Is Rhetoric a Good or Bad Thing?

When we were picking a name for this company, we initially rejected “RhetorIQ,” a play on the word “rhetoric”, because some friends we tested it with were reminded of self-serving, bloviating politicians. Notwithstanding the IQ in our version of the word, did we really want to hold ourselves out as purveyors of hot air?

That led to some furious Googling to discover whether rhetoric deserves its negative associations. Rhetoric we discovered, is the “art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially using figures of speech.” Aristotle described rhetoric 2,500 years ago as the ability to appeal to pathos, ethos and logos; broadly emotions, ethics and logic, in order to persuade an audience.

All of us use rhetoric to persuade others every day.

Sometimes it’s used with positive intentions, such as when a doctor describes the potential hazards of lack of exercise and a poor diet to inspire a prediabetic patient to take better care of herself. Other times it’s used with more selfish motives, such as when a car salesman gushes to a middle-aged customer that he looks 15 years younger in a convertible, to make a sale.

So, we concluded, after much searching and discussion, that rhetoric isn’t inherently good or bad. We also thought that the simple definition of rhetoric does an excellent job of explaining what we do: help clients write articles that persuade readers that the authors are experts in their field.

And how do we persuade them? With sound logic, proper grammar, and rhetorical devices, of course. Some of those devices include:

    • Didactics: Almost every article we write for clients intends to teach the reader something, such as how to adapt agile ways of working, which relies on having team members in the same location, to the virtual environment thrust on all of us during Covid-19.
    • Parallelism: When building an argument, we often use parallelism to show patterns. In an article promoting the use of remote digital tools in drug development, we’ll describe how inspections of manufacturing facilities, regulatory submissions, and patient monitoring have all become more efficient using these tools.
    • Colloquialisms: Plain, everyday language is much easier to read than formal language. So we write like we talk, using contractions (“it’s” versus “it is”) and idioms we use in conversation (“Once you get the hang of it” versus “Once you become accustomed to”).
    • Understatement: Where you have impressive results, understatement often makes them more powerful. Adding highly to an adjective (successful, profitable) never makes it more impressive. But numbers that show a 30% profit increase speak for themselves. They don’t need amplifying adverbs.
    • Anecdotes: We also rely on stories to illustrate a point. In the article explaining how agile development can continue under remote working, we cited a Zoom-powered scrum-of-scrums, and the invited BU heads were impressed by it. It’s one thing to claim something is possible, but another to describe how you’ve already done it.

Rhetoric is a toolbox of techniques, which combined with proper grammar and sound logic, can help you persuade someone of something using words. So, much like the distinction between “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol,  rhetoric is a positive thing as long as your intent is honest and your underlying argument is sound, and you’re using it to strengthen a solid case rather than paper over the cracks in a flimsy one.

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