Though the medium by which our society commonly communicates may be evolving, the reasons for which we change our language remain the same. Our language has purpose. As a communicative being, you perform a series of gestures and actions to articulate ideas and thoughts, and even if we may not be aware of it, each individual possesses a unique type of coded language that heavily influences conversation, speech and overall communication as a whole. This is rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of effective communication, or knowing how to properly address various audiences in various situations. It is used everywhere; from seminar rooms, to speaking with our friends, job interviews and more, rhetorical ability shapes how successful a person can be within any given social situation.
The practice originated in Greece in the fifth century with the idea that many people were already trained in how to defend themselves physically, so they should therefore also be prepared to defend themselves intellectually. The Sophists were the first teachers of oratory practices. They were a group of teachers who lectured the masses about how one can gain status and rank through strong language abilities. Only a few decades later, Aristotle wrote Rhetoric, a comprehensive look at the structures, systems and components within the art of oration that is still regarded as a keynote text today.
The full scope of rhetoric is extensive and takes decades to practice and perfect, but to understand even just three of the main appeals in rhetoric can improve your everyday communication ability greatly. These appeals are ethos, logos and pathos. With them you can expand your ability to converse effectively by learning to be more aware as a speaker and become more aware of your intended audience. Aristotle wrote, “Every other art can instruct or persuade about its own particular subject-matter; for instance, medicine about what is healthy and unhealthy, geometry about the properties of magnitudes, arithmetic about numbers, and the same is true of the other arts and sciences. But rhetoric we look upon as the power of observing the means of persuasion on almost any subject presented to us; and that is why we say that, in its technical character, it is not concerned with any special or definite class of subjects”.
Essentially, rhetoric can be applied in any discipline with effectiveness, which is why it is so relevant and necessary in our lives. Picture for a moment a person who is insincere, speaks only using slang or cusswords, and gets angry when they don’t get their way. It is safe to say that they would not fare well in social situations or in the job market because of how they choose to interact and communicate. No matter what you want to do with your life, communication will be a necessary aspect and the way that you choose to employ rhetorical knowledge will dictate how successful you can be.
The ethos of a speaker concerns the perception of his or her credibility to the audience, or how trustworthy they appear to be, a critical feature when communicating. Though we are taught to not judge a book by its cover, human beings observe and perceive things, often unconsciously. It’s important to be aware of the subtle things you may do that discredit yourself to other people. For students tackling job interviews, your credibility to an employer can make or break a potential hire. Ethos can be looked at as your own personal marketability and it has more influence than you might think.
Your ethos can take into account things like attire, vocabulary, physical movements and even appearance. To communicate with anyone, you first have to understand their context and expectations. In a job interview, you wouldn’t wear flip-flops, a tank top and a pair of ripped jeans because that interviewer is most likely looking for a professional job candidate and expects the applicants to be professional. Therefore, communication and connection is not all about words, it comes down to every impressionable and transmittable aspect of yourself. Two people can read the same document aloud and both will speak the same words, but their degrees of communicative success are strongly dependant upon their respective deliveries. Is it the tone of their voice? The position of the speaker’s body? The amount of eye contact given? All of these factors dictate how your personal image will be conveyed to your audience.
We can see examples of real-life ethical miscalculations rather frequently. A few months ago, the European Space Agency launched the Rosetta spacecraft with the intention of landing on a comet that was moving through space, an unprecedented event in aeronautic travel. On the day it landed, the team involved with the craft was subject to many press conferences and on-camera interviews. The project scientist for the mission, Matt Taylor, wore a t-shirt showing cartoon images of a scantily clad woman holding guns, and subsequently became the focus of media vilification for his apparently misogynistic choice in attire. Many people are torn on the subject, some saying that this is discouraging women from entering fields related to science and space travel, others saying that there is absolutely nothing heinous about his decision to wear the shirt. Whether or not the shirt actually carries any harmful implications, it was simply a poor rhetorical choice on Taylor’s part to not pay attention to the social expectations for which the context called. He was aware that the achievement of the Rosetta mission would become international news, but he, perhaps unconsciously, made a decision that led to his image being posted on tabloids across the globe. A simple dress shirt could have subverted a controversy that ultimately overshadowed a scientific milestone. By paying attention to your own ethos, the tricky landscape of language and communication can become far easier to traverse.
Logos is the logical fluency that a person possesses when in a social situation, and this rhetorical appeal directly influences the aforementioned ethos that an individual has. Logos is dependent upon the intellectual capacity of the speaker and the way in which they are able to use logic, reason and cognitive fluency to maintain effectiveness socially. It is important to not only appear trustworthy and credible to those that you are communicating with, but to display that you have a comprehensive grasp on the subject matter that is being discussed. Yet, logos can be easily impeded through communicative dissonance, the occurrence of various actions that prevent someone from displaying knowledge such as a lack of informative vocabulary as well as an absence of declarative statements.
Though it may not be fair, if you can’t convey an idea verbally, you may be perceived as having no ideas. It can be very difficult to alter the manner of our speech and the subconscious things that we may do but it is critical to have communicative fluency when speaking. Words such as “like”, “um” and “uh” are syntactic fillers that, when used in excess, display a lack of preparedness on the part of the speaker and can be a quick way to lose logical credibility in a situation. This is very important to be aware of in a professional setting, as potential employers have rejected applicants based on their inability to speak logically and to show cognitive fluency in conversation. Always think about what you are going to say before you say it, as it can help to increase the fluidity of your speech as well as maintaining the consistency of what you say and not running off topic. To fully utilize the potential of the logos as a conversational tool, the speaker must not simply appear to have intelligence, but must possess actual intelligence. Each person is knowledgeable about some topics more than others, and the onus is on the speaker to uncover where his or her intellect lies. To speak about things you have no knowledge of can only serve to humiliate you, so be aware of your strengths, as well as your weaknesses. There is no shame admitting when you don’t know something, because you still have the time learn it.
The last weapon in your rhetorical arsenal is pathos. It concerns how an appropriate display of emotions can play a critically important role when communicating with others. Emotions are a part of everyday life, and come in a myriad of shapes and sizes. But despite our frequent exposure to emotions, very few people have a composite grasp on their own emotional literacy and the subtle, but influential way that they can positively and negatively affect others with their attitude. When sculpting your personal rhetoric, control of your emotions will allow you to be in better social position in a situation and to maintain logical composure in the face of distraction. Things won’t always go your way in life, and it is important to check your emotions before they spill out, to preserve professionalism and maturity.
By understanding the full scope of your own emotions, you gain awareness and insight that makes you more sensitive to the emotional capability of people around you. When you understand what makes people happy or sad, you can actively avoid the things that may offend them, and do the things that make them happy. It is easier than we think to make people either happy or sad, which is why a solid understanding of pathos can reduce the amount of unnecessary miscommunications and unintentional offenses. But because emotion is such a powerful tool, using too much or too little can be detrimental to an interaction so you as a speaker must know how to straddle that middle line. For example, a job interview is a place for you to expound upon your professional and academic credentials in hopes to obtain employment. Telling your potential employer that you need the job because your dog died and you’ve been upset lately is not pertinent information, and will only highlight a lack of competence. However, emotion can be used positively as well. It can help you connect with people on a deeper level and unite an otherwise dissimilar set of individuals with nothing more than feeling. Martin Luther King Jr., the legendary civil rights activist, was a master at employing pathos when speaking, and connecting to his audience through the power of emotion. He was able to use his words to alter the social and political landscape of an entire nation, and bring an objectified people together to fight for their due rights. Being aware of emotion can help you to better understand both yourself, and the people around you, allowing for a greater depth in conversation and social interaction.
More than anything else, rhetorical success with ethos, logos and pathos relies on your ability to employ a high degree of intrapersonal and interpersonal awareness and observance in social situations. Think about acting instead of reacting. Rhetoric provides you with a social road map, marking out difficult territory, and giving you a means by which to accommodate and understand the multitude of social interactions that you will engage in. Your ethical credibility, logical consistency and emotional literacy all contribute to the person that you are, and to the person that people see you to be. As a student, you can use rhetoric in personal relationships, to become a better friend, and to give yourself a leg up on the competition during the process of finding a job. It doesn’t take much, but successful communication is within your grasp; understand the power of your own personal rhetoric.