Politicians need to return to good rhetoric if they want to be heard

Politicians need to return to good rhetoric if they want to be heard

There's plenty of today's crop of politicians who could learn from their elders about the power of a good argument, argues Tony Spencer-Smith.

"Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid." Fyodor Dostoyevsky probably wasn't thinking of Canberra when he wrote that, but he might as well have been.

Something has fled from the chaotic cacophony that politics has become – and we need to hurry in search of it.

Australia's politicians would do well to study other leaders like US President Barack Obama who know the importance of arguing a point to get the public on board.

Australia's politicians would do well to study other leaders like US President Barack Obama who know the importance of arguing a point to get the public on board.Credit:Jason Reed

You can detect its absence in the halls of Parliament, in the hollow floundering of politicians locked in verbal slanging matches. You can detect it in the countless bureaucratic reports silted up with the stifling mud of circumlocution.

And it is there in the empty eyes of the voters, fatigued by the same thing Barack Obama complained about in America: "Sometimes, all you hear in Washington is the clamour of politics – a noise that can drown out the voices of the people who sent you there."


The art of persuasion. That's what has flown the capital: the uniquely human ability we have to use words to convince others to believe or do what we say. So different from coercion, where we simply force people to bend to our will.

It is time for a return to rhetoric: the art of using language persuasively. Rhetoric has millennia of history, starting with the pioneering work of Aristotle. And it has identified a great many persuasive tools. They include some whose names we still remember, like analogy, antithesis, rhetorical questions and metaphor, of which Aristotle wrote: "The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor ... It is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblance."

They also include devices with paralysingly polysyllabic names like antanaclasis and paronomasia, which sound like embarrassing diseases. Because of the long history of rhetoric, and those daunting names, we tend to think of it as dusty, inaccessible old knowledge.

In fact, rhetorical devices or figures of speech, call them what you will, are entirely relevant in the modern world.

As writing expert Richard Nordquist of about.com wrote recently: "Because the figures of speech remain powerful tools of communicating ideas and feelings, they deserve our attention ... In fact, we'd be hard-pressed to make our way through a single sentence without employing at least one figure of speech – whether or not we know the name for it."

In other words, rhetoric is built deeply into the way language works. When it is used self-consciously, and to hide a paucity of thought, it becomes empty rhetoric. But used deftly, it can enormously increase our power to persuade. And we don't have to memorise hundreds of outlandish names to use it.

True leaders have a vision of where to go, and convince people to follow with a telling narrative, a strong logical argument and emotive language that gets people to buy into their dream. They have integrity and a dream and use rhetoric to convey it.

Yet time and again, Australian political parties have presented legislation without articulating the need for it and showing us why this is the right course of action.

We have seen it with Labor's carbon tax, a vital measure that languished because of the failure to outline convincingly the reality and dangers of climate change, the job opportunities renewable energy represents, and the beauty of a sustainable Earth.

How different it would have been if brave politicians had told us repeatedly, as the Pope now has in his encyclical: "If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us ... Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day".

We have seen it in the reduction of extremely complex and harrowing human realities to a Liberal policy based on nothing more than the slogan "stop the boats". The result, of course, is a failure of our humanity and a tarnishing of Australia's image on the world stage.

And in the vital area of how to promote a healthy economy while still being a caring society: which leaders are outlining the way forward with the passion, eloquence and credibility that would make us gladly follow them? Why for instance does Labor not speak more effectively of the terrible price of robbing the poor to pay the rich?

It is time to tell stories; to convince by sweeping people up into the power of narrative. I am referring to true stories, to anecdotes that show through the experiences of real people why there is a need for change, why enormous benefits can flow from a new policy, why it would be irresponsible not to act.

Among the voices calling for a return to rhetoric is Jay Heinrichs in his book Winning Arguments: from Aristotle to Obama – everything you need to know about the art of persuasion. He bemoans the decline of rhetoric: "The ancients considered rhetoric the essential skill of leadership – knowledge so important that they placed it at the centre of higher education.

"It taught them how to speak and write persuasively, produce something to say on every occasion, and make people like them when they spoke. After the ancient Greeks invented it, rhetoric helped create the world's first democracies. It trained Roman orators like Julius Caesar and Marcus Tullius Cicero and gave the Bible its finest language."

Authorities on business leadership have long identified the importance of word skills. Granville N. Toogood, in his book The New Articulate Executive, states: "Legendary business leaders share more than just spectacular success. They not only are typically great communicators themselves but recognise and value this precious skill in others."

He cites Warren Buffett as a brilliant communicator, who can explain even the most complex business issues, dense financial engineering and economic forecasts in language a child can understand.

It is time for our politicians to replace the clamour of Canberra with vision, inspiration and the art of rhetoric.

Tony Spencer-Smith is a corporate and government writer, trainer and award-winning novelist. He is presenting a public course in Canberra on 6 August called Winning words: writing to engage and influence.

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