Rhetoric, Commentary and Persuasion ...
There are many genres of persuasive writing: political, philosophical, ethical/moral, business, professional, and motivational - to name a few. Even if we only intend to review movies, or write about gardening projects, persuasion is involved: Would you want to view that movie, or not? Should we go with the messy but fragrant eucalyptus, or perhaps the more stately spruce?
Persuasion inherently involves opinion, offering fertile ground for choice, misunderstanding, and disagreement. In persuasive writing we strive to minimize these obstacles by presentation of constructive alternatives to the status quo: a better way. Crassly put, the parallel purpose of persuasive writing is already familiar to any of us who've been exposed to the world of sales: overcoming the objection.
Most of us, without giving it a second thought, employ oral and written persuasion in personal life, business, legal pleadings, internet postings, technical papers, letters to the editor, and perhaps the occasional article to a newsletter or hobbyist journal. We don't waste valuable time in preplanning and strategy.
When we think about it, we already know, almost instinctively, what styles and approaches are appropriate, and when to modify them to the situation. We'd never stroll into a courthouse and issue an ultimatum to the judge! Life and social custom train us from childhood to acquire an almost uncanny sensitivity to the choice of persuasive technique.
Too often, the heat of spoken and written debate causes this common-sense training to evaporate. Just look at the claptrap that passes for opinion and dialog in so many web posts and forums! We recommend consciously selecting appropriate tools for each writing task to give the edge in making the point.
Principles of persuasion, whatever they may be, must be at least equally important in the world of the written word. Where initially, it seemed, it was almost always sufficient to dash off some good ideas, trusting in the native abilities and good will of the reader, at some point we see it. We have one chance to get it right the first time.
This is Part III of Summitlake.com’s series of notes and observations on the writing craft. In Writing Notes and Writing Style and Clarity we already looked at many ingredients in the writer’s toolkit.
On this web site we've previously published Posting Guidelines as a reference for posting materials here. No matter where the content appears, established rules of the road are remarkably similar. Also, one needs something like our short primer Rhetoric 001 to review points on common rhetorical traps we may lapse into, or by which we become inadvertently victimized.
As before, we offer the standard disclaimer that we don’t get to set me up as an example or role model for the writer’s craft. By examining the various elements of the writing craft, this whole series hopes to answer the question: are there things I could be doing to improve the effectiveness of my own writing?
We’d like to invent bad and better examples of controversial persuasive writing. As initially worded, these should be construed as offensive to some members of specific target groups. Then, we’ll turn those same examples around to see how they might be used more constructively by anyone, including people with whom we might disagree.
First, what is persuasion?
The art of persuasion spans the whole vast chronology of recorded human history. In a random web search, one finds reference to the “first historian”, ancient Greek writer Herodotus. In a chapter Persuasion and polemic, author Rosalind Thomas writes :
Here we see, as far back as Herodotus, writers varied their styles between persuasion and broadside attacks upon sacred institutions and theories.
From the writings of 17th century mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal :
Here we see Pascal has told us there's some necessary relationship between persuasion and the consent of the persuaded.
As we dig deeper, we find search references to persuasion in American advertising. There are other references to persuasion as propaganda. And wouldn’t you know, complementing our earlier observations on the writing craft, there is a fascinating PBS segment on The Art of Persuasion linking this craft to Stonehenge, King Darius, Alexander the Great, and gold and jewelry art objects . Without viewing the whole segment, we're assuming PBS didn't forget to document bribery.
The history of persuasion is as complex as the remarkable history of mankind itself. The media of persuasion expand with the ages - oratory, the written word, radio and television, and digital technology. The techniques of persuasion do not change that much in substance, only in current styles.
There are reasons why the persuasive methodology does not change in substance, only in appearance. We could employ psychologists, linguists, motivational speakers and the study of epistemology  to tell us why.
Of primary interest to us, as writers, is the seemingly self-evident fact that successful persuasion mirrors the workings of human understanding.
1) Not all people on the other side of a disagreement are necessarily "the enemy".
I've posted some pretty strong opinion on civil rights on this site for over a decade. Some of it was intentionally unflattering to folks on the other side of the issues. Though I’d make no apology for strong rhetoric against folks I regard as intentionally malevolent, I’ve come to see a basic mistake in these tactics: this kind of dialog isn’t necessarily effective with my intended middle-ground audience of the undecided, because they see: “this fellow has an ax to grind.”
2) Not all people on our side of a disagreement are necessarily "friends".
I saw a PBS newscast recently on trained health-care professionals who stormed the floor of the U.S. Senate with disruptive emotional shouting, acts of “civil disobedience” on behalf of single-payer health care, for which they were arrested.
Being interested in exploring "single-payer" further because of personal experience with a failed health care system, I saw that these professionals, far from advancing the dialog, had alienated millions - myself included.
3) Corollary: Some people who find themselves on the other side of an issue may actually be friends.
For decades I’ve known an old friend who is not always on the "same side" of issues as me - fair enough! We both know not to try to sway the other by dictating what to say or do. That doesn't work.
We both have always been strong on individual rights and liberties. What we meant by these concepts has nevertheless evolved over the years. On some issues he leans more toward the "unreconstructed redneck", where I come across as the "flaming liberal." Rather than name-calling over the years, each of us has "brought the other around" on certain ideological crossings, by patient explanation. What made this work is trust.
As writers, then, we need to find ways to establish that trust with a broad base of readership. The writer is not alone in having the inevitable axes to grind. We are naturally distrustful of others who try to stereotype us as party hacks . Targeting a readership that will agree on 100% of the issues, share all of the same axes to grind, and cue on all the same keywords and code phrases - well, that only happens in cult newsletters, doesn’t it?
Over all these years, I have witnessed famous histrionics and purely emotional appeals and they do not work. I am more amenable to finding the common ground and working from there.
As writers, we see that the “safe spaces” for reasonable dialog have all but disappeared over the years, from radio, newspaper and television, to the web “blog” and “FaceBook”. If we can’t create the “common ground” for persuasion on the written page, where else are we going to find it?
Dictionary.com can't be very helpful, and at times seems almost circular, since this is a difficult word with over two millennia of loaded meaning:
Here also we are given synonyms which are some help:
Persuasion – noun
Persuasion - a better definition
What it of most interest to the writer or speaker is completely lacking above. How does the “appeal to reason” work to bring about the winning over of a person to a certain course of action, and, equally important, when it fails, why?
On reflection, persuasion turns out to be more complicated than how we are socially accustomed to thinking of it.
The declaration “I would like to persuade you” actually presumes not one or more of the following, but all of the below and all at the same time:
We would need more time to hammer out a formal definition, so let us instead settle for an informal working definition:
“We have means of persuading you…”
Usually, the means by which an action is accomplished isn't considered an integral part of the action, and therefore, not a proper part of the definition ("don’t multiply concepts beyond necessity"). In the case of “persuasion”, we have several other words for effecting an agreement when reason, logic, facts and common ground are considered dispensable.
We’ll focus on the art of persuasion, rather than upon means which rely on coercion, trickery, demagoguery or force. Please see our reference on Rhetoric 001 to recognize underhanded methods when we encounter them.
Persuasive writing isn't just about following common-sense rules of the road, though it's certainly all of that. Best rhetorical practice requires that we understand the underlying ideas or philosophy of persuasion.
Remember the old adage don't discuss religion or politics? Sure we do. It's such a clichéd old bromide that we have to step back for a moment, just to remember how it became such common-sense folk wisdom in the first place. People get hottest under the collar when they sense that a fundamental tenet is being ridiculed, disrespected or just plain contradicted.
From the individual's standpoint, it seldom matters whether a fundamental tenet is held as a matter of profound conviction or an article of faith. A person may assert that the right to liberty is not just self-evident but demonstrable, or he may simply state that he believes in it. Either way, we are not likely to pick a quarrel.
We know we're most likely to alienate the reader when we rub a sore spot. Many people have touchy, volatile ideological sore spots. Religion and politics are at the top of this list, and often for the very same reason.
If we're attempting to challenge an article of faith, some premise that one holds on faith may or may not be valid, but its defense has been intellectually defaulted (by definition) to "out of bounds". We are expected to realize "everybody knows that", that this position has been held by time-honored generations of forefathers, and that our challenge is tantamount to defamation - it's "dirty pool".
The whole discussion of the origin of the species, Creationism vs. Evolution, for example, fails between people of opposite persuasions because, from the standpoint of the theory of knowledge at least, we're pairing off the analytical methods of scientist against the predetermined teachings of the theologian.
In a discussion of democracy, out of a group of one hundred Americans, it would be hard to find one who would admit to not believing in democracy. Here's a little thought experiment:
a) Ask the same group, "define democracy", and you would expect a standard bell curve where the lowest percentile would fail utterly, the middle of the curve would offer some kind of passable grasp of decision-making by vote and election, and a top percentile would try to include a history of western democracies before we could thank them very much.
b) Now ask only those in the top percentile the additional question: "what are rights, how do you validate them, and who in a democracy, then, should have access to equal rights?" The result will be uncivilized mayhem.
It seems comfort zones are relative across the whole spectrum of education and status.
Bad Example (1)
Bad Example (2)
Did you notice what just happened in the two examples above?
An odd thing about the above two corrosive paragraphs is that no single sentence, taken by itself, is way off the mark for factual correctness. It is the juxtaposition that becomes offensive. The author's presumption (mine) was: we can't say anything, because the author didn't. Nobody is fooled here except the author. The paragraphs seem to be saying much more than they actually state, because of the way they are intentionally ordered and what is not said; there is a subtext, and that subtext bristles with hostility.
As persuasive writing, they might as well have been explicitly defamatory personal attacks on the targeted reader. Why?
They mount ideological attacks on the institutions in question, while side-stepping sensitive central issues.
Who is the audience for such a paragraph?
We are not writing effectively to any of the three possible target audiences to promote principles we believed should prevail. There are better ways of making constructive points effectively, and we will visit them shortly.
Let's first summarize a list of “guidelines” for our consideration as writers. Then we’ll discuss more precisely what’s wrong with the two italicized paragraphs above. We’ll try to rewrite them using a “common ground” approach. Finally, we'll try to flesh out the NRA example by following up with a concrete proposal in outline form.
We’ve established that we would not normally choose to write these groups on issues like same-sex civil rights, so why would a writer follow through with an attack on their religious institutions? If we’re not preaching to the Mormons and Catholics, and we’re not “preaching to the choir”, we’re preaching to the middle, undecided group.
Analysis of previous mistakes:
Reworked: A more effective approach to the theme in paragraph #1 might be:
Analysis of previous mistakes:
If we as writers wish to address such mixed-bag topics, this should give us a more positive briefing for a “common ground” approach. There is no question that such a writing assignment would be difficult.
Rewritten: A more effective approach to the theme in paragraph #2 might be:
We've just worked through a couple of examples where we turned a bad situation around into a plausible "save". In each "before" example, the tone and content was needlessly offensive to the target group being criticize. Worse, it was a tip-off, to people who might ordinarily agree with us, that there was little or nothing for them here either. Why? Instead of being offered a constructive alternative approach, readers discern a choice to engage in name-calling instead. This suggests that the writer either has something to hide, or must be presumed unable to come up with a more constructive solution.
In the "after" examples, we've simply disregarded irrelevant questions about alleged defects and personality quirks of the players, offering instead a constructive approach that appeals to a nearly-forgotten common ground.
The conciliatory approach doesn't always play in Peoria. In rewritten Example #2,
When we get right down to it, there's seldom anything we can say or do to sway the doctrinaire hard-liners on either side. We are looking for the open-minded people on both sides of the fence who might say, "well, this is a step in the right direction."
Normally, the middle-ground, open-minded audience is going to sway the tide against the hard-liners in the end, once they make up their mind. Here we find the readers to whom we must appeal.
"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel"
Having said all that, we may still sometimes feel the conciliatory approach just doesn't work. Sometimes we're going to go for the jugular anyway, but the trade-off is that we risk putting the critic in the same company as the scoundrel.
I'm not an attorney, but I suspect most successful attorneys would concur that the preferred approach is to dominate the courtroom with facts and precedent, while avoiding any appearance of trying to sway the jury with intimidation and defamatory conduct.
It might be easy to say the courtroom is not a good analog of the writer's domain, since the legal players appear on behalf of the respective clients, and the judge enforces the rules. Actually, in the writer's domain, it's the writer who's on trial.
Whether choosing the middle ground or the hard-line partisan approach, professional conduct still pays in presenting the brief: "Respect the court." Be factual in your approach. Orient your conclusions toward cause-and-effect consequences. Then the jury shouldn't need much help from you to come to a just and fair conclusion.
Applying the above rules, let us conclude confrontational argument by seeing what we can do to bring Example #2 to a fact-oriented, blame-free, cause-and-effect conclusion.
Our reworked "preamble" to the gun control issue was a more effective first step toward encouraging a sense of common ground on both sides of the debate. While attacking neither side, it states the position of both sides even-handedly. It cites facts that both sides have acknowledged are concerns. It proposes, without detail, "testing and licensing just as we have for motor vehicles." Readers are now primed to examine just how we propose to present an idea which is generally out of favor with both sides:
A factionalized and emotional issue (like gun control) can be broken down into factual arguments on both sides. We as writer need to recognize that partisans on either side are very unlikely to agree with any outcome of the debate (confiscate, do nothing, register and license).
The arguments above are of course developed and presented in tabular format. For multi-step persuasive writing, it's a very good first step for the writer to develop and lay out elements and flow in some kind of outline or tabular form. Converting this to narrative text is straight-forward, so we won't follow through with step that here.
Putting all the cards on the table is a good way to initiate the process. It allows even-headed people to approach practical solutions to one part of the issue (e.g. "the gun problem"), without all the distractions of name-calling and faddish rhetorical diatribe. Even if it seems that the unaddressed issue (say, the illegal firearms market) is the greater problem and still uncontrollable, the method of persuasive argument outlined above should help clear the air for objective examination of where we go from here.
The same approaches to persuasion that we might choose for chatting with an old friend, in the relaxing shade of the front yard garden, might often set the right tone for effective persuasive writing.
copyright ©Alex Forbes June 5, 2009
1 - Ethnography, Science and The Art of Persuasion, Rosalind Thomas [Google Book Search] p. 213