Does Inflammatory Rhetoric Work?

Does Inflammatory Rhetoric Work?

In the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump seems to have rewritten all the rules. Imagine Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan calling women “fat pigs” or making comments about their menstrual cycles, disparaging a federal judge for being “of Mexican heritage,” or calling for a blockade on Muslims entering the United States because “Islam hates us.” Trump could make his arguments without cloaking them in this inflammatory language. He could object to a reporter’s questions, critique…

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Lessons from Aristotle: How to Judge Political Rhetoric

Lessons from Aristotle: How to Judge Political Rhetoric

What should you watch for in the coming debates between the two presidential candidates? Here’s what Aristotle might say. Aristotle is one of the first people on the planet to write about how verbal persuasion works, and his formulation in “The Rhetoric” continues to provide useful guidance to aspiring orators. Aristotle said a speaker persuades using three tools: • Ethos, or credibility. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character, when the speech is spoken as to make…

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Tongue-Tied Applied: The 2016 Presidential Election

Tongue-Tied Applied: The 2016 Presidential Election

Verbal persuasion is an empowering skill. If you know how to speak persuasively, you can shine both professionally and personally. There is nothing quite like the feeling of speaking well and being heard. This blog, and our book, “Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion,” examine how rhetoric works. We are law school professors from the University of Virginia who teach advocacy, rhetoric, and negotiations. But our interest in oratory is not limited to the world of lawyers. We…

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Second Presidential Debate: Obama Gets Focused

Second Presidential Debate: Obama Gets Focused

The second presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney proved to be another clash between two expert rhetoricians. The winner of the debate depends on which poll you read, indicating that this continues to be a tight political race. Viewed in terms of pure rhetorical skill, however, the night goes to President Obama.

The Vice-Presidential Debate: What Will You Remember?

The Vice-Presidential Debate: What Will You Remember?

That “whoosh” you may have heard last night was a collective sigh of relief, as Democrats across the country watched their vice-presidential candidate come out swinging. After President Obama’s low-energy performance during the first presidential debate, Democrats were itching for a show of strength from their ticket, and Joe Biden did not disappoint. But this morning, you may be hearing a different noise—a buzz of commentators asking, “Did he go too far?”

First Presidential Debate

First Presidential Debate

Last night’s presidential debate was a pleasure to watch. President Obama and Governor Romney have extensive debate experience—over 50 debates between them—and the wonky political knowledge that a candidate must master to exude credibility. Both were able to project power, articulate complicated ideas clearly, and engage the audience. But Romney’s performance had a little extra pizzazz, a more deftly crafted message, and the energy that comes when a speaker knows that he is doing well, which let him carry the…

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The Debates Are Coming…

The Debates Are Coming…

Tonight at 9:00 EDT you can watch the first round of the presidential debates between President Obama and Governor Romney. Here is our list of what each candidate should do in order to be at his rhetorical best:

Plato, YouTube and Muhammad: When the Rules of Rhetoric Clash with Free Speech

Plato, YouTube and Muhammad: When the Rules of Rhetoric Clash with Free Speech

Plato hated rhetoric.  He worried that it made the “worse appear the better reason,” that it was a form of “flattery” designed to pull the wool over the eyes of the ignorant multitudes. He conceded that rhetoric could be done well if the speaker was careful to speak the truth about what he said, if he took the time to explain his terms, if he paid attention to structure, and if he designed his speech to be appropriate for his…

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Romney’s Criticism of Embassy Statement Misfires

Romney’s Criticism of Embassy Statement Misfires

In the midst of protests at the American embassy in Egypt and violence on the American embassy in Libya that left four people dead, including the American ambassador, Mitt Romney made news of his own.  He spoke out about what he described as the Obama administration’s reaction to the crisis, pointing to a release by the American embassy in Egypt.  His statements have gotten him into trouble, illustrating the importance of accuracy to effective rhetoric.

The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: The Main Attraction — Barack Obama

The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: The Main Attraction — Barack Obama

The build-up was intense: Eloquent speeches by Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and others; then a moving video tribute narrated by George Clooney. The expectation was high. Obama has already delivered some of the most memorable speeches of his generation. The president did not disappoint. Here’s how he came through:

The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: Joe Biden Learns It’s Hard to Follow Clinton

The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: Joe Biden Learns It’s Hard to Follow Clinton

Joe Biden is capable of delivering a moving, inspiring speech. This was not his best. Biden tried to establish an emotional connection with his audience by starting the talk as many of the speakers at these conventions have, by describing his love for his family. His declaration of love for his wife, whom he called “Kitten,” seemed oddly out-of-place for a formal speech, and went on for far too long. You can watch it here: 

The Democratic National Convention, Day One: Starting With a Bang

The Democratic National Convention, Day One: Starting With a Bang

The first day of the Democratic National Convention was a pleasure for fans of rhetoric to watch. Many of the presentations were emotionally powerful and delivered superbly. (The terms that you’ll see in parentheses are Aristotle’s concepts of effective persuasion: ethos, or credibility; pathos, or emotional engagement; and logos, or logic. See our previous posts for more about these concepts.) Note how many of these hit some of the arguments that we listed in our previous post.  Speeches worth noting:

Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch Problem: Why it is Difficult to Change Stories Mid-Campaign

Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch Problem: Why it is Difficult to Change Stories Mid-Campaign

You may recall a memorable moment in the Romney campaign back in March, when senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom described the transition from the primaries to the general election as an opportunity for his candidate to reinvent himself:  Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again. Admitting to this plan was roundly criticized as folly, but candidates traditionally must fine-tune (or even significantly overhaul) their messages as they…

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Using “Women” in the Republican National Convention

Using “Women” in the Republican National Convention

It was striking how many of the key speakers at the Republican National Convention reached for the theme of the importance of women.  In speech after speech, we heard about the dominant role that mothers have played in shaping the lives of these political figures: Chris Christie’s Sicilian mom, “the enforcer,” who taught him to speak “the truth, bluntly, directly and without much varnish”; Paul Ryan’s mom, who demonstrated true grit by earning a degree and starting a business after…

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The Republican National Convention, Day Three: Mitt Romney Accepts the Nomination

The Republican National Convention, Day Three: Mitt Romney Accepts the Nomination

The Republican National Convention, Day Three: Mitt Romney Accepts the Nomination The first half of Day Three of the Republican National Convention (or at least the part that was actually broadcast on network TV) was a bizarre train-wreck. Surprise guest Clint Eastwood may prove to be the most vivid memory that many viewers will take away from Mitt Romney’s big day, with his incoherent speech that included a strange (and off-color) dialogue with an invisible, imaginary Barack Obama. Florida’s Marco…

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The Republican National Convention, Day Two: Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice Set the Bar High

The Republican National Convention, Day Two: Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice Set the Bar High

Republicans were treated to two powerhouse speeches during the second day of their national convention.  Condoleezza Rice and Paul Ryan both demonstrated a flair for verbal persuasion, but in two very different ways.  Their speeches, taken side by side, show that there are many paths to the top of the rhetorical mountain.  The trick is to choose the one that suits your own personal, authentic style.

The Republican National Convention, Day One: Ann Romney Overshadows Chris Christie

The Republican National Convention, Day One: Ann Romney Overshadows Chris Christie

The two most notable speeches during the first day of the Republican National Convention came from Ann Romney, the candidate’s wife, and from Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and the keynote speaker of the convention. Despite Gov. Christie’s ease at the podium and reputation as a terrific speaker, Ann Romney — neither a politician nor a professional orator — outshone him. Here’s how:

A Campaign Scorecard: Grading the Candidate’s Rhetoric

A Campaign Scorecard: Grading the Candidate’s Rhetoric

A presidential campaign offers the perfect opportunity to better understand how verbal persuasion works in action. The party conventions, political debates and various campaign speeches are exercises in rhetoric. The candidates and their supporters will try to persuade you of the wisdom of their positions; you may engage in a little political debating of your own with friends and family. If you know how rhetoric works, you will be better positioned to evaluate the political campaigning that you hear, and…

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How Ethos Changes Everything: A Lesson from Aristotle for John Edwards

How Ethos Changes Everything: A Lesson from Aristotle for John Edwards

A jury on Thursday declared John Edwards to be not guilty of misusing campaign money, and deadlocked on five other charges against him. It is unlikely that the government will retry Edwards, so this may mark the end of Edwards’ legal battle against charges that he violated campaign finance laws by accepting enormous sums of money to hide his pregnant mistress from his wife, Elizabeth, who was dying of cancer. This was a case that turned most Americans’ stomachs —…

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GOP’s “Basketball” Ad Finds Way to Go Negative on Obama — the Right Way

GOP’s “Basketball” Ad Finds Way to Go Negative on Obama — the Right Way

Today, Crossroads GPS, the conservative group founded by Karl Rove, released a new political ad criticizing President Obama, which will be aired widely across the country. The ad is also the work of Larry McCarthy, the producer of the questionable “Willie Horton” ad from 1988 — the one that played on racial fears by featuring images of a scary-looking African-American man as it accused Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime. With a pedigree like that, you might expect to see some bloodshed in this…

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How To Craft a Commencement Address: Steve Jobs’ 2005 Speech at Stanford University

How To Craft a Commencement Address: Steve Jobs’ 2005 Speech at Stanford University

It is graduation season, and across the country nervous keynote speakers are scrambling to write that perfect commencement address. How to do it well? If you are looking for a model of a stand-out graduation speech, you will want to watch Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address to Stanford University. Here is why it works. A fundamental rule of speechmaking: Choose a topic that you care about, and figure out how to make your audience care about it, too. Jobs selected as his theme…

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Mourdock Must Toss Tough Talk to Appeal to Indiana Voters

Mourdock Must Toss Tough Talk to Appeal to Indiana Voters

Many saw Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s defeat of six-term incumbent Richard Lugar in last week’s Indiana GOP primary as another sign of the death of bipartisanship. Lugar was known for his willingness to work across party lines, while Mourdock caters to the Tea Party crowd. Pundits believe that Mourdock may yet play a central role in the Republican effort to take control of the Senate. But Mourdock may have a tough time winning a Senate seat unless he abandons the Tea Party’s “No…

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