The importance of rhetoric
As a young boy I had, I believe, a very bad stammer. I don’t really remember this – I was very young at the time – but I understand I received some treatment for it; in any case the problem was overcome and my speech was fine. However, there is a legacy: there are a few words which, if I am at all self-conscious when I am saying them, make me stutter, for example ‘theological’ and ‘logistical’. If I know I am going to say them I become self-aware as the difficult word approaches, and then I have to work to get the word out. It’s not a big deal. I keep my verbal comments about logistics to a minimum. But the other legacy for some years was that I was nervous about public speaking and would avoid it. I had no problem speaking with friends or chatting in a group, but if someone called for silence and all eyes turned to me I would suddenly be mesmerised by the task and would stutter, and so I avoided such occasions.
When I was a student in Trinity College Dublin in the 1970s, I was on one occasion persuaded to participate in a debate. I was really worried about whether I could do this, and so I assembled what I thought was a clever speech, wrote it out on a typewriter, and when my turn came I read it out from the paper. I must have been dire. I was one of a team of two. We came last. When the judges pointed out that my team mate delivered by far the best speech of the evening, I realised that my speech must have been catastrophic. In my determination not to repeat that, I found the secret of success for me: if I am going to speak, I won’t speak from a prepared script. Think about it in advance by all means, and structure the speech in my head; but no script. And that has worked for me. I am occasionally told that I speak well, if you’ll forgive the arrogance of that statement.
Anyway, the point of all this is that rhetoric – the art of persuasive speaking – is such an important skill in the academic environment. Few academics are trained in it, and if we’re honest not all of them do it well. Too often we believe that the intellectual cohesion of what we say should be enough, and that our skills in communicating it are of no great importance, or possibly even a sign that the academic pedigree of the content is deficient. I have never bought that: I believe that as lecturers we must be able to inspire, impress and entertain; these rhetorical devices help to engage the student and make the subject-matter memorable.
In other professions rhetorical ability is also important, and is often neglected. For example, we all know of a small handful of politicians who can make us sit up and listen, but most political speeches are a cure for insomnia. This is not helped by the fact that, in our system, parliamentary debates chiefly consist of either handing out wild insults and engaging in boorish behaviour, or when that is done, settling down to wholly tedious (if often worthy) speeches. But as Barack Obama showed when he first campaigned for office, the ability to communicate with skilful rhetoric is a powerful way of ensuring that citizens remain committed to the democratic political process.
In any case, rhetoric was one of the main subjects of study in classical times, sub-divided into invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery. Greek and Roman orators had a special place in society, and what they did was enlightenment (rather than propaganda). Why should we see this differently today?
In this particular phase of history, good communication is vitally important. When economic and social conditions become complex, the ability to communicate effectively is vital, not only for politicians, but for anyone who has a message to send out that can promote confidence and determination. Effective communication is not a dark art, it is what allows ideas to be disseminated and to grow. We should care more about this, and should ensure that speaking and rhetoric are skills that are valued by society. And we should train more academics to deploy these skills.