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The Persuasive Power of Rhetoric

This article was based on the LucidNYC talk, “Language Intelligence and Rhetoric” by Joseph Romm:


Joseph Romm: Language Intelligence and Rhetoric


The Figures of Speech

Almost everyone, at some point in their life, has read an article or book or taken a class about communication.  This is usually based on a desire to be more persuasive and memorable. What you may not have learned is that the best lyricists and public speakers rely on something that isn’t taught and that is rhetoric.  They rely on the power of the figures of speech.

Modern social science research has proven that the figures of speech are indeed the keys to being persuasive and memorable.  However, the proven sequence of being persuasive and memorable is not taught anymore, even though so much of our lives are about persuasion.  Marketing and advertisements try to convince us to buy a product or try a service.  Politicians want our vote.  Even in our daily lives, we want people to remember us.  


The Do’s and Don’ts of Communication

The three main ideas that are taught about communication in science and higher education are:

  1. Use big words
  2. Don’t repeat yourself
  3. Be extremely literal and include facts and numbers.

This isn’t bad advice, but it is the exact opposite of modern twentieth century proven wisdom. In fact, the right strategy to be persuasive is:

  1. Use short words
  2. Repeat yourself as often as possible
  3. Be figurative and include an abundant amount of metaphors


Ancient Memory Tricks

The Greeks codified rhetoric from the great bards, like Homer, who had to remember incredibly long epic poems which they expected their audience to memorise  as well.  These feats of recollection were based upon memory tricks involving metaphor, puns, and irony.  The great writers of the day included in their writings, over three dozen figures of repetition, from alliteration to rhyme. For instance, if you have ever wondered why a song can so easily get stuck in your head, chances are it has a combination of the parts of speech that make it memorable.  In song, this is quite often the use of rhyme and alliteration. All of the great lyricists are masters of the figures of speech.

The simplest key to being persuasive is to be memorable. This may seem obvious, but it is not taught. Social science has found that the reason being memorable makes you more persuasive is because it is easier for us to recall the facts that we are most likely to believe are true.  


Principals of Rhetoric

If you want to be more persuasive, keep the following principals of rhetoric in mind:

  • Rhetoric is not about using big words.  In fact, the opposite is true.  The great speeches of the world, are all built around short words because they appeal with a greater force.
  • Say it again and again.  By the time you are sick of saying it, your target audience is hearing it for the first time. Social scientists have found that repeating something three times has 90% of the same persuasive value of three different people saying it once. Repetition does work.
  • Metaphors make you seem more charismatic.  A study found that the most charismatic presidents used twice as many metaphors as non-charismatic presidents.


Conscious Implementation

Social media and blogging are about popularity and likes.  You are trying to create memes.  To do this you need to understand how to become more persuasive and memorable.  It’s a myth that speech is a gift some people are born with because it is possible to learn to be more persuasive and memorable. There were many books written on this subject during the renaissance.  Today rhetoric is self-taught and we consciously have to try to implement it. Learn to use the figures of speech as Romm described, and your audience will find you more memorable and thus more persuasive.  


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