method for argument, generally speaking, isn’t just one of these but a combination of all three. It’s up to the individual to decide what combination to use.
These are just the basics; there are many more rhetorical topics, and even the ones mentioned can be explored in greater depth. However, mastering the basics will start you on the way to giving more persuasive presentations, and from there you can learn what methods work best for you.