December 22, 2009

Rhetoric: It’s Not Just for Politicians Any More

Rhetoric: It’s Not Just for Politicians Any More

Rhetoric became a dirty word back in the sixties. Maybe it’s time to rehabilitate both the concept and the practice.

That is our topic this time.

Tom Sant

Rhetoric: It’s Not Just for Politicians Any More

For some reason, the word “rhetoric” has acquired a negative meaning. It implies the misuse of language, the manipulation of arguments to mislead rather than inform, to arouse emotions rather than thought, to distort the truth rather than reveal it. Many of us would point to politicians or political pundits who make a living ranting on cable TV as examples of people who indulge in “rhetoric”.

But for more than two thousand years rhetoric was at the heart of western educational practice. Plato and Aristotle would be surprised to hear us define rhetoric in such a narrow, negative way. So would Abraham Lincoln, whose inspirational oratory is an example of rhetoric at its finest.

At the heart of traditional rhetoric is a focus on using language to motivate an audience to take action—precisely what we want to accomplish with a sales presentation or a proposal. Our goal is to combine information, evidence and informed opinion in a way that helps our customer make a decision that favors us. The action we have motivated is the decision—manifested in the client’s signature on our contract or a verbal commitment to move forward with a business deal. And the way we have motivated that action has nothing to do with misleading our audience or twisting facts or arousing false emotions.

Instead, the first rhetorical move we need to make is to ask ourselves what matters to the audience? Research into decision making suggests that what matters the most is their own pain (their needs, issues, problems, gaps in capability, and so forth), followed closely by the potential for them to achieve gain (the outcomes or results they can achieve by solving their problems or addressing their needs). Unless we focus on these two topics first, we are highly unlikely to win the client’s attention, much less arouse their motivation to act.

If you have read Persuasive Business Proposals or if you’ve been reading these Messages that Matter for awhile, you recognize that these first two moves are the basis for what I call the persuasive paradigm or the NOSE pattern for persuasive communication. (The N and O stand for Needs and Outcomes, and the S and E stand for Solutions and Evidence.)

But rhetoric includes more than the structure of our message. It also involves the clarity and effectiveness of our delivery. For example, which of these opening statements is more effective for a proposal to the US Navy?

Current limitations in scope and access are preventing the US Navy from gaining full value from satellite data intended to improve fleet situational awareness and increase combat effectiveness. Currently used legacy algorithms have the capacity to decode and process only a small percentage of the total data feed being broadcast from the satellites.

The US Navy depends on satellite data to improve fleet situational awareness and increase combat effectiveness. Unfortunately, that data is currently limited in scope and access to the data is difficult. Because processing is handled by outdated algorithms, only a portion of the data is available, a situation that is analogous to having access to a vast library of information but then being allowed to look at only one shelf.

I would argue that the two openings say the same thing, but that the second version is more effective largely for rhetorical reasons. What have we done differently?
First, we have changed the subject and verb in the first sentence from something highly abstract (“limitations…are preventing…) to something much more concrete in the second version (“The US Navy depends…”). That makes the opening sentence more interesting and more obviously relevant right away.

Second, we have broken a rather long sentence (28 words) into two shorter sentences (16 and 15 words respectively). That makes them easier to decode. It also separates two distinct concepts: how satellite data benefits the Navy and what the current problems are with that data. One concept is positive; the other is negative. Separating them gives both of them more punch.

Third, we have taken the concept of outdated algorithms and expressed it more vividly by using a metaphor. If you attended the Webinar we broadcast with Anne Miller (you can access archived webinars here) you remember the many examples Anne shared of using metaphors to make a sales message clearer and more powerful. Metaphors are a rhetorical device.

To be persuasive, we first need to organize our messages using the right structure and then use language in the right way. The combination will help our client see that what we are recommending makes sense for their situation and will motivate them to take action.

If you would like help in putting the best possible structure into your proposals or presentations or revising your content so that it delivers your message effectively, give us a call. We’re proud to admit that rhetoric is something we’re really good at.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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