The lost art of rhetoric and persuasion

Whether you write (a) for fun, (b) for money or (c) for all the fast cars and groupies, I bet you’re specialized.

Specialized in the kind of writing you do. Specialized in the kind of education that got you there.

Journalists usually go to journalism school and screenwriters to film school. Playwrights all come from this MFA program in Wisconsin for some reason, and all kinds of novelists spring forth  from the middle of Iowa.

Maui, I could understand. Iowa is cornfields, right? Never been there. Why the cornfields is a fiction mecca, I don’t know.

Anyway: You can divide writing into three areas, based on the goal:

1)      Writing to INFORM (journalism, papers of news, TV, radio, all that)

2)      Writing to PERSUADE (the lost art of speechwriting & rhetoric)

3)      Writing to ENTERTAIN (novels, movies, plays and, as much as it kills me to say it, poetry, though not Gertrude flipping Stein)

Now, I know enough about all three to be dangerous, and this split is something I’ve used when teaching seminars and such.

HOWEVER: It is all bunk.

Total nonsense. Absolute horsepucky. My friends across the pond would call it completely daft.

Col. Potter would use other words. Take it away, Potter.

What are you really trying to do?

Journalists aren’t really trying to inform. Sure, that’s part of it.

Reporters want people to read their story, and to make that happen, they need to persuade their editors to assign them the juicy serial killer piece instead of an obituary about some man who was the once president of the Scranton Valley Chamber of Commerce back in 1985. Then you persuade sources to give them quotes and scoops that other journalists aren’t getting. Next, you write an amazing story to persuade other editors that your story belongs on top of A1 instead of buried on page 18 next to a wire story about Snooki’s baby daddy getting arrested or whatever.

And finally, journalists want to persuade you to read the story — and for the people who judge journalism contests to give them some kind of prize, maybe even a Pulitzer, so they can convince a bigger newspaper to hire them and let them write bigger stories for slightly bigger paychecks.

Novelists, screenwriters and playwrights aren’t really trying to entertain. Their biggest challenge, again, is persuasion.  There are 5.983 gazillion cable channels, radio stations and movies on Netflix competing for your attention. There’s also an insane diversity of free diversions on the Series of Tubes — and even this place old-timers used to call “outside” and “the real world,” where people sometimes KISSED A GIRL.

Entertainers are competing against all that for your free time and, more importantly, your money. In the two seconds of your attention they have, entertainers need to hook you with a book cover, movie poster or guitar riff, then convince you to blow two hours and $23 bucks on a hardcover book or tickets to THE AVENGERS in 3D plus overpriced popcorn or the Greatest Hits Collection of ABBA.

In the end, it’s all persuasion.

The lost art

The thing is, nobody really teaches rhetoric and persuasion these days.

How many of you know somebody who majored in rhetoric? I bet you know all kinds of people who majored in anthropology, art history and other majors that begin with A and are not exactly in demand. It used to make news when some professor started teaching a class where students dissected episodes of Star Trek, and now it only makes waves when you can MAJOR in pop culture / Madonna songs / Snooki fashion choices during Season 1 versus Season 2.

Even people who did speech and debate don’t exactly get an education in the art. They basically throw you in the deep end of the pool. If you swim, you stay on the team and spend a lot of time riding in vans, sleeping in cheap motels and cutting evidence cards.

Yet the art of rhetoric is more important than ever.

In the old days, you could get by on intimidation and fear. The biggest, toughest, meanest caveman ran the show. If you tried to win a debate with him, he won by using the unstoppable rhetorical device the Greek masters dubbed “crushing your skull with this rock.”

Today, the entire planet runs on oil. Lots of oil. Also, coal, windmills and nuclear power, though the Japan tsunami thing kinda screwed up the whole nuclear shebang. But aside from oil, the world runs on ideas and words — on persuading other human beings to work with you.

The world only works because we can, and do, persuade each other without resorting to rock vs. skull.

You see rhetoric in action every day, whether it’s persuading your four-year-old to brush their teeth, getting a coworker to help on a project or dealing with a tough client.

And unless you work in an ice cave, you’re doing something (a) creative with (b) other human beings (c) in a group. That takes the skills of rhetoric. Also, free bagels sometimes. That greases the skids.

The biggest moments in life aren’t about informing or entertaining. They’re 100 percent persuasion: asking somebody to marry you, getting the bank to hand you MASSIVE PILES OF CASH to buy a home, persuading a boss to hire you, getting the jury to believe you — it’s an endless list.

But we don’t truly teach this. Not in journalism school or film school. Not in that MFA program in Wisconsin or the fiction mecca of Iowa (I like your John Deere hat). And certainly not in high school or college, though it’s not an accident that elite private school and colleges do teach rhetoric, and make students write speeches and deliver them. They know that future CEOs, U.S. senators and presidents sorta kinda need to know how to give speeches and persuade other people to do things.

It’s not like these are big dark secrets. Philosophers were writing all kinds of books on rhetoric TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO, a long time ago in a European country that’s far, far away. These books are still for sale in places we used to call “book stores.”

HOWEVER: Maybe we should talk about such things a little — the basics, nothing crazy advanced or complicated — and save you from reading all 616 pages of Ian Worthington’s A COMPANION TO GREEK RHETORIC.

P.S. Ian the Worthington, I think you rock.

P.P.S. Aristotle was a genius, Socrates was cool and Plato was kind of a fascist jerk.

19 thoughts on “The lost art of rhetoric and persuasion

  1. I don’t know I’d go so far as to say Plato was a jerk…. But agreed that Aristotle was pretty darn awesome. It’s strange, how philosophy – designed to explain universal truths – can be so mind-bending.

    I would hazard that Aristophanes should be on par with Aristotle, especially considering that his plays put him in touch with the common (Greek) man, as opposed to the educated elite. (Though nobody let women think for themselves, and for that, future soldiers should go back in time and school them in the ways of the chick dynamic. Subtly, of course, so as not to ruin the space-time continuum.)

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  2. Because rhetoric is really big at my alma mater, the University of Iowa. Big part of the creative writing program and corn fields are the ultimate in inspiration, especially in the winter.
    The art of persuasion, oh yes. Alive and kicking, at least in my heart.

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  3. I like being a padawan just fine, thank you very much! 🙂
    Oh, for those who don’t know, in Iowa they have a quite popular 2 year residency writing program there–the Iowa Writer’s Workshop–be brave and read more here: http://www.uiowa.edu/~iww/. Where else will you see a MFA writing program of this caliber in the middle of an area expanding on the many and varied ways in which to grow corn?

    Loved your post!

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  4. also, i’ve heard that MFA are worthless. i think it was stephen king who said something like – if you take the time you spend learning to write and use that time actually writing, you’ll learn a lot more about writing.

    or maybe i said that.

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  5. I can answer the question about Iowa for you. When you’re surrounded by cornfields, what else is there to do but write? Oh my, I just answered a question with a question. That’s rare for me.

    No idea why the MFA for playwrights would be in Wisconsin. In fact, I didn’t know it was.

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  6. Nicomachean Ethics? (gag).
    After I got my English Lit degree, I sold out to the corporate world and went into . . .Sales. Sales and marketing for 8 years. Even when I did a few years as a freelance writer, the majority of my income was from writing marketing copy. Marketing copy aside, a huge percentage of my time as a freelance writer was convincing people to assign me a story, buy my story, print my story, etc.

    So I guess I wasn’t such a sell-out after all?

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