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The Art of Persuasion

A way with words is a series of lectures by Prof. Michael Drout on the subject of rhetoric; the art of persuasion with effective speaking and writing. Prof. Drout’s powerful presentation makes a dull and boring topic very interesting and fun. In an audiobook his lecture delivery is so vigorous that it makes you feel as if you are watching him performing in front of you. He examines the types of rhetoric and their effects, history of rhetoric, structure of arguments, and artifacts of a language.  
A rhetoric in general is considered as something bad, manipulative, or overblown but according to Prof. Drout rhetoric can actually be defined positively as: 

‘how to do things with words; the art of using words to change the social world.’

According to Aristotle:
‘rhetoric is defined as the ability to see what is possibly persuasive in every given case, and a rhetorician as someone who is always able to see what is persuasive.

This is referred to as “Speech-Act Theory“. A speech can be categorized as:

  • Performative speech delivers a piece of information along with some decisions or actions to change the current state of social world e.g. an umpire declares a player ‘you’re out!‘ or a minister pronounces a couple ‘man and wife‘. Some statements like ‘I promise …‘ and ‘I bet …‘ can be considered as performative as well.
  • Nonperformative speech delivers a piece of straightforward information to whoever is listening and that’s all
The performative speeches have the power to change the world but there must be well defined social circumstances, customs, or laws laid down as prerequisites that actually make it possible, otherwise performative act won’t happen. 

The “performative” statement “You’re out!” is not performative when anyone other than an umpire, a socially authorized and conventionally empowered figure, yells it.

Although I believe in the rhetoric power but Prof. Drout’s initial examples i.e. ‘You’re out’ or ‘I pronounce man and wife‘ are not convincing; ‘you’re out’ can be replaced with a red light signal and ‘I pronounce man and wife’ can easily be replaced with a signature on a marriage certificate. Also such kind of utterances have to follow some social norms otherwise they don’t work. I would say this is not a rhetoric power; here social world changes because of the powerful social customs and not because of someones utterances.

However, there are lots of other examples which actually have changed the world, not only social world but physical world as well. For instance, Martin Luther King Jr.’s 

I Have a Dream” 

 speech and Winston Churchill’s 

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”

are really as great rhetorically as they are thought to be. I can say Jinnah’s speeches during movement for independence fall in the same category. Bahadur Yar Jung was one of the great rhetoricians of twentieth century; his speeches contributed a lot in mobilizing people for the movement of independence. For instance, on December 26, 1943, he delivered a very convincing speech in the All India Muslim League, in the end he says:
لوگو! وھ فیصلے جو جوش کے عالم میں دوسروں کی تقلید میں کر دیے جاتے میں  بسا اوقات آنی اور اسی لیے فانی ھوتے ہیں۔ آج ہمیں ان کی ضرورت نہیں ھے جو شجرِ ملت پر پھول بن کر چمکنا چاھتے ہیں۔ یا پھل بن کر کام و دہن کو شیریں کرنا چاہتے ھوں۔ آج ہمیں ان کی ضرورت ھے جو کھاد بن کر زمیں میں جذب ھوتے ہیں اور جڑوں کو مضبوط کرتے ہیں۔ جو مٹی اور پانی میں مل کر رنگین پھول پیدا کرتے ہیں۔ جو خود فنا ھوتے ہیں اور پھلوں میں لذت و شیرینی پیدا کرتے ہیں۔ ہمیں ان کی ضرورت نہیں جو کاخ و ایوان کے نقش و نگار بن کر نگاہ نظارھ باز کو خیرھ کرنا چاہتے ہوں. بلکہ ہم ان بنیاد کے پتھروں کو چاہتے ہیں جو ہمیشہ کیلیے زمیں میں دفن ہو کر استحکامِ عمارت کی ضمانت دے سکتے ہوں۔ 
‘People! Decisions made under pressure or in haste do not last for long. Today we are not in need of a tree that blooms like a flower or in need of fruit that tastes sweet to our mouths. Instead, we are in the need of fine manure that dissolves in the soil and strengthens the roots. That will unite with the water and soil to produce beautiful flowers. That will destroy itself but will leave its scent and taste in the flowers. We are at present not in need of beautiful scenery that looks good to the eyes, but what we need are foundation stones that will bury themselves in the soil to make the building standing on them strong.’
Likewise, Allama Iqbal’s revolutionary poems provide a great source of persuasion:
دیارِ  عشق  میں  اپنا مقام پیدا  کر — نیا زمانہ ھے نیے صبح شام پیدا کر
خدا اگر دلِ فطرت شناس دے تجھ کو —  سکوتِ  لالہ  و گل  سے  کلام  پیدا کر
!میرا طریق  امیری  نہیں  فقیری  ھے —  خودی نہ بیچ غریبی میں نام پیدا کر 
 ……….
ھو تیرے بیاباں کی ھوا تجھ  کو  گوارا — اس دشت سے بہتر ھے نہ دلی نہ بخارا
جس سمت میں چاہے صفت سیلِ رواں چل —  وادی یہ ھماری ھے وھ  صحرا بھی ھمارا
غیرت ھے بڑی چیز جہانِ تگ و دو میں —  پہناتی  ھے  درویش  کو  تاجِ  سرِدارا 
 اخلاصِ عمل مانگ نیاگانِ کہن سے —  شاہانِ چہ  عجب گر بنوازند گدارا
……….
تو رہ نورد شوق ہے ، منزل نہ کر قبول
لیلیٰ بھی ہم نشیں ہو تو محمل نہ کر قبول
اے جوئے آب بڑھ کے ہو دریائے تند و تیز
ساحل تجھے عطا ہو تو ساحل نہ کر قبول

A rhetorician may not be able to convince everyone under all circumstances but according to Aristotle (Aristotle’s Rhetoric @ Stanford): 

‘An rhetorician is in a situation similar to that of the physician: the latter has a complete grasp of his art only if he neglects nothing that might heal his patient, though he is not able to heal every patient. Similarly, the rhetorician has a complete grasp of his method, if he discovers the available means of persuasion, though he is not able to convince everybody.’

A performative statement can have three possible effects:

Locutionary is a straightforward effect of a statement; you say something and listener understands it as it is. e.g ‘that large rock is sitting on my footis a locutionary statement

Illocutionary is an effect of a statement that is a little more than its literal meanings. For example, by saying ‘a large rock is sitting on my foot‘ you’re not only informing but also requesting for help and encouraging your listener to remove the rock. So it is something you make your listener believe in doing something based on your locution

Perlocutionary effect is basically a side-effect of locutionary act. You actually persuade your listener. ‘That large rock is sitting on my footis not just a piece of information for your listener; if your listener tries to help you and removes the rock from your foot that is a perlocutionary effect

Prof. Drout also gives an overview of history of rhetoric starting from Socrates era and comes all the way down to Clinton era. He said, 
“People have been using rhetorics since the first caveman tried to convince a friend to come with him on a mammoth hunt, but our systematic thinking about rhetoric comes from ancient Greece. The word “rhetor” means “orator” or “teacher,” and the art of rhetoric was taught in ancient Greece for public purposes: convincing and inspiring one’s peers so that they would take courses of action you believed to be wise.”
Rhetoric can be used negatively as well to convince people about bad or untrue things. This is true not only in todays politics but it has been happening since ancient times. Sophists, for instance, used to give speeches to please general public in Socrates timeframe. According to Socrates, the Sophists were just telling their audiences what they wanted to hear, not really convincing them of things that were true. Furthermore, Prof. Drout talks about Cassandra:
“In ancient Greek literature, Cassandra tricked the god Apollo into giving her the gift of prophesy. But as a punishment, Apollo cursed Cassandra to be right always but never to have anyone believe her. Cassandra thus exemplifies the rhetorically deficient person: She knows what is right, but she is unable to convince anyone to do anything about it. You do not want to be a Cassandra, and if you do not have rhetorically effective communication, you very well might be.”
Rhetorics cannot be effective without knowing your audiences who interprets your arguments; for instance, if you are writing a research thesis or talking to defend it then your audiences are professors and critics from the same domain.

‘Audiences are the “interpretive communities,” that judge whether or not something is true or not, the people who have to be convinced by the rhetoric. The complexity of those interpretive communities, and the difficulty of figuring out how they make their judgments, is the problem of audience.’

However, even if you know your audiences, still you have to follow certain norms. For example while writing a research thesis although you know your audience, still you have to follow the thesis format; you cannot just write a letter to your professor and remind him about your past achievements. This specific format, required for presentation, is referred to as discourse conventions.

‘the amount of information that a speaker or writer needs to communicate are governed by Discourse Conventions. Discourse here means the flow of words, and those conventions are the rules that have arisen around different discourses.’

It is very important to know your audiences and their discourse conventions; know all the buzz words, acronyms, and basic point of view of the audience about the topic of your speech or writing. In case of writing in a journal, first understand the journal format and convention before submitting your article.

More importantly, talk about what your audience wants to listen not what you want to tell them. If you are a scientist, your audiences are curious about your findings, discoveries, and inventions. On the other hand if you are a politician your audiences are interested in what you can do for them and their community. Some successful writers use the trick of imagining an individual audience for everything they write, for example, if your grandma can understand your writings then everyone in the community would understand. If you think your grandma needs an explanation then explain it right away. 

“The performative aspect of writing and speaking is that successful writers are able to change their audiences by the ways in which they fictionalize them. So not only you have to know your audience but you have to make your audience.”

 The art of rhetorics goes on and covers much more; the lectures are very informative and enlightening. As a dynamic speaker Prof. Drout includes a lot of stuff one should learn in school. He makes his listeners interested and engaged in the topic. He dissects famous speeches and reveals secrets of their effectiveness. I think everyone who is interested in public speaking and writing, technical or otherwise, should register.

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