Rhetoric is Just a Fancy Word for Influence

There are five key elements to rhetoric: definition, comparison, relationship, and testimony. Lawyers use this stuff all the time; why shouldn't we?


There are two ways to use definition to persuade: grouping and division.

Grouping: Is the tax cut part of an economic stimulus package or part of the growing deficit? Depending on your politics, if you group it one way, it's a good thing. If you group it another way, it's a potentially growing problem.

Definition by division works by chopping your argument into edible parts. Tiny agreements with each part leads to acceptance of the whole.


To understand complex ideas or systems, we often resort to using metaphors: 1) business is war, 2) business is family, or 3) business is sport. The key to using these metaphors to influence people is understanding the similarities, differences, and degree of difference. If we focus on the similarities we find that leaders are like 1) generals, 2) parents, or 3) quarterbacks. If we focus on the differences, 1) nobody dies, 2) you can't fire your children, and 3) the game never ends.

Degree involves the "more or less" of similar things. Here are some examples:

  • More money is preferable to less money
  • Rare is more precious than the common (scarcity)
  • The majority will choose something better than the minority


There are four parts of relationship: cause-effect, antecedent-consequence, contradictions, and contraries.

Cause-effects are one of the key tools of quality improvement and Six Sigma, but to prove your point you have to verify that the cause actually produces the effect (e.g., smoking causes cancer.)

Antecedent-consequence is similar to cause-effect. Hawaii has beautiful beaches which attract vacationers (having beautiful beaches attracts vacationers.)

Contradictions (or counterexamples) are often used as an argument (e.g., my Uncle Fred smoked his entire life and lived to be 103 and died of natural causes.)

Contraries are similar to contradictions, but more weasel-like. To be a contrary, you need only disprove an assertion, you don't have to prove anything else. In meetings, all someone has to say is "This data's not valid" and come up with some vague example of how it's gathered or processed to "prove" it's invalid. They don't have to come up with better data.


Again, two forms: possible-impossible, and past-future.

Possible - impossible

  • If you can run, you can walk.
  • If you can do something difficult, you can do something similar.
  • A beginning implies a conclusion.
  • If the parts are possible, so is the whole.
  • If a child (without instruction) can learn a language, you can too (with instruction).

Past-future takes the form:

  • Rare events suggest more common previous events (He wrote a book; he's probably written articles.)
  • Current events lead to future events (marriage leads to home buying, children, and divorce.)

With a little mental jujitsu, you can use the reverse of these arguments to prove some thing impossible.


Authorities are often used to give expert testimony at trials (doctors, police, etc.) Who can you get to speak for your side of the argument?Testimonials feature the opinion of other people and celebrities. Statistics - Is the tax cut a stimulus or a deficit? Either way, you can site statistics supporting the position. Maxims like "look before you leap" invoke folk wisdom. Law (e.g., prenuptial agreements) Precedent involves prior problems that have been resolved in a certain way. Lawyers state previous cases and employees state previous experiences.


These ideas all come from the reference below. I won't kid you, it's tough reading which seems silly for a book on persuasion, but if you want to dig down into rhetoric, check your local library for books on the topic.

Bridges, Linda, The Art of Persuasion, Continuum Publishing, NY 1991.

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