Introduction to English Rhetoric: How to Speak Persuasively

Socrates was sentenced to death on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens.

Many Athenians felt there was no difference between the philosophy Socrates practiced and the work of the sophists, who would argue any case for the right fee and taught their deceptive rhetorical techniques to the elite of the city.

But according to his student, Plato, Socrates cared about the truth. He would say that the best use of rhetoric was against oneself, whereas using it to deceive others would bring about injustice and make the rhetorician unhappy.

Plato’s later work, and his own student, Aristotle, became more interested in the differences between “a true and a false art of speaking.” They suggested that all expert orators have knowledge about the soul and are thus able to enchant it. The moral decision is whether to reveal this reality or conceal it with techniques like flattery.

When speaking our native languages, we use the art of persuasion all the time, often without thinking about it. Our basic linguistic competence is tied to our ability to occupy space and have our needs and wants met. 

As for interactions in additional languages, perhaps we’re not so assertive. It could be that uncertainty about how to represent our arguments stops us from being fully present or making the most of our experiences, especially when immersed in a different culture.

Why practice persuasive speech in English?

In a curriculum unit submitted to the Yale National Initiative, a world languages teacher proposes that students “convince themselves as well as others of their fluency.”

Trying to be persuasive gives us a greater sense of ownership over our target language. It forces us to be creative and consider the blurry boundary between premeditation and spontaneity in speech acts. 

Perhaps most importantly of all, it’s a form of performance, which triggers our brain’s capacity for adaptation. Higher stakes and expectations make us automatically decide what’s important, which is also why the first thing you should do if you want a clean house is to invite people over.

Learning rhetoric can be a bridge to thinking in English.

First, build your vocabulary

The Lingvist approach to language learning starts with efficiently acquiring a broad foundation of recognizable words before immersing yourself in input-rich experiences and environments where you will be forced to perform.

When it comes to persuasive speech, vocabulary is like fuel. When “trying to decide what to say next,” if you can think of several different valid options, you’re already in the realm of rhetorical strategy.

For example, sometimes you might hit upon a word that sounds good, but you decide against it in the context of the sentence you’re currently formulating. That sensation might prompt you to keep that word in mind as you consider the structure of the rest of your argument, giving you creative momentum. 

The pressure to be persuasive, combined with a wide vocabulary, will prompt you to think continuously in English without reverting to the slow and clunky process of translating ideas from your native language.

Study the classical arts of rhetoric

The sophists of Socrates’ day weren’t the first experts in persuasive speech by a long shot. Many different ancient civilizations independently developed their own traditions of rhetoric, which they tried to pass on through formal education. 

  • Scholars have noticed the use of “hendiadys, merismus, rhyming couplets, geminatio, gradatio, hypallage, enumeratio, and hysteron-proteron sequence, zeugma sentences, and extraposition sentences”1 in ancient Mesopotamian literature.
  • In Ancient Egypt, “the virtues of silence, good timing, restraint, fluency of expression and above all truthfulness combine to create one’s ethos” – the “major mode of persuasion.”2
  • “Confucius describes good remonstration strategies as speaking when necessary, speaking at the right time, and speaking while observing the other’s facial expression and reaction”3

But it was Aristotle who put together the most systematic and actionable surviving text on the art of persuasion. In Book II of his Rhetoric, he explains that a speaker needs to consider three elements:

  • Ethos – convincing the audience that the speaker is credible, qualified to speak on the subject, or of trustworthy character.

  • Pathos – appealing to the audience’s emotions, for example, by using storytelling or poetic hooks such as metaphor, passionate delivery or composition, personal anecdote, or demonstrating understanding or agreement with the values, fears, or desires of the audience.

  • Logos – attempting to prove the argument through clearly stated facts and reason.

How to speak persuasively in English

Listen to the famous English-language orators

Many historical figures who are now remembered as great orators lived before the advent of audio recording technology. 

However, modern times have also produced some colossal speakers, some of whom studied the classics closely, and others who reinvented the rules of rhetoric in order to connect with bigger audiences than any classical orator could have imagined, through the mediums of radio and television.

These recordings are especially valuable to English learners, because the stakes were incredibly high for these speakers. When listening to them, we can be sure that they were fully focused on bringing all of their linguistic skills to bear on being as persuasive and motivating as possible:

1. Emmeline Pankhurst – “Freedom or Death” (1913)

2. Winston Churchill – “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” (1940)

3. John F. Kennedy – “Ich Bin Ein Berliner!” (1963)

4. Martin Luther King, Jr. – “I Have a Dream” (1963)

5. Nelson Mandela – “A New South Africa” (1990)

6. Maya Angelou – Commencement Address at Spelman College (1992) 

Sometimes listening is more important

For Aristotle, rhetoric is an outgrowth or counterpart to dialectic, adapted for the public sphere. In private settings, participants are much more able to aim for the discovery of truth.

Therefore, to be a philosopher, you must be open to changing your own mind, even while you attempt to persuade others. 

The 20th century theoretical physicist David Bohm advocated a process of dialogue in which all participants attempt to experience each other’s points of view fully and without judgment. In order to achieve this, you have to focus on listening and move beyond your first assumption about what someone means.

When it comes to language learning, active listening is critical for picking up the subtleties of meaning and the functions of different kinds of speech acts. This is a big part of achieving fluency in conversation, which is more complex than the ability to simply deliver a monologue.

Furthermore, being effective in dialogue will enable you to navigate and negotiate for your needs and wants while immersed in the culture of your target language.

  1. Rhetoric before and beyond the Greeks, Carol S. Lipson and Roberta A. Binkley, SUNY Press, 2012. P. 28 ↩︎

  2. Ancient Egyptian Rhetoric, Michael V. Fox. In Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 1983), University of California Press. P. 16. ↩︎

  3. Confucius’s Virtue-Centered Rhetoric: A Case Study of Mixed Research Methods in Comparative Rhetoric, Huiling Ding, Rhetoric Review, Vol. 26, No. 2 (2007). P. 154 ↩︎

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