Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Elements - Rhetoric

What is the difference between rhetoric, and plain old  words? In one sense - it is akin to asking the difference between the cement blocks that support your house, and the foundation. You simply don’t have a foundation without those blocks. Yet, they are not the same thing. Just as the foundation is so much more than the individual blocks of which it is comprised, so, too, rhetoric is far more than the individual words of  which it is composed.

It is a term descended to us from the ancient Greeks, to whom it meant “the art of oratory.” Plato called it “the art of enchanting the soul.”

Merriam-Webster defines it as: “the art of speaking or writing effectively.”

“Effectively” is the key word in that definition. It doesn’t mean using multi-syllabic language in order to sound impressive. Certainly, that approach does not hold the key to enchanting the soul.

Nor does it mean speaking at great length. In fact, brevity and effective rhetoric are naturally compatible, because well-crafted rhetoric, generally requires fewer words than less carefully structured language.

Keep in mind the featured speaker at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery was Edward Everett, former President of Harvard, and a nationally-known orator. He spoke for a little over two hours. The speaker who followed him, a lanky fellow named Lincoln, spoke for little more than two minutes.

Everett himself recognized the effectiveness of Lincoln’s spare approach to his remarks. In a note to the President the next day, Everett wrote, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Judging by whose address is best remembered today, Everett’s assessment proved prophetic.

So what makes a particular combination of words effective enough to be classified as rhetoric?

In one sense, crafting a speech using effective rhetoric is much like the sculptor Francois-Auguste Rodin’s description of how to carve a statue - “I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need.”

Like chopping pieces off a marble block, eliminating extraneous, unnecessary words, is vital to the formation of rhetoric. There are words whose presence detracts from the whole. Articles in particular, words such as “the,” and “that,” are needlessly tedious elements of language.

Tedium is to rhetoric, what extraneous chunks of marble are to a statue.

When a speech I am writing is finished, I return to the work and ruthlessly excise as many articles, and as much other extraneous verbiage as possible, without risking the ability of the audience to comprehend what is said. The maxim of Thomas Jefferson, who was a lousy public speaker, but a more than passable writer, is instructive here: “Never use two words, when one will do.”

There is far more to be said on rhetoric. Entire college courses are devoted to the subject. But it is best to digest this first offering on the subject.

We are approaching the season of important public speeches - the State of the State, and the State of the Union. As you listen to them this year, I hope you will keep in mind the elements of speech writing, and whether they have been effectively used.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom


  1. Two word-"extraneous,unnecessary"- when one-unnecessary-will do. Tom, Happy New Year & hope you're well. Jim Morgo

  2. Well Jim, if this were a speech, rather than a blog post, I might not have said it that way. Happy New Year to you too!