“What is rhetoric?” you may ask. There are many definitions available. As a scholar of rhetoric, I offer my current definition.
Rhetoric is the study and practice of communication that persuades, informs, inspires, or entertains target audiences in order to change or reinforce beliefs, values, habits or actions.
Rhetoric is basically the strategic use of communication to accomplish purposes with target audiences. It can be used for ethical and unethical purposes, but ought to be used for good ends and to enhance truthful and honest messages.
Rhetoric is defined by its function, not by a communication medium, topic, or social location.
- Rhetoric is not limited to writing and speech, but occurs through all media and genres. Rhetoric may be performed and appreciated in music and the arts, in greeting cards, Twitter posts, advertising, architecture, and elementary education.
- Rhetoric is not restricted to politics and public discourse, but is potentially an aspect of communication on every topic and every social situation. Therefore its strategies must also vary by situation and audience.
- Rhetoric need not have an external, human audience. One could even say we persuade ourselves through our internal decision-making processes. Spiritual practices often include divine persuasion and communion through prayer.
Rhetoric functions even where it is not announced or acknowledged, and is even used by those who deny it and defame it.
- Most people practice rhetoric all the time without consciously applying it or studying it, just as we can all think without having to study philosophy or psychology.
- Because “rhetoric” has often been portrayed as empty, false, argumentative, or manipulative, many people dismiss it, avoid it, or blame it for many ills in the world. However, rhetoric, like many other human arts, achieve its greatest purpose when used to communicate and enhance truth, mutual understanding and beauty.
- Sometimes communicators expressly deny that they are using rhetoric. However, the most powerful forms of rhetoric are those that hide their own strategies and intentions.
- Many people accuse others of using rhetoric as if using it is not ethical or appropriate. However, even the condemnation of someone else’s rhetoric is itself an act of rhetoric persuading you to agree with their judgment.
Rhetorical study not only brings deeper understanding of strategic communication, but guides our practical use of it. Rhetoric is an art through which people learn to improve their own communication and adapt it to specific audiences and purposes. It also helps us learn to discern the excellence and weakness of our own and others’ rhetoric. Rhetorical study & education occurs through several means:
- Individual, everyday practice and reflection on one’s own communication — We learn through painful trial and error and by reflecting on what we observe. We adjust our own rhetoric sometimes without even being aware of altering our strategies, and other times we use conscious effort.
- Rhetorical enculturation and popular rhetorical advice — We can find examples and advice about effective or ineffective rhetoric in self-help books, magazine articles, and churches, among other places. Our society continually teaches people how to communicate in certain situations or to achieve certain purposes.
- Formal study of rhetorical theory, criticism, history, and practice — This is usually facilitated through Rhetoric courses at an institution of higher education, or through a speaking or debate club or corporate workshop that incorporates the rhetorical tradition. University courses usually teach the “rhetorical tradition” represented by a canon of rhetorical theorists and famous orators/writers/leaders. They often engage students in applying rhetorical principles to their production of discourse in writing, speech, or other media.
Read more about rhetoric on Wikipedia’s Rhetoric Page.