Tag Archives: rhetoric

Rhetorical Tactics of White House Women

But at the White House, one former staffer explained to the Washington Post, women started using a simple rhetorical technique to stop interruptions and reinforce points made by other women. When a woman made a good point, another woman would repeat it, and give credit to the originator. This made the idea harder to ignore, or to steal. The women called the technique “amplification.”

“We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it,” one of president Barack Obama’s former aides told the Post. “It was an everyday thing.” She said that Obama noticed and began calling on women more often.
The women, perhaps unconsciously, had noticed two things. First, that repetition is one of the simplest ways of reinforcing any point—which can be seen through history across oratory and poetry. But secondly, that simply hammering a point home by repeating it oneself has limitations, especially in a competitive environment where everyone is clamoring to be heard. Some researchers have hypothesized that women are interrupted more because their conversational style tends to be collaborative, where men tend to be more competitive.



Booklist | Rhetoric in Public Life from the head of NYT/former leader of BBC

The book had me at the sub-title; what’s not to love about a book exploring political rhetoric from the former head of the BBC/current leader of NYT? Even better: the book comes from a series of lectures on the “art of public persuasion” Oxford. Good stuff.

Beyond British and American politics, Thompson covers a wide range of additional subjects. He discusses the classic Greek elements of rhetoric, including logos (argument), ethos (the character of the speaker) and pathos (emotion), along with other Greek rhetorical concepts. He talks about the punchy, Trump-like language of Vladimir Putin and the theatrics of Silvio Berlusconi. A whole chapter is built around George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” He punctuates his discussions with sweeping summaries like this one, in reference to social media: “The art of persuasion, once the grandest of the humanities and accessible at its highest level only to those of genius — a Demosthenes or a Cicero, a Lincoln or a Churchill — is acquiring many of the attributes of a computational science. Rhetoric not as art but as algorithm.”

Source: Mark Thompson’s New Book on the Use and Misuse of Rhetoric – The New York Times

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A New Frame for American Power


Facing “a world in disarray”–the term used by Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. President has some work to do. On his recent trip to Laos, however, President Obama draws from his rhetorical toolbox to reframing the discourse on U.S. power and foreign policy history. His critics see it as weakness, or worse. But speaking truthfully about American past misdeeds can be a powerful strategy for building influence.

Mr. Obama’s series of speeches reviewing historical trouble spots highlight several unusual facets of his worldview. They fit within his larger effort to reach out to former adversaries such as Cuba and Myanmar. They assert his belief in introspection and the need to overcome the past. And they highlight his perspective that American power has not always been a force for good.

According to Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College, reported in the NYT:

none of Mr. Obama’s comments constitute apology. … Rather, these speeches touch on a longstanding domestic political divide over the nature of American power.

“It gets back to this issue of national identity,” she said. Some Americans, including Mr. Obama, emphasize democratic ideals of humility and self-critique. Others believe American power is rooted in unity, celebration of positive deeds and shows of strength.

“Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for,” Mr. Obama said in March in Argentina, referring to a 1976 military coup that had received tacit American approval. “The United States, when it reflects on what happened here, has to examine its own policies, as well, and its own past.”

Source: Obama, Acknowledging U.S. Misdeeds Abroad, Quietly Reframes American Power – The New York Times

This strategy strengthens soft power–even as the Obama Doctrine has relied on hard power significantly.

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The Rhetoric of Brexit

The rhetoric behind Brexit (or Bremain) got heated–right up to the wire. Nazis and Hates Facts. As a thoughtful Greek, Aristotle may not have been proud–but he would have understood what was happening, as Sam Leith points out in FT:

The main problem both sides have is that they are arguing about what will happen in the future — economically, with regard to trade deals, security and migration. Nobody knows the answer: there are no hard data. The future, as the great man’s compatriot Nana Mouskouri once sang, is not ours to see.

The most respectable member of Aristotle’s triad of rhetorical tools — logos, or formal argument — is a little stymied as a result. So we have fallen back on ethos and pathos: appeals to personality and authority, and to emotion.

But to simplify the persuasive brief for each side, we might conclude the following:

Taken together with the economic warnings, the whole approach of the Conservative Party Remainers to the referendum can be summed up in the concluding lines of G.K. Chesterton’s sorry tale of Jim, the boy who ran away and got eaten by a lion:

Always keep ahold of Nurse

For fear of finding something worse.

For the Labour Party, the problem is a little different. Their job is to convince their core voters, many of whom are inclined to support Leave, that the EU provides essential protection for workers’ rights and welfare state institutions that would otherwise come under threat from a Conservative government. But it is difficult to make this argument without sounding defeatist. Does Britain’s labor movement no longer have the strength and self-confidence to mount the defense on its own, without help from European bureaucrats? Is the Labour Party conceding that it is never going to govern Britain again? When Yvette Cooper, a leading figure in the party, argued the Remain case on television, she was gently reminded by her Conservative opponent, the son of Ghanaian immigrants, that the National Health Service and the other parts of the welfare state had been brought into existence single-handedly by Clement Attlee’s postwar Labour government, unaided by any European institutions. This is a painful reminder of the power that parliamentary sovereignty once gave to parties of the left as well as of the right.

Source: Win or Lose, the Brexit Vote Shows How Hard It Is to Defend the EU | Foreign Policy


Worth Reading

The “romantic” and “distorted” language of campaigners who want Britain to leave the EU | QZ.com

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Argument Mapping with Debategraph

A great little tool to map out views on the Global Goals, Peace in the Middle East, Nuclear Politics, or more, run by a non-profit founded by Peter Baldwin and David Price. It has been used by CNN, the White House, and the Independent as a unique pedagogical tool to explain complex ideas.

Tutorial Prezi


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On Writing and Doublespeak


Can “effective” policy writing do harm? A thoughtful speech by Rowan Williams as part of this year’s Orwell Lecture addresses the dark power of bureaucratic prose–and explores how Thomas Merton and George Orwell argued against such writing.

What does this type of writing look like?

Orwell’s rules for good writing have become familiar: don’t use secondhand metaphors, don’t use long words where short ones will do, abbreviate, use the active not the passive, never use a foreign phrase when you can find an everyday alternative in English. They are rules designed to communicate something other than the fact that the speaker is powerful enough to say what he or she likes. Bad or confused metaphor (Orwell has some choice examples of which my favourite is “The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song”) presents us with something we can’t visualise; good metaphor makes us more aware, in unexpected ways, of what we see or sense. So bad metaphor is about concealing or ignoring; and language that sets out to conceal or ignore and make others ignore is language that wants to shrink the limits of the world to what can be dealt with in the speaker’s terms alone.

Conflict and even war rank among the worst possible outcomes, and not for the reasons that we might imagine:

In another essay on war, Merton argues that it is not really true that war happens when reasoned argument breaks down; it is more that “reason” has been used in such a way that it subtly and inevitably moves us towards war.

Ultimately, this type of doublespeak creates a false sense of what is true:

Both Merton and Orwell concentrate on a particular kind of bureaucratic redescription of reality, language that is designed to be no one’s in particular, the language of countless contemporary manifestos, mission statements and regulatory policies, the language that dominates so much of our public life, from health service to higher education. In its more malign forms, this is also the language of commercial interests defending tax evasion in a developing country, or worse, governments dealing with challenges to human rights violations, or worst of all (it’s in all our minds just now) of terrorists who have mastered so effectively the art of saying nothing true or humane as part of their techniques of intimidation. In contrast, the difficulty of good writing is a difficulty meant to make the reader pause and rethink. It insists that the world is larger than the reader thought, and invites the reader to find new ways of speaking: it may in the short term draw attention to its own complexity, but it does so in order that the reader may move away from the text to think about what it is in the world around that prompts such complexity. Bad writing is politically poisonous; good writing is politically liberating – and this is true even when that good writing comes from sources that are ideologically hostile to good politics (however defined). The crucial question is whether the writing is directed to making the reader see, feel and know less or more. And the paradox is that, even faced with systems that stifle good writing and honest imagining, the good writer doesn’t respond in kind but goes on trying to fathom what the terrorist and the bigot are saying, to make sense of people who don’t want to make sense of him or her. Failing to do that condemns us to bad writing and bad politics, to the language of total conflict and radical dehumanisation.

all quotes via Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and founder of Christian Aid, reposted in The Guardian as part of the 2015 Orwell Lecture.

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Laura Sicola Explains “Strategic Tonality”

Watch this TED Talk for two insights on public speaking that you possibly didn’t know about: how to use “strategic tonality” to say your name effectively, and how to avoid “up-speaking”–a kiss-of-death for career success, highlighted in numerous publications but most effectively ridiculed by BYU’s Studio C comedy troupe.

▶ Want to sound like a leader? Start by saying your name right | Laura Sicola | TEDxPenn – YouTube.

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Commencement Highlights 2015

Spring signals rebirth, improved weather, and the time for commencement–meaning talks that inspire, advise, and occasionally drone on much too long. As a rhetorical lesson, we can learn something not just from the advice (or cliches) that speakers love to direct to the new graduates. One key to making your speech great is to focus on things that really matter:

Today’s spiraling millennials know intuitively that having a sense of one’s purpose in life is the key to well-being. And research clearly shows they are right. In a 2009 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers interviewed 806 adolescents, emerging adults and adults about their purpose in life. A key finding of the study was that being able to articulate a life purpose was strongly associated with much greater life satisfaction than failing to do so.

via How to Avoid Commencement Clichés – NYTimes.com.

Not to say that the rudimentary skills of public speaking don’t matter, as well. Oh, that if we could all polish our skills for say, 30 years on a late night talk show like David Letterman!

Talk — relatively spontaneous, genuine, unrehearsed conversation — was, of course, the main point of the genre when the “Tonight Show” was pioneered by Steve Allen back in 1954, redefined by Jack Paar when he took the helm in 1957, and turned into a national institution by Johnny Carson in the ’60s and ’70s. Here was a place where show-business celebrities could drop at least some of their public persona and give us a glimpse of what they were “really” like. Sure, that glimpse was always a little stage-managed — the conversational topics screened, the anecdotes carefully baked. But those nightly sessions on the “Tonight Show” guest couch were a relaxed, human-scale refuge in a hype-filled showbiz world.

Mr. Letterman, like Mr. Carson before him, understood this. He never shirked his publicity duties (“let’s show the clip”), and he valued guests like Martin Short and Steve Martin, who came primed with fresh material. But he took the interviews seriously. He asked real questions and actually listened to the answers. He rarely fawned, or let his guests off the hook. He poked their sensitive spots and cut through the phoniness.

When he talked to politicians and other newsmakers, he was informed, even passionate. (As the years went on, he did less and less to hide his liberal political views.) When he baited guests like Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly, his quips couldn’t totally hide the disdain. When he talked to ordinary civilians — dog owners with their stupid pet tricks, kids showing off their science projects — he was naturally curious, engaged and winning. Whenever a star came on and tried to play him — Joaquin Phoenix in his sullen faux-rap-star phase, for example — Mr. Letterman showed no patience. He didn’t want a performance; he wanted people.

via NYT | “David Letterman Knew How to Talk

Other highlights worth noting from the Commencement 2015 season?

  • Ed Helms takes apart any journalistic respect that Rolling Stone might have previously possessed at UVa:  “It has been said that a rolling stone gathers no moss,” Helms said. “I would add that sometimes a rolling stone also gathers no verifiable facts or even the tiniest morsels of journalistic integrity.” [HuffPo]
  • Kayne encourages Art Institue of Chicago grads to be bold:  ‘I’m sorry’ is something that you can use a lot,” he told the crowd. “It gives you opportunity to give your opinion, apologize for it, and give your opinion again.”
  • The notable documentary filmmaker Ken Burns hits on the issue du jour at Washington University at St. Louis–with Baltimore, Ferguson, and other recent events still simmering under the surface: “Remember: Black lives matter! All lives matter. Reject fundamentalism, wherever it raises its ugly head. It’s not civilized.” He also advises, “Be about the unum, not the pluribus.”

Want more? Check out Humanity.org’s list of their top commencement speeches of all time, including a few of my favorites from George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, Neil Gaiman, and Vaclav Havel.

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Soft Skills Meet Science: How “Worldviews” Shape Science Policy Debates

Shouldn’t science be able to resolve the climate change issue? Apparently not. And for anyone interested in the communication issues under the hood it is important to understand why raw intelligence cannot account for disagreements.  Dan Kahan at Yale, working with Donald Braman, is on it, as featured in the Chronicle Review. They found that measuring individuals on an egalitarian-hierarchal and indvidualism-communitarian scales helped to create four possible “worldviews” that explain conflicting takes on a myriad of issues.

Senior legal scholars immediately objected, the start of a long line of smart people affronted by Kahan’s findings. Their protests boil down to a gut reaction: “This couldn’t possibly apply to me!” There are many exemplars of the genre, with The New York Times’s Paul Krugman providing an excellent case this year, skewing Kahan’s work to fit his belief that Democrats value science more than Republicans do. Few people can admit that they let their cultural values trump facts. Could you? “We get a lot from our communities,” Braman says. “They help us think through problems.” This was Douglas’s basic insight, and it explains why campaigners have spent decades arguing over cultural fault lines. The notion that truth can’t resolve a factual debate—it’s threatening.

Douglas, however, was also troubled, and evasive on what questions might elicit worldviews, a vagueness, Braman says, that also “allowed her to apply the theory to whatever she wanted.” Douglas (who died in 2007) told them she had not meant to describe fixed personality traits; to her, worldviews were fluid. At work, you may behave like a hierarchical individualist, but in your softball league, you may turn communitarian. The work is fine, she eventually told Kahan, but it’s not cultural theory as she intended it. They should get a new name.

via Seeking a Climate Change – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Miller on the Myths: Why Its Not Obama’s Fault

Aaron David Miller explains five “fictions we have to stop telling ourselves” to keep in mind when we analyze why we are in Syria/Iraq,  how we can be effective, and more importantly, what is really possible.

We’re clearly not yet on the verge of plunging into another pointless Americanasaurus charge much like the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But last night’s airstrikes in Syria do represent an important escalation and expansion of the war against the Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist forces. And it’s imperative that we bring additional clarity to the problem of coordinating ends and means, and defining what our goals are, to avoid such an eventuality. Mission creep usually results from a certain amount of hysteria, a lack of clarity or confusion in goals, and, most complicating, a miscalculation of the means at our disposal with which to achieve those goals.

via Americanasaurus and the March to War in Syria.

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