Understanding Political Rhetoric (Part II)

In my last post, I defined rhetoric as the art of persuasion and revealed that we use rhetoric in every form of communication. This is an important point with the ongoing political campaign in our country.  As promised, I'd like to continue this line of information by explaining how people effectively use rhetoric to sway your decisions.  Again, remember, rhetoric is neither negative or positive, it's how we use rhetoric that determines whether it's good or bad.  ( If you missed the last post, you may want to click the link above.)

Speakers and writers first consider their purpose when putting together a message.  What do they want their audience to do based on this information?  The answer guides them towards what's important to include and what should be left out.  Second, they identify their audience.  Who are they?  What do they know about the topic?  How do they feel about the topic?  A study of the audience's demographics becomes essential in this phase.  At this point, they might decide to change the purpose to fit the audience.  When people fail to get the response they want, usually it's due to failure on one or both of these  points.  We often assume our purpose rather than checking to be sure we're on track, or we don't research our audience and fail to target the message to the appropriate people.

These two points, combined with content, make up the rhetorical situation.  Content includes where, how, and when the information will be dispersed.  Are you speaking to a group or is it via email?  If you're presenting in a meeting, when is your time slot on the agenda?  Information presented just before lunchtime might require some extra incentives for people to remain focused.  And heaven help you if you're following someone else's presentation that negates part of what you want to say.  All of these considerations, and more, are part of content.

Once we identify the rhetorical situation, we develop our main points.  An effective presentation includes three types of information:  logical facts, examples of reputation or credibility, and appeals to our passions.

Consider any car commercial.  They tell you the crash test rating, the gas mileage, etc.  These are facts.  Sometimes the facts cross over into the reputation category, for example, the crash test ratings.  Reputation usually comes from what people know about us or our topic.  If they don't know much about that topic, you develop credibility using facts, people known to your audience, or how you conduct yourself during the presentation.  Using the third element, passionate appeals, can be tricky.  Use too much and the audience might suffer "buyer's remorse" later.  Use too little and you might not win over your audience.  Typically, this element appeals to the audience's emotions, what they care about.  Once again, this can cross over from one of the other categories, but it might be the plight of a homeless person or seeing a child suffering from cancer.

Between the rhetorical situation and the three types of information, effective persuaders create very convincing arguments.  You hear this kind of information each and every day of your life, and you use it, too.  But in today's political climate, please evaluate how people employ these details.  If they are good at it, they will create a convincing argument.  It's up to you to discern whether their points are truths or half-truths. Also, be wary of ads or comments that really get you fired up.  Ask yourself, are they trying to play on my emotional response here or is there some basis of fact behind what I'm hearing?

Whatever you do, please don't wander through this political election without some idea of what methods the candidates and their parties are using to gain your vote.

OK.  That was quick, down, and dirty.  What questions do you have?


Vonda Skelton said…
It's sad that we can't just listen to the candidates and believe what they say, isn't it?
Vonda, unfortunately we can't take what's said at face value. Of course, we demonstrate critical thinking when we evaluate information carefully.
Unknown said…
I've read my share of History and listened to my "fair share" of historians, and the administrations that succeeded used common sense, and therefore our Country flourished with prosperity. Our two party system has failed and now we are actually looking at a Country that is dependent on Government handouts. My question? Was this by design? Love the Blog on Rhetoric.
Dale, what a great question! I wish I knew the answer. I Imagine some people believe it was by design, others may not. An interesting point about history is it's written by the victors.

Thanks for your comments!

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