The Beauty of Rhetoric

Last week, I wrote about the various words for love in Ancient Greece. Today, I continue my homage to the Greeks by attempting to revive the honor of a word that often stirs up negative feelings. A word that every marketing professional should be familiar with, including nonprofit marketers. The word is rhetoric.

While studying Public Relations and Communication Theory in college, I ran into the word rhetoric a lot, as well as the negative reactions that come with it. (I also faced a lot of negative reactions to the term “Public Relations”, but I won’t get into that today). Clichés such as “empty rhetoric” have emerged in the political arena and elsewhere. Misuse of the word has made it nearly synonymous with manipulation. Even Merriam-Webster has added a dimension of dishonesty to its definitions of rhetoric.

Let’s put thoughts of spin, trickery and dishonest politicians away for a minute and take a closer look. First emerging as a word in Ancient Greece, rhetoric literally means the art of rhetor, or, the art of oration. Essentially, it is the practice of effective communication. You don’t even have to have persuasion as a goal to practice rhetoric. You can educate. You can motivate. You can commemorate. In short, you can get people to listen to your message. And that’s important when you have a mission you care about; a mission others should know about.

The Ancient Greeks viewed rhetoric as an art form to be learned. While the concept didn’t start in Greece, Greek scholar Aristotle famously studied rhetoric and coined these terms closely associated with rhetoric: Ethos, pathos and logos. You may feel like you are reliving your Public Speaking 101 course here, but for those who aren’t familiar with the terms, this is the breakdown summary:

Ethos, pathos and logos are components to include in speech to make your message effective. Ethos means demonstrating your expertise of the topic on which you are talking. Pathos is an appeal to your listeners’ emotions, to get them to connect to your message in a personal way. Logos means ensuring your message is logical. If your message is lacking one of these components, it is less likely to be remembered, and less likely to be successful if your goal is to change opinions or behavior. While rhetoric’s origin is in speech, these same concepts can be applied to your writing as well.

If you still aren’t comfortable calling your organization’s communication rhetoric, that’s okay. Word meanings change constantly and quickly in our society, and this one may be a lost cause. But I encourage you to remember Aristotle’s advice the next time you are speaking or writing about your organization: 1. Establish your credibility, 2. Include a story or something similar that your listeners can relate to, and 3. Make sure what you are saying makes sense rationally.

While there are many language tools you can use to make your message more effective (some of which I will cover in future blog posts), ethos, pathos and logos are a good three words to keep in mind. And this may be my inner history nerd speaking, but isn’t it cool to know that the same techniques that were used over 1400 years ago are still relevant today?

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