If We Want to be Effective When We Communicate, We Would Do Well to Remind Ourselves That the Old Rules of Rhetoric Still Apply.
By Thomas J. Roach
Social media is no longer a novelty; it has become a business. And as the business of social media turns formal, so does the writing. At one time we invented emoticons, wrote with all capital letters or no capital letters, used frivolous subject lines, and created Byzantine websites with eclectic information. It was a wonderful experiment, but it is over.
Memos have become emails, and the old press release process is transitioning to Facebook and blogging sites. We are experiencing the culmination of a techno-cultural evolution, but as the smoke clears, it is increasingly apparent that while the old technology of communication is dying, the art of communication has survived.
Our brains and the cognitive processes by which we process information predate our computers by several millennia. From the public relations officer to engineers to quarry managers to secretaries, if we want to be effective when we communicate, we would do well to remind ourselves that the old rules of rhetoric still apply.
Following are some basic principles of argumentation and a few style issues that every communicator should keep in mind.
Writers are inventors. The term invention was first used in the study of ancient rhetoric to refer to the important process by which a speaker might come up with a persuasive argument, or thesis, or just to make a point. In the age of electronic media, many options for public expression exist, yet, no matter if one writes a blog entry or a news release, there is still the need to generate the idea, develop the theme or sometimes make the argument.
Whatever the subject, convert it into a thesis or proposition. Very near the beginning, the writer must assert or deny something about the subject to let the readers know what lies ahead. Ideally this is a single sentence. For journalists and news release writers, the thesis statement has evolved into what we now call the lead sentence which tells the reader who, what, where, when and why.
One should also consider the three proofs: ethos, pathos and logos.
- Ethos, the ethical proof, is mostly a matter of trustworthiness. Aristotle points out that if the audience does not trust the speaker, then the arguments, no matter how good, are likely to be ignored. Exactness in word selection and well- researched facts are the main ways writers demonstrate their trustworthiness.
- Pathos, the emotional appeal, is problematic for business and public relations writers. Aristotle recommended avoiding pathos, and his advice is still good today.
- Logos, the logical appeal, governs most business writing. Verifiable information is used to inform, to entertain, and sometimes to persuade.
Brevity is the soul of wit; endeavor to be brief. The best advice regarding style is to eliminate every word that isn’t necessary. Also, rhetoric teaches us that style choices need to contribute to our desired effect. Not using capital letters makes a message hard to read, and as the journalism professors used to say, all caps is no caps, as nothing is emphasized. People need to receive our thoughts in clear, bite-sized chunks called sentences. Don’t get cute; keep it simple.
Lastly, all writers need to consider arrangement. Whether writing a paragraph or a page of paragraphs, make the main point early and reinforce it at the close. See the previous paragraph.
Programs like Microsoft Word can help with grammar, but we still have to generate our own arguments, demonstrate that we are trustworthy and get to the point. Years ago when a hospital cafeteria changed over from the old mechanical cash registers to new computerized ones, one of the workers put up a sign: “Please be patient. New Machines, Same old ladies.” We might be writing on new computers, but we are writing for the same old people.