Rhetoric: Words that Change Hearts and Minds
This is not a comprehensive guide to rhetoric; it is, however, a good place to start for nonprofits posting on Facebook, social media at large and blogs. We cover some basic structures, theories and techniques that are specifically useful for targeting people using these channels.
Before we get started…
A Note on Writing Well
“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
~William Zinsser, On Writing Well
Nowhere is the above statement truer than on social media. People are extremely busy and are constantly trying to dodge an onslaught of ads and spammy content while sifting on tiny screens through a density of information that makes the Library of Congress look like a cluttered bedside table.
Doing away with clutter is your number one mission in posting online. This is not to be confused with simply saying less. You need to convey the same or more information by distilling your idea and choosing your words, punctuation and images wisely. Reading Zinsser’s book will help; it is short and cheap—if not free as a PDF online.
Secondly, think Hemingway not Tolstoy. Hemingway is attributed with the following six-word story, in which a lot is said with a few very carefully chosen words:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Now down to business.
What Is Rhetoric?
It is the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, and especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques. It is the way we use language to change the world.
One of the criticisms here is that anyone can be convinced of any idea because a fantastic argument has been made. Yes, these techniques can be used for commercialism and evil—we see this every day.
Some may simply try to argue rather than speak and write plainly. To avoid rhetorical techniques is a more dangerous form of rhetoric. Thus, you cannot avoid using it, you cannot avoid hearing it, you cannot avoid reading it; and so you must study it.
That last phrase was a short anaphora; more on that later.
Structure of the Argument
This is how you move the reader along logically to take them where you want them to go. Most often, when users write a post, article, action or any other piece of text, they go about it improvisationally. Improv is great, but it is much improved with a logical and tested framework.
This is a writing technique found in journalism. It works well with Facebook and other social platforms because it puts the nuts and bolts of the article at the top and hooks the reader from the start. There is no real need to go any further than the first or second paragraph because you got the point. This structure forces you to get to the point quickly.
This works well on Facebook because everyone sees the first bit of the post. You decide whether they stick around to read the rest or keep scrolling. So get to the point right away and hook them in!
The sermon is a centuries-old, rhetorical, pre-Middle Ages structure, rooted in the church, and is thus most refined and extremely powerful. And no one has mastered this structure as well as Martin Luther King Jr.
A brilliant and less famous example can be found here. You will see that he follows the structure to the letter.
Why should you study the sermons? Because when writing actions, petitions and so on, you can form your argument on a solid foundation. This structure is used for stump speeches, and modern politicians frequently cite books, documents and stories other than religious texts. You should too.
Sermons contain six parts:
The Theme: the speaker states the topic, sometimes alludes to it.
The Protheme: an introduction; traditionally, the speaker references the Gospels.
The Dilation on the text: the explanation of the above.
The Exemplum: a story or parable to hammer the point home.
The Peroration: lessons learned from the above.
The Closing: an exhortation to do good and a blessing of some kind, as we will see later from John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country…” at the end of his inaugural speech.
What you write, regardless of the structure you use, should be short. This cannot be emphasized enough. Only deliver the information needed to make your argument. Flourishes and clever turns of phrase should be left out until the work is done. Then, and only then, can you go back and add a little flavor. You could do the entire sermon structure in six sentences if you are clever about it.
Telling you to know your audience is not helpful. The fact is, you probably don’t know your audience—and that’s expected. You may have some general idea of who they are, but you do not have communicative economy* unless you are talking to people in your industry or with a shared hobby that you all know well.
A general solution to address the lack of communicative economy is to write for someone who is not close to the audience—perhaps your grandparents. If the term or phrase would confuse your grandparents, explain it in short and simple terms. If it would offend your grandparents, leave it out. This way, you are not pandering to anyone and yet everything that needs an explanation gets it and nothing more.
Most importantly: don’t say what you want to say; say what your audience wants to hear. This way, you get the message across in terms that they can relate to. In short, meet them on their level.
With a few exceptions, we can all agree that kittens are cute. This is an enthymeme; it is the point on which we can all agree. And so many of our evergreen arguments continue because we cannot agree on the enthymeme. The enthymeme is the foundation of a logical argument—its starting point. It is the point on which we can all agree and thus it doesn’t need to be stated.
“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
~ John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 1961
The enthymeme is that we should make the world a better place. Put it like this: as a logical statement, A: We must make the world a better place; B: The world is worse because of poverty; and C: We must address poverty. Or, like this: “Can’t we agree that we should make the world a better place?” Then President Kennedy led the listeners toward his famous call for service, and the final enthymeme in his speech.
How do you define your enthymeme so that you can lead your reader to where you want them to be?
First, assume that your audience will not agree with you. Then, work backwards until you can start with a shared assumption. Finally, build a logical argument to lead your reader to where you want them to go.
Logic relies on syllogisms; these are the building blocks of your argument. Logical fallacies break down these syllogisms. It pays to know a few so that you can build stronger ones.
First, you might remember this sort of logical chain from school: “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal.” You can string these along and make the chain longer—this is how you lead the reader. This is simple logic and a terribly boring way to make an argument, but it builds the frame of your rhetoric. Also, it is a useful tool to see if your argument makes sense.
The great fallacies:
Asserting the Consequent: if A = B, then B = A. No. For example, if all squares are parallelograms, then all parallelograms are squares. No, a rectangle is also a parallelogram. The economy tanks when we vote for the career politician, thus a vote for the career politician will tank the economy. Maybe, maybe not. As you can see, it is easy to poke holes in this.
Causation vs. Correlation, the Post-Hoc Fallacy: Have you ever heard something like this: “Since he has become president, gas prices have tripled!” You may or may not be able to attribute B to A. It will rally your base but will not convince anyone else.
Argumentum ad Hominem: Attacking the speaker not the speaker’s ideas. As above, it rallies the hardcore base, and will likely turn people against you.
Hasty and Sweeping Generalizations: The former is making a generalization based on too little data to hold up. We see this all the time in the media: “Tuna gives you cancer!” because one study showed that a few people got cancer while on a special tuna diet. The latter is making a categorical generalization.
Again, we can look to the media, and the presidential talking points, for a thousand sweeping generalizations. Both are easily destroyed by a single contrary data point.
There are many, many more, but these are the big ones. Just don’t do it.
That was a heady article.
This was by no means comprehensive, but it will get you in the right direction.
Here are the big takeaways:
- Keep it short.
- Choose your words wisely so that you can say a lot with very little.
- Use a solid foundation to structure your argument; journalistic for short posts with the lede right at the beginning, or sermons for longer actions, articles and petitions.
- Study the great writers and speakers to see how they did it. Yes, this is nerdy, but the best are the best for a reason.
- Write to your readers in terms that they can understand and relate to. Meet them where they are.
- Make a logical framework for your argument.
- Avoid the fallacies.
- Leave out the fluffy language until you are done. It’s like trying trying to hang a picture in the living room before putting up the sheetrock.
*Communicative economy is the knowledge shared by the entire audience and thus doesn’t need to be stated—not to be confused with common knowledge.