Part One: Discussion

Work with a partner or group and discuss answers to the following questions:

  1. Who is an example of an effective speaker? Why? What qualities does he or she possess?
  2. What are effective means of persuasion? How do we get people to do what we want them to do, or to agree with our opinions?
  3. What are some professional and personal situations in which we try to influence another person's perspective? How much of our daily interaction with others is spent trying to influence perspective?
  4. Is there a difference between persuasion and manipulation?

Part Two: Reading

Read the following text on rhetoric. When you have finished, open the exercise and complete the first part with your partner(s).




The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing

The word rhetoric is commonly heard in university lectures and seen in academic textbooks, so naturally many students ask the question: what exactly is rhetoric? This is a simple question with a not entirely straightforward answer. The OED defines rhetoric as “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing”, a definition that dates back to the days of Aristotle. When Aristotle wrote his famous treatise On Rhetoric over two-thousand years ago, he defined it as the ability to see "the available means of persuasion" in a given situation. Since the Greek philosopher wrote what is still the most well-known work on the subject of rhetoric, his definition of the word has been debated and modified. One issue is that simply equating rhetoric with persuasion leads to the negative connotations many have come to associate with it. For some, it is difficult to discern where persuasion ends and manipulation begins. For others, the word rhetoric means language that sounds impressive but which has very little actual meaning, for example, the type of style-over-substance language associated with politicians and lawyers—powerful or moving speeches with very shallow messages. While this definition is correct, when people in the academic world refer to rhetoric, they are talking about much more than a string of eloquent yet empty words. In the academic context, the term rhetoric is used to describe any attempt to influence another person's perspective—whether written, spoken, or even visually—which would make rhetoric an intrinsic part of our daily lives, and would make an understanding of rhetoric essential for critical reading and academic writing.

Aristotle's Rhetorical Triangle

In the 4th Century BCE, Aristotle wrote On Rhetoricin which he famously presented what he considered to be the fundamental elements of an effective argument. These concepts, which the philosopher called the three rhetorical appeals, or the modes of persuasion, would eventually become more commonly known as Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle, although Aristotle himself did not actually discuss geometry. The three "corners" of the triangle—the foundation of persuasive writing or speaking—are logos, ethos, and pathos. According to Aristotle, a successfully persuasive argument could contain any combination of the three elements; in some cases, only one of the three appeals would be enough to influence someone’s perspective, while having all three in an argument would likely make it more persuasive.

Logos: The Text

The first of the rhetorical appeals, the one which is emphasized most in the academic world, is logos. Logos is the Greek word for word, and Aristotle's point was that a person can be persuaded by the text or words of the argument itself, whether spoken or written. Logos appeals to the reader's sense of logic and reason, meaning that a writer or speaker is able to influence a person's perspective with clear statements, logical reasons and strong supporting arguments. In the academic world, the importance of logos cannot be stressed enough and no academic essay would be considered successful if it fails to present a logical argument.

Pathos: The Audience

While we like to emphasize the value of reason, particularly in academics, the truth is that tapping into the emotions of the audience can often be an even more effective means of persuasion. This is the second of Aristotle's rhetorical appeals, which he called pathos—an appeal to emotion. While in academia, logos is king, in the world of politics, advertising and 24-hour news cycles, pathos rules. For example, a government usually has to go beyond logic and reason to persuade its citizens to take a course of action that the average person does not want to take. A tax increase might be a logical way to help fight poverty, but people do not typically like paying taxes and certainly do not want to pay more, so it may not matter how logical the argument is if the audience has strong feelings toward the subject. Therefore, appealing to emotions—such as the audience's feelings of sympathy, pride or fear—can be very persuasive. The description of a single family living in poverty, with the children's names and parents' concerned faces, can be a far more effective method of persuasion than the findings of research or statistics on low-income families. Tapping into an audience's sense of fear and insecurity can not only strengthen the effect of a logical argument, but can often persuade people in spite of logic: if we do nothing to combat poverty, crime will start spilling into middle class neighbourhoods; we must take military action or terrorists will start attacking our country; if you use this toothpaste, girls will be more attracted to you. Of course, while pathos can be an effective way to sell toothpaste, one should be careful of pathos in academic writing—a manipulation of the readers' emotions should never be used in lieu of a strong, logical argument.

Ethos: The Author



The credibility of the author is very important to persuade others of something

The extent to which a person is persuaded or affected by an argument largely depends on how they judge the character of the speaker or writer of that argument. This is the third rhetorical appeal—ethos; from the Greek for ethics, ethos relates to the credibility of the author, or how trustworthy the author is. Our reception to an argument is very much connected to the authority and motivation of the speaker. In simple terms, we are far more likely to believe the word of a friend than a stranger (unless, of course, we know our friend to be someone who exaggerates), we are more likely to believe a report on global warming written by a climate scientist, and we are easily influenced by celebrity endorsement, which is why Nike would pay millions to have LeBron James appear in an advertisement. From courts of law to doctor’s offices to supermarkets, we rely on the authority of experts and professionals to make judgements and form opinions. But of course, we cannot be experts in every field, so how does ethos apply to academic writing or presentations? The author of an essay must try to appear credible to the reader, and there are many ways of doing this; one can increase his or her credibility by citing the work of experts in order to support an opinion, by presenting a balanced argument, and by avoiding misinformation, generalizations, and grammatical errors. In fact, even the style and tone of an essay or article can give the writer more credibility in the reader's eyes.

Why Is It Important to Understand Rhetoric?

An understanding of rhetoric and Aristotle's three rhetorical appeals has undeniable academic advantages. Consciously considering the audience, as well as one's own credibility from the perspective of the audience, will undoubtedly lead to a more successful persuasive essay or presentation. Furthermore, being familiar with these rhetorical strategies will also make a student a more effective critical reader and thinker. If we are aware that the author of a text is intentionally appealing to our emotions in order to influence our perspective, or if we question an author's credibility on an issue, it can protect us from being easily manipulated and it allows us to make a more informed analysis and evaluation of a text.

Part Three: Rhetorical Analysis

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