A Primer for Business Rhetoric
Jan 4, 2005 5:00 AM PT
Business communication skills are the most important skills that any manager or staff person can have. You might have the best product or service in the world. You might have great technical skills and domain knowledge. However, if you cannot communicate effectively, then you are lost. All other advantages depend on effective communication skills.
It is not just important to know what to do or say. One must also know what to avoid. A misstep or two can be enough to ruin a contract opportunity, a job application, or a sales effort.
Managers are likely to have responsibility for reviewing, editing and approving communications before they are released. To implement that responsibility requires top-notch communication skills. It might also require managers to provide feedback and training to help others communicate more effectively.
Communication skills are not something that one acquires in life and can subsequently neglect. Being an effective communicator means continually keeping track of how your communication efforts are working and then adapting and improving as circumstances change.
There are two types of communication skills: cognitive and discursive. Cognitive skills involve listening, comprehending and critically analyzing what you hear or read. Discursive communication represents outgoing attempts to inform, persuade or entertain. Of those, the ability to persuade is often the most critical.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) is credited with being the father of mass communication methods. Aristotle's treatise Rhetoric is the single most important handbook ever written on the subject of effective communication, that is, rhetoric. Everything written on the subject since then is largely an attempt to restate or refine Aristotle's original ideas and classifications.
Aristotle's Rhetoric is widely read in English programs in Western universities. It should be mandatory for businesses and computer science students. Did you miss it? The best translation is: Aristotle on Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse, translated by George A. Kennedy and published in paperback by Oxford University Press in 1991.
Aristotle's method for effective communication is easy to use. Before you call someone and make a pitch, before you write an e-mail asking someone to do something for you, before you write a memo advocating a course of action, ask yourself: "What would Aristotle do?"
- Invention -- deciding what to say;
- Arrangement of your material for best effect;
- Style -- how best to speak or write your descriptions, arguments, etc.; and
- Exercises to improve your capabilities.
We address each of those topics below.
Invention is the first step in effective communication and one that many people skip. It is also called discovery. Invention is the process of coming up with ideas and then deciding which ideas to include in your communication.
Invention leads to the use of stasis theory. Stasis is the ancient Greek term for standstill or conflict. Stasis is used for defining issues and structuring arguments. Stasis theory as a guide for the invention of arguments is outlined in A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, by Richard A. Lanham (University of California Press, 1992).
Invention is to communication as software requirement specifications are to software development. If you fail to develop software specifications properly, you will be thinking up what your software needs to do only after you've defined the architecture and have produced a lot of possibly useless code.
Aristotle said that you should carefully arrange the order in which your ideas are presented in your communications. The thesis or points you are trying to make should guide the order in which your material is presented.
Part One: The Introduction
Aristotle divided communication (spoken or written) into the introduction, middle and conclusion. No single part is essential, he said, but you should be familiar with how each part normally functions.
The introduction prepares your readers or listeners for the message you will be delivering. You need to pay attention to the frame of mind of your audience, particularly in the introduction.
What do you presume the attitude of your audience to be? In Rhetoric, Aristotle suggests making an audience attentive, benevolent towards you (or at least not hostile), and docile enough for you to persuade or inform them. In a world that equates rhetoric with aggressive argumentation, Aristotle's suggestion to encourage docility is not always widely understood or appreciated.
Docility is the guiding principle behind television ads that appear to be so simplistic as to almost insult viewers' intelligence. Ads that appear simple and non-threatening can seep into viewers' consciousness while also giving viewers the feeling of having maintained control over their choices. As long as their sense of volition persists, people feel as if they have nothing to fear from commercials.
"And when we think we lead, we are most led," wrote the English poet Lord Byron in his historical tragedy, The Two Foscari, in 1821.
We are more likely to be seduced by something that appears benign and non-threatening than by aggressive argumentation. A subtle recognition of vulnerabilities can be more attractive than a display of aggression, pride or monolithic strength.
People who display no weaknesses often elicit envy, fear and anger. We want to sabotage them just to bring them down.
There are likeable weaknesses and unlikable ones. Learn the difference. Repress the unlikable ones. Don't complain too much or appear pathetic.
Aristotelian rhetoric's focus on encouraging a favorable attitude through means other than aggressive argumentation can be extended from the introduction through the middle and end of your communication. As we see below, the effectiveness of the middle part of your communication often hinges on how well it is organized.
Part Two: The Middle
Properly organizing the middle of your communication is critical. Otherwise you could end up with "A beginning, a muddle, and an end." That is Philip Larkin's description of the "classic formula" for a novel (in New Fiction, January 1978).
The middle of your communication will be organized according to the situation you find yourself in and the type of material that you will be presenting. In The Little Rhetoric and Handbook (published by Scott Foresman in 1982), Edward Corbett identifies the following types of organization:
- Logical order can employ inductive reasoning (from the particular to the general), deductive reasoning (from the general to the particular), cause-to-effect reasoning, or effect to cause reasoning. Logical order can also proceed from the smaller to the larger, from an aspect to the whole, or the reverse.
- Clearing the ground by refuting previous accounts or explanations can be done either before or after presenting your own perspective.
- Climactic order proceeds from the least important to the most important. Anticlimactic is the reverse.
- Chronological order is used to narrate events in order of time.
- Familiar to unfamiliar order can be used to explain new concepts by moving from the known to the unknown.
- Spatial order can be followed in describing something from left to right, top to bottom, inside to outside, etc.
Part Three: The Conclusion
The conclusion provides your readers or listeners with parting words to wrap up the discussion. Without a conclusion, your communications will come to an abrupt halt.
According to Corbett, a conclusion can do the following:
- Review or summarize your main points.
- Encourage readers or listeners to be well disposed towards you.
- Make an emotional appeal to bolster your arguments.
- Emphasize the larger importance of your subject.
While you might be able to convince people with rational arguments, that might not be enough to motivate them to take action. Emotional appeals can generate that motivation. In written communication it is usually appropriate to tone down emotional appeals.
Style is determined in part by word choice and syntax. If you write or speak in the same style all the time, then your style is liable to become stale. Try varying your style and experimenting with different word choices, word orders and verb types. Active verbs are better than passive ones.
The use of too many adjectives is a common stylistic error. Go over your work and see if you can identify and eliminate all adjectives except those that are absolutely necessary.
Avoid trite, tired expressions and silly figures of speech. Do not mix your metaphors. Do not let wild horses drive you to fly like an eagle in the same sentence.
Cut out unnecessary words. Tighten up your sentences. Eliminate the needless repetition of words and ideas.
Preserve the unity and coherency of your paragraphs. Unity will be achieved if every sentence contributes to the development of the topic of the paragraph.
Provide transition paragraphs or other signposts to signal shifts from one major topic to another. Transition paragraphs remind your audience of what has just been discussed and prepare your audience for what is ahead. Graphic devices such as headings can also be used to signal transitions.
In writing for business, as in writing software code, a simple and straightforward style is often best. Start simply, and if you have time, then perhaps you can add more elaborate touches later. Try to sound natural without being too informal or disorganized.
Teaching Business Communication
Western secondary schools and colleges commonly teach rhetoric and composition in the form of five-page papers. This type of writing is fundamentally unsuited for the modern business world.
In business, the most effective forms of written communication are often less than one page or 250 words in length. It can be harder and more time consuming to communicate effectively in 250 words or less than in five whole pages. The most important communications are often spoken rather than written, but require no less effort, preparation and skill than what is required for written works.
Communication education in the West often lacks exercises in rhetoric and gives scant attention to anything other than written composition. Communication education in the West is often geared towards training followers, not leaders.
The ancient Greeks called exercises in rhetoric "progymnasmata." Progymnasmata includes practice imitating the communication structure and style of others, often famous people. For progymnasmata exercises and a detailed study of rhetorical techniques, see Edward Corbett's Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 4th Edition, (Oxford University Press, 1998).
Why make the effort to upgrade your communication skills? Goethe said:
Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.
Anthony Mitchell , an E-Commerce Times columnist, has been involved with the Indian IT industry since 1987, specializing through InternationalStaff.net in offshore process migration, call center program management, turnkey software development and help desk management.