The art of rhetoric

Last week I went for a talk at the RSA where writer and columnist Sam Leith spoke about the art of persuasion in terms of rhetoric, with Philip Collins, former speech writer for Tony Blair. Leigh began with a summary of the idea of rhetoric as a subject. Historically, Aristotle divided the art of persuasion into ethos (believing an argument due to the aura and confidence of the person delivering an argument), pathos (appealing to emotion) and logos (logic). He then went on to illustrate its use in modern times.

He used a number of rather interesting examples. Why is Obama, for example, so much more effective as a public speaker than David Cameron?

Here are two clips where you can compare and contrast the two, the first delivered by Obama after the Tucson shootings in Arizona and the other by David Cameron following the riots.

Both were events of substantial gravity, yet Cameron really missed the mark – he just doesn’t have Obama’s formidable personality, though the topics were both in the ‘pathos’ camp.

An excellent example of the use of ethos (combined, in this case with content that was extremely timely and familiar to the audience) is Ricky Gervais’ opening speech at the Golden Globes earlier this year – it’s absolutely hilarious so you’ll get your quotient of laughter for the day if you watch it.

The discussion later veered into whether the UK didn’t have topics of sufficient depth to enable someone like Cameron to talk with enough impact. Both speakers were of the opinion that there are plenty of important issues in the UK (like the Big Society), but the ideas aren’t focussed enough. Leigh made a great point when he said that if you can’t write an idea on a post-it note, then it hasn’t been articulated well enough. I think that certainly applies to marketing and advertising, more so because we are overwhelmed by messages (3500 ads a day, apparently), and the only ideas that will stick are the ones that we understand in an instant. Case in point: this interview with Ed Miliband on the BBC, where he goes round and round the mulberry bush without really making a point. It’s really hilarious. Also frustrating – let us know which camp you belong to!

As this RSA post summarising the event says, logic (logos) clearly falls behind, when compared to ethos and pathos, as ideas with which to convince people of an issue.

In the highly commercialised society we live in today, the man on the street probably isn’t even aware of the different ways of conveying a message.

As people who work in the media industry, however, it’s useful for us to remember them every now and then!

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Posted by Anjali Ramachandran, (@anjali28 

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