On the conference stage, I often refer to Aristotle’s abhorrence of rhetoric as part of my argument that even if you don’t like a subject, mastering it can still be preferable to ignoring or denying it. You may not like office politics, but avoiding it offers unscrupulous characters an opportunity to take advantage of you. Despite his dislike of the topic, Aristotle is regarded as the greatest teacher of rhetoric. He maintained that it gave power to weaker arguments and, thus, wanted to equip his students with the ability to defend their position against those with questionable motives.
However, the study of rhetoric is also useful if you want to become more influential at work today. Like the word “politics”, “rhetoric” has a somewhat tarnished reputation. The accusation that an oration is “mere rhetoric” is, if true, a damning indictment – and a false claim could be regarded as a sneaky little dirty trick! The negative connotation is not helped by some dictionaries which define rhetoric as the “undue use of exaggeration or display”. A more objective description is “the ancient art of argumentation and discourse”.
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As the prose above may prove, I am not pretending to be an expert on this topic, but I do think it provides a useful subject to study and one which is as useful today as it was 2,000 years ago. Anthony Weston has written a very concise guide – A Rulebook for Arguments – that you may find illuminating. Here are some of the rules he explains…
- Present ideas in a natural order.
- Start from reliable premises.
- Avoid loaded language.
- Consider counterexamples.
- Sources should be cited.
- Personal attacks do not disqualify a source.
- Explain how cause leads to effect.
Looking back on my work, I am convinced that many of the business cases, strategy documents and steering committees I was involved with could have been substantially improved by following some of these rules. Although the book is only around 90 pages, it goes much deeper than the examples above. Perhaps my favourite one is the structure “Reductio ad absurdum”. So, if you are involved with constructing arguments in order to influence your colleagues, grab a copy of Anthony’s book – and it’s available on Amazon in Kindle version, so you could be reading about it within minutes.