Discourse (Rhetoric) at work

Having referred to message, narrative, and political frames in my last post, the theme of good and bad communication (rhetoric) beckoned for this reflection.

Institutional Rhetoric

How we characterise our nonprofit organisation and our relationship to it is evident in the language we use in our internal communications, and our representation of the entity to the wider community. These characterisations are collectively called ‘institutional rhetoric‘.

“Institutional rhetoric allows organizations to speak with a single voice. Its characteristics include personification of institutions, the corporate “we,” the use of synecdoche (i.e. a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa), and an emphasis on the maintenance of institutional image and the support of the institution’s publics.”

Boyd, Josh. (2017). Institutional Rhetoric. 10.1002/9781118955567.wbieoc112.

Identifying ourselves with the entity we ‘belong to’ is symbolic of our commitment to the purposes served by our organisation. Everything we say or do in our roles on behalf of the organisation (and outside those roles for that matter) forms part of the institutional rhetoric.

When we employ rhetoric to advocate for institutional change, we may want to appeal to ethical perspectives, emotions, or rationality. Often enough though, the identity ‘myths’ we have subscribed to as a group conflict with those appeals, or indeed, the multiple logics employed are mixed and confused. Thinking about how our rhetoric constructs our current and future ‘reality’ helps us to become more deliberate in our decision-making conversations.

Rhetoric and The Trivium

Grammar, logic, and rhetoric “form the basis through which we define the world around us through language, come to the logical conclusions that guide the courses of our lives, and communicate these definitions and ideas effectively to the outside world“. (Art of Discourse).

Regrettably, rhetoric, the third element in The Trivium (where the three ‘roads’ of grammar, logic, and rhetoric meet) has been debased over time by an ever-growing tendency to use polemic and ad hominem attacks, especially via social media. Many of us would also have to confess that we think of rhetoric mostly in terms of ’empty promises’, flowery language which lacks substance, disputatious and controversial statements, or maybe rhetorical questions – which don’t actually seek an answer (“Am I right, or am I right?”).

To improve ‘civil’ society, it may help to remember that one sense of the term rhetoric is ‘discourse’ – the verbal (respectful) exchange of ideas.

There are quite a few other synonyms for rhetoric used in non-profit governance and management. We use rhetoric whenever we argue a case or seek to promote a cause. We also use it when we work on our ‘communication strategy’, engage in ‘deliberative dialogue’, or frame a ‘compelling message’. Of course, whenever we engage in discourse, we are employing rhetoric (more or less skilfully).

Triadic guidance

Contemporary advice on framing our messages is typically triadic, e.g.: Why? What? How? – as illustrated in the chart below. The skeptical ‘ABC’ guidance on message response in this chart is borrowed from the ‘TV detective’ mantra – ‘assume nothing, believe no one, and check everything‘.

Little has changed since Aristotle offered his contemporaries advice on the Rhetorical Triangle. His proposed triad of rhetorical devices, or ‘means of persuasion’, consisted of Ethos (rationale), Logos (key message), and Pathos (the appeal to audience values and beliefs) – as illustrated in the header image above.

The Trivium, of which rhetoric is one element, is mirrored by the Rhetorical Triangle, as shown in the following chart.

Greek philosophers have exerted an enduring influence on Western thinking about the use of rhetorical devices, and many of the types of appeals made by rhetorical arguments bear Greek names. Some of these are listed in the chart below, along with mention of the five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, memory, style, and delivery. Memory, and to some extent delivery, are used in oratory – speaking more effectively to an audience or to camera.

There are many other rhetorical devices of course. Some are used for persuasion, while others can be used for different communication purposes, such as social media posts, online and print articles, business proposals, position papers, video scripts, interview notes, advocacy campaign messages, etc.

Sophistry, Spin, and Hyperbole

While message framing has been used beneficially for such worthy purposes as health promotion, motivation, and learning, it is also used to sell products, for shaping political debates (or conflicts), and for distortion of the truth.

In PR and political contexts, ‘spin’ is another name for propaganda. It involves knowingly using a biased interpretation of data or events to influence opinions (public or private) about people, organisations, or groups of various kinds. It can be used to promote either favourable views about the source, or unfavourable opinions about another person or entity.

Hyperbole is defined as the art of expressing an idea in a way that makes it larger or smaller, more or less important, than it actually is. ‘Under-stated’ and ‘over-stated’ are both synonyms for hyperbole. This can be achieved verbally or graphically by various distorting techniques.

Rhetorical Bingo

We have all seen Corporate Lingo Bingo and Remote Meeting Bingo sheets, which reflect our cynicism (sometimes humorously) about gobbledygook or buzzwords, and misplaced trust in technology. With a more serious purpose, the Rhetorical Fallacy Bingo sheet below invites us all to watch out for, and be ready to counter, the misuse of rhetoric.

Graphical deception

While rhetoric focuses on written or spoken words, charts and images that accompany those words in board papers or presentations can also mislead. It therefore pays to ensure that directors are ‘visually literate’, as well as meeting standard literacy and numeracy requirements.

Graphs and charts can be modified to frame a distorted view of data. A common distortion involves stretching or truncating one or both axes to skew the impressions created, and thus persuade the viewer to support the author’s promoted perspective. Other distortions include biased labelling, no scale, improper scaling or intervals, omitting data, and inappropriate use of perspective. A good outline of the main types of distortion found in graphs and charts is offered on this Wikipedia page.

Rhetoric – handle with care

Whether you are the one using rhetoric to communicate, or you are on the receiving end of rhetorical presentations, awareness of both good and bad rhetorical methods will benefit you, and those with whom you work.

See also:

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