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Processing This Election: What Now?

Processing This Election: What Now?

What shall we make of this presidential election?

Our reactions may not all be the same.  Some of us may be excited about the outcome and the changes to come.  Others may feel dismay, or fear, or anger, at the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency in light of the divisive rhetoric of his campaign.

We have three thoughts to offer.

First, as to the rhetoric:  This election does not stand for the proposition that inflammatory rhetoric wins.  As we teach in our rhetoric and advocacy classes, triggering hate and fear is not a smart strategy over the long term.  It certainly doesn’t work in a courtroom setting, and we suspect it will cause problems for Trump.  Trump is likely to have a lot more trouble governing because of his divisive rhetoric than he would have if he’d delivered a positive message, because a sizeable part of the country now distrusts or fears him.  It is very difficult to undo the damage of a negative reputation.  Think of how much easier the job would be for a president with a reputation for good character and good judgment.  Ethos is important.

Second, to anyone feeling distress or despair:  Take heart.  We are going to be OK.  We have structures in place in our country to promote justice, and those structures still exist.  The brilliant design of our constitutional democracy ensures that no single person holds all the power, and that we citizens can do much to hold our representatives accountable.  We have elections to shake things up, and we must accept what elections decide, whether or not we like the outcome.  But then another election follows, and we can correct course if necessary, as we have done for centuries.  And in between elections, we can ask questions, contact representatives, sign petitions, raise awareness, make sure that the laws are followed.  You are not helpless.  You have power.

Our third and final thought:  We are all in this together.  One way to interpret the outcome of this election is that there are a lot of people in our country who are struggling, and this is how they have voiced it.  We have to listen to one another, while still fighting for what we believe in, because we are one nation.  We depend on one another to survive and to thrive.  We have to take care of each other.

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Our country’s story has been one of forward progress.  Sometimes it moves in fits and starts, but we get there in the end.  America is already great, our shared mission should always be to make it even better.

Molly Bishop Shadel and Robert N. Sayler are professors at the University of Virginia School of Law and the authors of Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.

The Third Presidential Debate: What Kind of Country Are We Going To Be?

The Third Presidential Debate: What Kind of Country Are We Going To Be?

“When we talk about the Supreme Court, it really raises the central issue in this election.  Namely, what kind of country are we going to be?”  Hillary Clinton

When we started blogging about this year’s presidential race, we hoped to identify a few rhetorical moments to illustrate how verbal persuasion works.  We thought the exercise might prove useful to our law students, and perhaps interesting to other readers.

But this remarkable race has taken us by surprise.  It has triggered a national conversation about our shared values:  what it means to be an American. The vituperative rhetoric that caused some viewers to turn off the television altogether rather than endure a third presidential debate has served a purpose.  It has forced us to react, to clarify and solidify the definition of who we are.

That has always been the point of rhetoric in a democracy.

The First Amendment of the Constitution protects a great deal of hateful speech.  So long as words do not rise to the level of incitement to violence, “true threats,” “fighting words,” or defamation (each a narrow exception to free speech, with its own specific legal criteria), most anything goes.  When we say that Donald Trump has engaged in condemnable rhetoric, we are not saying that what he is saying is necessarily illegal.  Instead, we are saying it is unpersuasive.  It displays a stunning lack of understanding of the way democracy works.  But it has forced Hillary Clinton to articulate her vision of America.  In that way, it has been useful.

First, let’s examine how Trump’s rhetoric in this debate misunderstands our democratic processes.

Take, for example, Donald Trump’s arguments that everything wrong in the world is the fault of Hillary Clinton, that she “should have changed the law when you were a United States Senator.”  He implies that in her role as a senator or secretary of state, she would have wielded the power to singlehandedly reform the tax code or control immigration or direct the actions of foreign countries.  He shows little understanding of how the work of the government is done—not by fiat, but through a system of checks and balances.  Neither Trump nor Clinton, if elected president, would possess the powers of a dictator.  Our democracy doesn’t work that way.  No single person can exercise the kind of power that Trump accuses Clinton of wielding, or that he seems to envision having for himself were he to win.

Trump further argued in this debate that Clinton should not be “allowed” to run for the presidency.  Again, this is not how our system works.  There is no vetting organization that gives permission for a candidate to run.  Instead, the voters choose.  Republicans who do not support their own nominee are keenly aware of this.

The basis for his claim that she should be disqualified as a candidate is that she is “guilty of a very, very serious crime.”  But in America, you are not guilty simply because someone with a loud voice says you are.  You must be indicted, then prosecuted, and then found guilty by a jury of your peers. The FBI (led Republican James Comey) spent over a year investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server and found no evidence of a crime. The Department of Justice has closed the case.  This system is important—it prevents a powerful governmental actor, as Trump hopes to be, from unilaterally throwing someone in jail.  Instead, we have due process.  There is no evidence that either the FBI or the Department of Justice has done anything untoward in making these determinations.  But because Trump does not like that outcome, he questions the integrity of the entire prosecutorial system, calling it “rigged.”

This isn’t the only thing that Trump claims is “rigged.”  The media, too, is “rigged,” according to Trump: “The media is so dishonest and so corrupt and the pile-on is so amazing. The New York Times actually wrote an article about it, but they don’t even care. It is so dishonest, and they have poisoned the minds of the voters.”  Trump has suggested limiting the freedom of the press, including changing laws to make it easier to sue news organizations.  But a free press is another hallmark of our democracy, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The media serves as an essential check on our government, including on political candidates like Trump who play fast and loose with the truth.

What else is “rigged,” according to Trump?  The election itself. “If you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people that are registered to vote. Millions. This isn’t coming from me. This is coming from Pew report and other places. Millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn’t be registered to vote.”  (This is not, in fact, what the Pew study said, nor is it likely that an election can be rigged.)  When moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he would accept the outcome of the election were he to lose, Trump replied, “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”

Hillary Clinton rightfully called the moment “horrifying.”

Our democracy is something of which we can be proud.  We are a country immigrants want to come to, in large part because we are peaceful.  We are safe.  We uphold the rule of law.  One of the ways we keep the peace is through our system of free and fair elections, which results in the orderly transition of power from one leader to the next, without violence or revolution.  Even when the candidates cannot stand one another, the loser concedes for the good of the country, to enable the nation to come together. When Trump suggests, without evidence, that the election is “rigged” because it is not going his way, he is denigrating one of the most important parts of our democracy.  (But if he loses in a landslide, we’ll still be able to see that our democracy works just fine, because there won’t be much he can do about it.)

You can see this debate moment here:

Against Trump’s misogynistic vitriol (“Such a nasty woman”), Hillary Clinton has demonstrated remarkable grace.  There is no doubt that this woman can think under pressure.  And she can articulate a positive vision for the country, even in contentious circumstances.  Immigration?  “I think we are both a nation of immigrants and we are a nation of laws and that we can act accordingly.”  Reproductive choice?  “This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make. And I do not believe the government should be making it…I’ve been to countries where governments either forced women to have abortions, like they used to do in China, or forced women to bear children like they used to do in Romania. And I can tell you the government has no business in the decisions that women make with their families in accordance with their faith, with medical advice. And I will stand up for that right.”

You can see one of Clinton’s best debate moments here, when she takes down Trump for his treatment of women.  She urges her listeners to take this moment as an opportunity for us to define ourselves, to “demonstrate who we are and who are country is, and to stand up and be very clear about what we expect from our next president.”

“America is great because America is good,” says Clinton.  If the presidential race were decided on the basis of rhetoric alone, Clinton is the clear victor.

Molly Bishop Shadel and Robert N. Sayler are professors at the University of Virginia School of Law and the authors of Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.


The Second Presidential Debate: Trump’s Rhetoric Doesn’t Make the Grade

The Second Presidential Debate: Trump’s Rhetoric Doesn’t Make the Grade

Donald Trump’s performance during the second presidential debate was a marked improvement over his undisciplined showing in the first debate.  It demonstrates the value of preparation.  He was able to land more punches, and to articulate some of his ideas a little more coherently, than the last time around.

But if he were a student in our class, we would still not award him a passing grade.


Let’s start first with Aristotle’s principle of logos, or logic.  Fact-checkers have pointed out a multitude of false claims Trump made during the debate, which is consistent with his past practices and certainly weakens his logos—you can’t prove a case by simply making things up. But we would like to focus instead on his disorganized speaking style and his struggle to answer direct questions.

Trump’s logos would be greatly improved if he were to keep an eye on the main point, avoid digressions, and finish a thought.  Instead, he tends to speak in long, rambling phrases, interrupting himself when a new idea floats into his mind.  Take, for example, his explanation of how he would make health insurance coverage available for pre-existing conditions while not mandating that everyone have health insurance:

“Well, I’ll tell you what it means. You’re going to have plans that are so good. Because we are going to have so much competition in the insurance industry, once we break out the lines and allow the competition to come. . . . President Obama, by keeping those lines, the boundary lines around each state, and it was almost gone until just very toward the end of the passage of Obamacare, which by the way was a fraud. You know that. Because Jonathan Gruber, the architect of Obamacare has said, he said it was a great lie was a big lie. President Obama said you keep your doctor, you keep your plan. The whole thing was a fraud. And it doesn’t work. But when we get rid of those lines you will have competition.  And we will be able to keep pre-existing. We’ll also be able to help people who can’t get, don’t have money. Because we are going to have people protected. And Republicans feel this way, believe it or not, and strongly this way. We are going to block grant into the state. We are going to block grant into Medicaid.  Into the states so that will be able to take care of people without the necessary funds to take care of themselves.”

The structure of this paragraph is as follows:

  • We will have plans that are “so good”
  • We will have competition in the insurance industry
  • We must “break out the lines”
  • “it was almost gone until just very toward the end of the passage of Obamacare”
  • The passage of Obamacare was a fraud
  • Jonathan Gruber, the architect of Obamacare, said it was a big lie
  • President Obama said you would keep your doctor and plan
  • It was a fraud
  • It doesn’t work
  • Get rid of the lines to have competition
  • “Keep pre-existing”
  • Help poor people
  • “Block grant into the state”

The main idea here is that allowing people to buy insurance across state lines would increase competition, resulting in better health insurance plans.  (We will not opine here about whether this claim is accurate because our aim is to analyze rhetoric, not political positions.)  Other statements in this paragraph—that state lines were imposed toward the end of the passage of the legislation, that Jonathan Gruber was the “architect” of the legislation, that the plan is a “big lie” or a “fraud”—are digressions.  Several terms in this answer need to be defined or explained in order to be clear (“break out the lines,” “keep pre-existing,” “block grant into the state”).

Notice, though, that even if the answer were cleaned up—digressions removed, jargon defined—it still does not answer the question.  The question was, “Mr. Trump you have said you want to end Obamacare. . . and make coverage accessible for people with pre-existing conditions. How do you force insurance companies to do that if you are no longer mandating that everybody has insurance? What does that mean?”  The answer essentially is:

“You’re going to have plans that are so good. Because we are going to have so much competition in the insurance industry, once we break out the lines and allow the competition to come. . . . And we will be able to keep pre-existing. We’ll also be able to help people who can’t get, don’t have money. Because we are going to have people protected.”

It is not clear why allowing people to buy insurance across state lines would mean that “we would be able to keep pre-existing.”  It is also not clear how Trump plans to help people who can’t afford insurance.  He simply states that both propositions are true, without proving them to be true or connecting them to his proposal.  The logos here is weak.


Leaders who offer optimistic messages and who stay calm under pressure inspire those whom they lead.  Leaders who traffic in fear and hatred trigger negative impulses in their followers and erode the ability to think, as we have discussed here.  Trump struggles to stay positive, even when explicitly asked to do so.  Compare, for example, the candidate’s answers to the very first question of the debate, “Do you feel you are modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth?”

Clinton’s answer was upbeat and inclusive, speaking of “respect,” “diversity,” “optim[ism],” and “com[ing] together”:

CLINTON: “I think that that’s a very good question because I’ve heard from lots of teachers and parents about some of their concerns, about some of the things that are being said and done in this campaign. And I think it is very important for us to make clear to our children that our country really is great because we are good. And we are going to respect one another, lift each other up. We are going to be looking for ways to celebrate our diversity. And we are going to try to reach out to every boy and girl as well as every adult to bring them in to working on behalf of our country. I have a very positive and optimistic view about what we can do together. That’s why the slogan of my campaign is stronger together. Because I think if we work together, if we overcome the divisiveness that sometimes sets Americans against one another, and instead we make some big goals and I’ve set forth some big goals – getting the economy to work for everyone, not just those at the top, making sure that we have the best education system from preschool through college and making it affordable and so much else, if we set those goals and we go together to try to achieve them there’s nothing, in my opinion, that America can’t do. So that’s why I hope that we will come together in this campaign. Obviously, I’m hoping to earn your vote, I’m hoping to be elected in November, and I can promise you I will work with every American. I want to be the president for all Americans. Regardless of your political beliefs, where you come from, what you look like, your religion — I want us to heal our country and bring it together. Because that’s, I think, the best way for us to get the future that are children and our grandchildren deserve.”

And Trump’s?  It is awash in fear, warning of “horrible things,” “bad deal[s],” “terrorist[s],” and death:

“I began this campaign because I was so tired of seeing such foolish things happen to our country. This is a great country. This is a great land. I’ve gotten to know the people of the country over the last year and a half that I’ve been doing this as a politician. I cannot believe that I’m saying that about myself, but I guess I have been a politician. And my whole concept was to make America great again. When I watch the deals being made, when I watch what’s happening with some horrible things like Obamacare where your health insurance and health care is going up by numbers that are astronomical 68 percent, 59 percent, 71 percent, when I look at the Iran deal and how bad a deal it is for us, it’s a one-sided transaction where we’re giving back one hundred fifty billion dollars to a terrorist state, really, the number one terrorist state, we’ve made them a strong country from really a very weak country just three years ago.  When I look at all of the things that I see and all the potential that our country has, we have such tremendous potential, whether it’s in business and trade where we’re doing so badly.  Last year we had an almost 800 billion dollar trade deficit. In other words, trading with other countries we had 800 billion dollars deficit, that’s hard to believe. Inconceivable.  You say who’s making these deals? We’re going to make great trade deals, we’re going to have a strong border, we’re going to bring back law and order. Just today policemen were shot – two killed – and this is happening on a weekly basis. We have to bring back respect to law enforcement.  At the same time we have to take care of people on all sides. We need justice. But I want to do things that haven’t been done including fixing and making our interest that is better for the African-American citizens that are so great and for the Latinos, Hispanics, and I look forward to doing it – it’s called make America great again.”

Trump also made a mistake by stalking around the debate stage as Clinton spoke.  His debate prep team should have told him what Al Gore learned before him:  menacing your opponent physically can backfire, particularly when you’ve boasted of grabbing women in the past.


The biggest challenge of all for Trump is his ethos, or credibility.  A speaker must possess ethos to be credible.  Aristotle describes ethos as “good sense, good moral sense, and goodwill.”

Trump’s performance was colored by the Access Hollywood video released two days before the debate, in which he boasted, “I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women]— I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. . .Grab them by the p****. You can do anything.”

This is not the statement of a man exhibiting good sense, morality or goodwill.

During the debate, Trump was asked, “You described kissing women without consent, grabbing the genitals. That is sexual assault. You brag that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”

You can see Trump’s defensive response, in which he minimizes the statement as “locker-room banter,” and Hillary’s Clinton’s rejoinder that he is not fit to be commander-in-chief, here:

As measured by the rubric of ethos, pathos and logos, Trump’s debate performance does not measure up.

Molly Bishop Shadel and Robert N. Sayler are professors at the University of Virginia School of Law and the authors of Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.

The Vice-Presidential Debate: Substance and Style

The Vice-Presidential Debate: Substance and Style

The debate between vice-presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence showcased the short-term rewards and long-term risks of adopting an overly aggressive tone.  It also offered an unexpected exchange of ideas by the candidates about their deeply held religious beliefs—a momentary glimpse into how meaningful a debate can be when candidates drop the posturing and simply answer the question.

Turning first to tone:  This presidential race has been chaotic and nasty, due in large part to Mr. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric.  His running mate, Mike Pence, needed to show uneasy voters that this ticket contains some steadiness and experience.  Pence focused on this task throughout the debate primarily through employing markers of ethos.  His delivery was largely unflappable.  When Mr. Kaine was on the attack, Pence remained calm.  In one of the most memorable moments of the evening, Pence laid out a plan for American involvement in Syria (apparently his own, not Trump’s), demonstrating the nuance and preparedness that the top of his ticket has lacked:

Pence was usually credible because his tone was steady and measured, a characteristic of Aristotle’s concept of “good sense, good moral sense, and good will.”  Perhaps Pence’s performance will help Trump, by offering uncertain voters a reason to vote for the ticket.  Or perhaps it will hurt Trump, because Trump’s hotheadedness stands in stark contrast to his running-mate’s self-control.

Pence also faced an ethos challenge that he was not entirely able to overcome—Mr. Trump’s record of inflammatory statements. Though Pence said he could defend Mr. Trump’s positions, he did so primarily by deflecting them or simply not responding, a strategy that kept him from having to repeat vitriol that would have eroded his own credibility.  But as Mr. Kaine continued to press Mr. Pence, Pence retreated by insisting that Trump had not said the many troubling things he has, in fact, said.  This is a dangerous strategy.  Facts can be verified.  Many of the statements to which Mr. Kaine alluded have been played time and again in video clips or exist in tweets that have gone viral.  Voters have seen them with their own eyes or heard them with their own ears.  Pence became less believable when he flatly denied statements that voters could easily verify with a quick Google search, which impacts his overall credibility.  This is an important lesson in rhetoric—if you play fast and loose with facts, you may seem to win the sparring match at hand, but you risk losing the ultimate battle for the audience’s trust.

Tim Kaine’s tone was much more pugnacious than Pence’s, particularly in the first moments of the debate.  While Pence was calm and cordial, Kaine interrupted and talked over Pence.  He clearly was prepared to defend his running-mate, but his aggression out of the gate was a mistake in terms of ethos.  He seemed rude and even a little reminiscent of Trump, at least for the first 30 minutes of the debate.  Aristotle wrote that ethos is central to persuasion, that “we believe good men more fully and readily than others.”  The writers of this blog are professors at the University of Virginia; Tim Kaine was our state’s governor and is now our senator, and we know him to be invariably courteous.  But for people who have never before met Tim Kaine, this first impression was not inspiring.  To us, it appears that Kaine has been badly served by advice he received during debate preparation to adopt a tone that is not his usual persona.

Contrast this with an exchange later in the debate, when Mr. Kaine made an argument in favor of gun control and in opposition to stop-and-frisk policies.  Here he demonstrates the thoughtfulness and preparedness required to establish ethos.  You can watch this moment here:

We are not saying that an advocate can’t be aggressive in making a case.  But we are saying that you have to tread carefully.  If conviction oversteps into rudeness, or yelling, or petulance, you will be much less persuasive.

On substance, we reverse the grades.  In terms of logos, Tim Kaine was better: clear, accurate on facts, precise in presenting policy proposals, effective in highlighting Trump’s most vulnerable points (bullying, tax issues, misstatements, a troublesome history in business).  Pence did his best, but the facts of Trump’s conduct are difficult to deal with.  At times, Pence even appeared to advocate policy positions that are out of alignment with Trump’s, such as his assessment of how to deal with Russia and Putin.

Finally, we point your attention to an exchange that took place during the final moments of the debate, when the candidates were asked about how they balance personal faith with public policy positions.  The answers they offered were humble and inspiring, allowing them to connect with one another on a personal level as they expressed respect for each other’s sincere faith.  Notice how they do not agree on the public policy issues they are discussing (the death penalty, abortion).  But also notice how much more persuasive both men are because they have dialed back the heated rhetoric.  It is possible to disagree agreeably.  If more of us could learn to do it, it would benefit our democracy.

You can watch this exchange here:


Molly Bishop Shadel and Robert N. Sayler are professors at the University of Virginia School of Law and the authors of Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.

The First Presidential Debate: Rhetorical Victory Goes to Clinton

The First Presidential Debate: Rhetorical Victory Goes to Clinton

The first debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump drew a record audience, making it one of the most-watched presidential debates in history.  Some watched to cheer on a candidate, or to make up their minds about whom to support.  We watched for the rhetoric.  The purpose of our blog is not to take political positions; instead, we are taking positions about who speaks effectively.  By that metric, Hillary Clinton emerged as the clear victor of the first presidential debate.


Classical rhetoric teaches that a speaker persuades by projecting credibility and character.

Both Clinton and Trump struggle with ethos challenges.  Clinton has acknowledged polls indicating that some voters do not “like” her or trust her with classified information.  Trump has a record of repeatedly misrepresenting facts or outright lying — as of the date of the debate, The Washington Post rated about 65 percent of his statements to be “Four Pinocchios” (their worst rating for lies), and PolitiFact has scored only 16% of his statements as “true” or “mostly true.”

Clinton’s obvious command of facts during the debate made her credible as a potential commander-in-chief.  She was most convincing when she was answering questions or engaging in an extemporaneous dialogue.  Her weakest ethos moments were when she offered answers that were clearly memorized (including her first moments during the debate, when she had not yet hit her stride).  When a speaker sounds as if she is reciting a script, the audience may believe that she either does not believe what she’s saying or does not know the information well enough to be able to relax and explain it to them.  Clinton didn’t do this often during the debate, but when she did, it worked against her.

Once the debate was properly underway, though, Clinton appeared to be in her element.  She seems to take genuine pleasure in thinking on her feet, and her impressive ability to synthesize information and explain it succinctly (which has not always been easy for her in the past) was on display throughout the event.

Trump, on the other hand, projected very little ethos.  He struggled with truthfulness throughout the debate, sticking stubbornly to falsehoods that are simple to disprove, such as his claim that “Thousands of jobs [are] leaving Michigan, leaving Ohio, they’re all leaving” (both states have gained jobs in recent years); his claim that New York’s stop-and-frisk policy was not ruled unconstitutional (it was); his claim that Clinton started the birther movement (he did); his attempt to back away from previous statements that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China; his claim that Clinton has been fighting ISIS “her entire adult life” (impossible, as ISIS has existed in its present form only since 2013).  Insisting on easily disprovable positions erodes a speaker’s credibility and calls his judgment into question.  Trump did well with hitting the broad themes of his campaign (immigrants and criminals are roaming the streets; America isn’t safe; I am a businessman who can make America rich), but had trouble answering specific questions about his plans and keeping his cool when challenged on factual inaccuracies.


A speaker will be more persuasive if he can connect with an audience on an emotional level.  If the emotion a leader triggers is anger or fear, then he shifts into the world of demagoguery, which violates the precepts of ethical rhetoric.

Clinton did an admirable job of keeping her cool throughout the debate.  Trump interrupted her repeatedly, but she simply ignored the behavior.  As a result, she remained composed and ultimately controlled the rhythms of the conversation.

Trump’s repeated interruptions backfired.  Rather than rattling Clinton, they made him appear unable to control himself, as did his self-soothing behavior of drinking water in between answers.  His lack of self-control led the audience to laugh audibly when he claimed, “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament.”

One of the most interesting emotion-driven moments of the debate occurred when Clinton denounced Trump’s misogynistic statements about women:

“This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs, and someone who has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers, who has said women don’t deserve equal pay unless they do as good a job as men.” Describing a beauty contestant: “He called this woman Miss Piggy. Then he called her Miss Housekeeping, because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name.”

The attack unnerved Trump, who then launched into an odd monologue in which he appeared to be having an internal debate with himself (albeit out loud, on stage) about whether to raise the specter of the Clintons’ personal lives.

“You know Hillary is hitting me with tremendous commercials, some of it’s entertainment, some of it is said [sic] somebody’s been very vicious to me, Rosie O’Donnell, I said tough things to her and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her but you want to know the truth, I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate, it’s not nice. But she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on negative ads on me, many which are absolutely untrue. They’re untrue and they’re misrepresentations. And I will tell you this, Lester, it’s not nice and I don’t — I don’t deserve that. But it’s certainly not a nice thing that she’s done.”

You can watch this answer here.


To be persuasive, a speaker’s logic must be clear.  You can achieve this by using short, succinct, clear sentences and a straightforward structure.

Here are two moments worth watching.  First is Hillary Clinton’s masterful argument that Trump should release his taxes.  Notice that the structure is very clear — she lists four reasons why he might be hiding the returns, numbering each reason to emphasize it.  Her sentences are short, which makes them easier to understand.  And she gets into a rhythm that makes the moment memorable.  (You can also see Trump fidgeting and drinking water as she answers.)

“So you gotta ask yourself — why won’t he release his tax returns? And I think there may be a couple of reasons. First, maybe he is not as rich as he says he is. Second, maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be. Third, we don’t know all of his business dealings but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million dollars to Wall Street and foreign banks. Or maybe he does not want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he has paid nothing in federal taxes because the only years that anybody has ever seen for a couple of years where he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license. And they showed he did not pay any federal income tax.  If you have paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for vets, zero for schools or health. And I think probably he is not all that enthusiastic about having the rest of our country see what the real reasons are because it must be something really important, even terrible, that he is trying to hide. In the financial disclosure statements they don’t give your tax rate. They don’t give you all the details the tax returns would. And it just seems to me that this is something that the American people deserve to see. And I have no reason to believe that he is ever going to release his tax returns because there is something he is hiding. And we will guess — we’ll keep guessing at what it might be that he is hiding. But I think the question is were he ever to get near the White House, what would be those conflicts? Who does he owe money to? Well, he owes you the answers to that. And he should provide them.”

The second moment worth watching came when Trump tried to explain the Iran deal.  He has a potentially persuasive argument he could make here — that America gave money in exchange for hostages. But the point was lost because his sentences are disjointed, overly long, filled with imprecise pronouns, and grammatically incorrect.

“And by the way, another one powerful is the worst deal I think I’ve ever seen negotiated that you started is the Iran deal. Iran is one of their biggest trading partners. Iran has power over North Korea. And when they made that horrible deal with Iran, they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea.  And they should’ve done something with respect to Yemen and all these other places and when I asked to Secretary Kerry, why didn’t you do that, why didn’t you add other things into the deal? One of the great giveaways of all time, of all time, including $400 million dollars in cash nobody’s ever seen that before that turned out to be wrong. It was actually $1.7 billion dollars in cash, obviously I guess for the hostages. It certainly looks that way. So you say to yourself why didn’t they make the right deal? This is one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history. The deal with Iran will lead to nuclear problems. All they have to do is sit back 10 years and they don’t have to do much. And they’re going to end up getting nuclear. I met with Bibi Netanyahu the other day; believe me, he is not a happy camper.”

In contrast, compare Hillary Clinton’s response:

“Let me start by saying words matter; words matter when you run for president and they really matter when you are president. And I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them. It is essential that America’s word be good.”

You can watch that exchange here.

In terms of ethos, pathos, and logos, Hillary Clinton dominated the first debate.  It will be interesting to see what the second debate brings.

Democratic Convention, Day 4: Hillary Clinton, Gender, and Yelling

Democratic Convention, Day 4: Hillary Clinton, Gender, and Yelling

The first three days of the Democratic National Convention were filled with stand-out speakers—Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. They did an excellent job supporting their candidate, but they also raised the bar for Hillary Clinton.  It’s tough to be the person who has to follow some of the strongest orators of this generation.  When compared to Trump, though, Clinton carried the day.

In terms of logos (persuasion through logic), Clinton held her own when measured against her famous supporters and certainly bested Trump.  Her speech was chockablock with details, concrete plans, evidence that she has mastered her material.  This was a noticeable contrast with Donald Trump’s acceptance speech, as Clinton pointed out:

“Now, you didn’t hear any of this from Donald Trump at his convention.  He spoke for 70-odd minutes — and I do mean odd.  And he offered zero solutions. But we already know he doesn’t believe these things. No wonder he doesn’t like talking about his plans.  You might have notice—I love talking about mine.”

Clinton’s logic was also made more clear by her use of short, pithy statements.  It is easier to deliver a short sentence, and easier for listeners to understand.  And a succinct zinger will stick with an audience long after the speech is over.  One of her best lines: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Clinton also continued the use of persuasion through the positive, uplifting imagery we saw in speeches by Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.  This stands in direct contrast to Trump’s dark acceptance speech. We have argued here that the use of positive emotion is better rhetoric in the long run.  In this category, we would also declare Clinton’s speech superior to Trump’s.

We’ve written here about Clinton’s ethos challenges.  Aristotle said that a speaker is more persuasive if she appears trustworthy and credible, exhibiting “good sense, good moral character, and good will.”

One of the ways that a speaker can exhibit ethos is to keep her cool under pressure.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s measured pace and wry good humor in his first Fireside Chat, which you can hear here, serves as an excellent model. To see the opposite effect, watch Howard Dean’s now infamous speech in Iowa from the 2004 presidential race—in an effort to energize supporters, he appeared to lose control, and ultimately lost the Democratic nomination:

Howard Dean’s speech scream illustrated the difficulty of speaking to two audiences—those present at a rally or in a convention hall, who might be cheering or jeering, and the listeners at home, watching online or on television.  It is perfectly natural to feel that you must yell to be heard over a rambunctious crowd, but it’s going to play differently to listeners at home. The challenge for a political candidate is to keep that larger audience in mind.  Our advice:  keep yelling to a minimum.

We are aware that Hillary Clinton has been criticized in the past for yelling.  This criticism often illustrates an unfair double-standard.  Labelling Clinton as a yeller in a campaign in which her opponents are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is particularly preposterous.  Both men yell much more than she, but this has not proven a political liability for them.  In contrast, Clinton’s verbal aggressiveness triggers accusations of stridency suggestive of misogyny, such as Tucker Carlson’s assessment that “there’s just something about her that feels castrating, overbearing and scary.”  Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post wrote in January 2008 that Clinton “needs a radio-controlled shock collar so that aides can zap her when she starts to get screechy.”

This misogyny might make anyone want to yell.

Still, we would be remiss as rhetoric professors if we didn’t point out that listeners dislike being yelled at.  Yelling can be effective if is it used strategically and surgically, but ethos requires a steady hand.  And in this campaign, when a central criticism of Trump is that he is too easily triggered, Clinton would be smart to aim for a cool, composed demeanor to contrast with his bombast.

You can watch Clinton’s entire speech here:

Democratic National Convention, Day 4: The Surprise Star of the Night, Khizr Kahn

Democratic National Convention, Day 4: The Surprise Star of the Night, Khizr Kahn

On the final day of the Democratic National Convention, a Muslim father whose son died in combat stole the show with an electrifying six-minute speech.

Khizr Kahn, with his wife Ghazala Khan by his side, spoke of their son, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Kahn.  He was an American soldier who died in Iraq saving his fellow soldiers from a car bomb.  Kahn and his family are Muslin immigrants: “If it was up to Donald Trump, he would never have been in America.”

The story is compelling, but so were many others offered by grieving family members at both conventions.  The speech made a particular impact because of Khizr Kahn’s ethos, pathos and logos.

Khizr Kahn embodied ethos—credibility—because of the sacrifice his family made, but also because his speech was imbued with goodwill and good moral sense.  He opened with a declaration of “undivided loyalty to our country”:

“Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy; that with hard work and goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings. We are blessed to raise our three sons in a nation where they were free to be themselves and follow their dreams.”

He delivered this positive message with a steady cadence, steely countenance, and piercing diction, all of which made him more credible.

The emotional heart of the speech—pathos—came when he directly addressed Donald Trump:

“Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America.  You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”

This is a creative rhetorical technique, though it can sometimes backfire—witness Clint Eastwood’s now infamous address to an empty chair during the 2012 Republican convention, which you can see here.  Kahn’s version worked because his questions were succinct, to the point, and gave voice to his community.

The speech was also short.  This is important.  Logos, or logic, will be more clear if a speaker makes choices.  Both conventions featured hour-long monologues that proved wearying over time.  Mr. Kahn spoke for six minutes only.  He has explained in media appearances that his wife served as his editor, insisting that he winnow down his remarks.  We believe that all speakers could benefit from such an editorial process.  A few points, offered in crisp, well-chosen words, are more likely than a long-winded recitation to stick with an audience after the speech is done.

Finally, Mr. Kahn used a prop to great effect.  “Let me ask you,” he challenged Mr. Trump, “have you even read the United States constitution?”  Then, producing a small pamphlet from his pocket, with a flourish: “I will gladly lend you my copy!”

Props make speeches memorable.  If you want to use a prop, do as Mr. Kahn did—think about how you will introduce it, practice how you will hold it, and use it to emphasize your most important point.  It is no wonder, after such a memorable speech, that in the days following Kahn’s speech the National Center for Constitutional Studies pocket constitution became a bestseller on Amazon.

You can watch entire remarkable—and short—speech here:



Democratic National Convention, Day Three: Barack Obama

Democratic National Convention, Day Three: Barack Obama

If you want to learn to speak effectively, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are powerhouse role models.  Here’s what you can learn from President Obama.  To read about President Clinton’s speech, see our analysis here.

Logos: Make Your Best Case Succinctly

Barack Obama’s speech was as inspiring and uplifting as we have come to expect him to be.  We (the authors) have sometimes felt that Obama does not like to make the case for his own record—that he could be more persuasive if he were willing to advocate.  Lawyers know to make their affirmative case first before defending themselves again the best arguments of the other side; if you start with your opponent’s case, then you are emphasizing their arguments, not yours.  In this speech, Obama thought like a lawyer.  Notice how each point is made via short, pithy statements, making them easy to say and easy to understand.  Here’s a segment:

“After the worst recession in 80 years, we fought our way back. We’ve seen deficits come down, 401(k)s recover, an auto industry set new records, unemployment reach eight-year lows, and our businesses create 15 million new jobs.

After a century of trying, we declared that healthcare in America is not a privilege for a few, it is a right for everybody. After decades of talk, we finally began to wean ourselves off foreign oil. We doubled our production of clean energy. We brought more of our troops home to their families, and we delivered justice to Osama bin Laden.  Through diplomacy, we shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  We opened up a new chapter with the people of Cuba, brought nearly 200 nations together around a climate agreement that could save this planet for our children.  We put policies in place to help students with loans; protect consumers from fraud; cut veteran homelessness almost in half.  And through countless acts of quiet courage, America learned that love has no limits, and marriage equality is now a reality across the land.”

Ethos, Pathos: Let Your Good Nature Shine Through

Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are very comfortable at the podium.  As you listen to them, you get the sense that you are part of a real conversation—that this is a real human being, speaking directly to you.  That helps them achieve emotional engagement.  But as you let your personality shine, keep in mind a lesson of ethos—audiences want to see evidence of good common sense, good moral sense, and good will. Our favorite moment of Obama’s good humor:

“Let me tell you, eight years ago, you may remember Hillary and I were rivals for the Democratic nomination. We battled for a year and a half. Let me tell you, it was tough, because Hillary was tough. I was worn out. (She was doing everything I was doing, but just like Ginger Rogers, it was backwards in heels. (Applause.) And every time I thought I might have the race won, Hillary just came back stronger. (Applause.)

But after it was all over, I asked Hillary to join my team. (Applause.) And she was a little surprised. Some of my staff was surprised. (Laughter.) But ultimately she said yes–because she knew that what was at stake was bigger than either of us. (Applause.) And for four years — for four years, I had a front-row seat to her intelligence, her judgment, and her discipline. I came to realize that her unbelievable work ethic wasn’t for praise, it wasn’t for attention — that she was in this for everyone who needs a champion. (Applause.)  I understood that after all these years, she has never forgotten just who she’s fighting for.”

Pathos:  Give the Audience a Cause that Unites Them

We predict that this speech will be long remembered for Obama’s description of our “American experiment.”  America, he explains, is Ronald Reagan’s (originally Puritan John Winthrop’s) “shining city on a hill”—a beacon of hope to people around the world.   Our strength doesn’t lie in a single person, a king or a demagogue.  It comes from us, the people.   “We’re not a fragile people. We’re not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way.  We don’t look to be ruled.”

 “America is already great. (Applause.) America is already strong. (Applause.) And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump. (Applause.)  In fact, it doesn’t depend on any one person. And that, in the end, may be the biggest difference in this election — the meaning of our democracy.

Ronald Reagan called America “a shining city on a hill.”  Donald Trump calls it “a divided crime scene” that only he can fix. It doesn’t matter to him that illegal immigration and the crime rate are as low as they’ve been in decades — (applause) — because he’s not actually offering any real solutions to those issues. He’s just offering slogans, and he’s offering fear. He’s betting that if he scares enough people, he might score just enough votes to win this election. 

And that’s another bet that Donald Trump will lose.  (Applause.) And the reason he’ll lose it is because he’s selling the American people short. We’re not a fragile people. We’re not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way.  We don’t look to be ruled. (Applause.) Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that We the People, can form a more perfect union. (Applause.) 

That’s who we are. That’s our birthright — the capacity to shape our own destiny. (Applause.) That’s what drove patriots to choose revolution over tyranny and our GIs to liberate a continent. It’s what gave women the courage to reach for the ballot, and marchers to cross a bridge in Selma, and workers to organize and fight for collective bargaining and better wages. (Applause.)

America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s about what can be achieved by us, together — (applause) — through the hard and slow, and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government.

And that’s what Hillary Clinton understands. She knows that this is a big, diverse country. She has seen it. She’s traveled. She’s talked to folks. And she understands that most issues are rarely black and white. She understands that even when you’re 100 percent right, getting things done requires compromise; that democracy doesn’t work if we constantly demonize each other. (Applause.) She knows that for progress to happen, we have to listen to each other, and see ourselves in each other, and fight for our principles but also fight to find common ground, no matter how elusive that may sometimes seem. (Applause.) “

Diversity, argued Obama, is our hallmark and our strength.  We are unified by shared values, but made even stronger by permitting, even celebrating, difference.  “That’s why our military can look the way it does — every shade of humanity, forged into common service. That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.”

“You know, there’s been a lot of talk in this campaign about what America has lost — people who tell us that our way of life is being undermined by pernicious changes and dark forces beyond our control. They tell voters there’s a “real America” out there that must be restored. This isn’t an idea, by the way, that started with Donald Trump. It’s been peddled by politicians for a long time — probably from the start of our Republic.

And it’s got me thinking about the story I told you 12 years ago tonight, about my Kansas grandparents and the things they taught me when I was growing up. (Applause.) See, my grandparents, they came from the heartland. Their ancestors began settling there about 200 years ago. I don’t know if they have their birth certificates — (laughter) — but they were there.  (Applause.)  They were Scotch-Irish mostly — farmers, teachers, ranch hands, pharmacists, oil rig workers. Hardy, small town folks. Some were Democrats, but a lot of them — maybe even most of them — were Republicans. Party of Lincoln. 

And my grandparents explained that folks in these parts, they didn’t like show-offs. They didn’t admire braggarts or bullies. They didn’t respect mean-spiritedness, or folks who were always looking for shortcuts in life. Instead, what they valued were traits like honesty and hard work, kindness, courtesy, humility, responsibility, helping each other out. That’s what they believed in. True things. Things that last.  The things we try to teach our kids.

And what my grandparents understood was that these values weren’t limited to Kansas. They weren’t limited to small towns. These values could travel to Hawaii.  (Applause.) They could travel even to the other side of the world, where my mother would end up working to help poor women get a better life; trying to apply those values. My grandparents knew these values weren’t reserved for one race. They could be passed down to a half-Kenyan grandson, or a half-Asian granddaughter. In fact, they were the same values Michelle’s parents, the descendants of slaves, taught their own kids, living in a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago. (Applause.) They knew these values were exactly what drew immigrants here, and they believed that the children of those immigrants were just as American as their own, whether they wore a cowboy hat or a yarmulke, a baseball cap or a hijab. (Applause.)

America has changed over the years. But these values that my grandparents taught me — they haven’t gone anywhere.  They’re as strong as ever, still cherished by people of every party, every race, every faith. They live on in each of us.  What makes us American, what makes us patriots is what’s in here. That’s what matters. (Applause.)  

And that’s why we can take the food and music and holidays and styles of other countries, and blend it into something uniquely our own. That’s why we can attract strivers and entrepreneurs from around the globe to build new factories and create new industries here. That’s why our military can look the way it does — every shade of humanity, forged into common service. (Applause.) That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end. (Applause.) 

That is America. That is America. Those bonds of affection; that common creed. We don’t fear the future; we shape it.  We embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own. That’s what Hillary Clinton understands — this fighter, this stateswoman, this mother and grandmother, this public servant, this patriot — that’s the America she’s fighting for. (Applause.) 

And that is why I have confidence, as I leave this stage tonight, that the Democratic Party is in good hands. My time in this office, it hasn’t fixed everything. As much as we’ve done, there’s still so much I want to do. But for all the tough lessons I’ve had to learn, for all the places where I’ve fallen short — I’ve told Hillary, and I’ll tell you, what’s picked me back up every single time: It’s been you. The American people.” 

Obama brings Hillary into this narrative, as the embodiment of Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena,” that citizen who is willing to work and to fight to make things better.  With that image, Obama took Hillary’s record, including any mistakes she has made, and turned it from a potential vulnerability into a legitimate strength:

“Look, Hillary has got her share of critics. She has been caricatured by the right and by some on the left. She has been accused of everything you can imagine — and some things that you cannot. (Laughter.) But she knows that’s what happens when you’re under a microscope for 40 years. She knows that sometimes during those 40 years she’s made mistakes — just like I have; just like we all do.  (Applause.) That’s what happens when we try. That’s what happens when you’re the kind of citizen Teddy Roosevelt once described — not the timid souls who criticize from the sidelines, but someone “who is actually in the arena…who strives valiantly; who errs…but who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement.”  (Applause.) 

Hillary Clinton is that woman in the arena. (Applause.)  She’s been there for us — even if we haven’t always noticed. And if you’re serious about our democracy, you can’t afford to stay home just because she might not align with you on every issue. You’ve got to get in the arena with her, because democracy isn’t a spectator sport. (Applause.) America isn’t about “yes, he will.” It’s about “yes, we can.” (Applause.)    And we’re going to carry Hillary to victory this fall, because that’s what the moment demands.”

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama appeal to audiences, but sometimes in different ways.  These two speeches share the following:

  1. Address both the audience at hand a wider audience;
  2. Well-organized structures;
  3. Short, punchy sentences;
  4. Clear language and message;
  5. Use humor;
  6. Delivery that projects warmth, relaxed body language, never in a rush.

Some differences:

  1. Obama has elevated cadence to an art form, using pauses to land a point, and varying his speed to great effect;
  2. Obama can transition powerfully and quickly from chatty to deadly serious by his piercing facial expressions, slower cadence, more somber tone, and varying volume;
  3. Clinton has a particular down-home, Southern charm;
  4. Clinton is a superb “explainer in chief”– good at simplifying and clarifying the inherently complex.

In terms of rhetoric, the Democratic National Convention has offered a rich laboratory of standout performances.  Stay tuned for our analysis of Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, coming soon.

Democratic National Convention, Day Two: Bill Clinton

Democratic National Convention, Day Two: Bill Clinton

If you want to learn to speak effectively, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are powerhouse role models.  Here’s what you can learn from President Clinton:

Pathos: Tell a Vivid Story

Clinton is a master storyteller.  The primary purpose of his speech was to make Hillary Clinton appealing, to get America to fall in love with her as he himself did so many years ago.  So he told story after story about his wife, each vignette painting a picture you could imagine, to drive home the point that Hillary gets things done:

“Hillary opened my eyes to a whole new world of public service by private citizens. In the summer of 1972, she went to Dothan, Alabama, to visit one of those segregated academies that then enrolled over half-a-million white kids in the South. The only way the economics worked is if they claimed federal tax exemptions to which they were not legally entitled. She got sent to prove they weren’t.

So she sauntered into one of these academies all by herself, pretending to be a housewife that had just moved to town and needed to find a school for her son. And they exchanged pleasantries and finally she said, look, let’s just get to the bottom line here, if I enroll my son in this school will he be in a segregated school, yes or know? And the guy said absolutely. She had him!


I’ve seen it a thousand times since.”

Stories capture your attention by making you laugh or cheer—a pathos-driven move.

Logos: Use Evidence to Make an Argument

After offering numerous stories testifying to Hillary’s effectiveness as a leader, Clinton switched to logos to drive home his ultimate point:  Hillary works hard to make the world better.  She has “done more positive change-making before she was 30 than many public officials do in a lifetime in office.”

“[S]he is still the best darn change-maker I have ever known.  You could drop her into any trouble spot, pick one, come back in a month and somehow, some way she will have made it better. That is just who she is.”

Pathos, Logos:  Make the Audience Part of the Story; Empower Listeners to Take Action

Clinton then incorporated the audience as the ultimate hero of the story.  They were able to see through “the things that you heard at the Republican convention” to choose Hillary as their candidate:

“So your only option is to create a cartoon, a cartoon alternative, then run against the cartoon. Cartoons are two- dimensional, they’re easy to absorb. Life in the real world is complicated and real change is hard. And a lot of people even think it’s boring.

Good for you, because earlier today you nominated the real one.”

Ethos: Your Past Actions Can Affect Credibility

It’s a terrific structure and Clinton’s pleasure in speaking to the audience was obvious.  For some listeners, though, Clinton’s speech was marred by what the audience knows about their rocky marriage.  He glossed over his affair with Monica Lewinsky and subsequent impeachment by fast forwarding over that period, and obvious gap to anyone wondering how he would square his behavior with the narrative of the Clinton love story.  It was a reasonable decision to leave this out; talking about those events would have felt inappropriate and would have focused the spotlight on Bill rather than on Hillary.  But the issue illustrated an important point for those who will speak to audiences more than once—what the audience has learned about you in the past may affect how it hears you.

To see what you can learn from President Obama, read our post about his speech here.

Democratic National Convention, Day One: Michelle Obama

Democratic National Convention, Day One: Michelle Obama

The most effective speakers use positive emotions to persuade.  You can witness this truism in action in Michelle Obama’s speech from the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

The convention got off to a rocky start.  Many were outraged at revelations over the weekend stoking the darkest suspicions of Bernie Sanders’ supporters that the Democratic National Committee unfairly favored Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  The leaked e-mails hit squarely at Clinton’s Achilles heel—the sense that she isn’t trustworthy.  Some Sanders supporters made their fury known, booing at the mention of Clinton’s name and drowning out speakers throughout the first part of the convention.

The organizers of the convention tried to tamp down the anger through music (done quite effectively via a surprise visit by Paul Simon) and through comedy, offered (somewhat less effectively) by Senator Al Franken and comedian Sarah Silverman.  When Silverman, a former Sanders supporter, took the stage (accompanied by Franken) to offer brief remarks about why she now supports Clinton, some in the crowd were vocal with their displeasure.  Franken and Silverman then found themselves in the awkward position of having to stall for time prior to Paul Simon’s appearance.  In exasperation with the unruly crowd, a visibly frustrated Silverman said, “To the Bernie or Bust crowd: you’re being ridiculous.”  Silverman’s reaction to the crowd was understandable, but the moment provides a perfect illustration of the point we have made in a previous post:  You won’t persuade people by scolding them.  This may have persuaded Clinton’s supporters, but Sanders’ supporters continued to jeer.

Paul Simon quieted and briefly united the convention crowd by singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  But it was Michelle Obama who moved the divided audience to cheers.

Michelle Obama had two goals: to inspire Clinton’s supporters and to persuade Sanders’ supporters to offer her their support.  It was clear from the experiences of the speakers who came before her that she would need to say something to meet the emotional needs of the Sanders supporters before she could make an argument on behalf of Clinton.  If she didn’t, they were likely to drown her out.

So Mrs. Obama began with a theme that everyone in the room would be likely to support:  the Obamas’ desire to be positive role models for their girls.  The Obama family is quite popular, particularly among Democrats.  What Bernie supporter would boo the image of the young Obama daughters, “the heart of our hearts,” as they headed out for their first day at their new school after moving into the White House?

“I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns.  And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, what have we done?”

With that image, Mrs. Obama got the audience hooked.  They were listening.  They were imagining those girls listening, too.  Mrs. Obama went on to explain that their children, and all the children in the country, look to their leaders to understand how to behave in the world.

“That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight, how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

This was an important rhetorical moment in Mrs. Obama’s speech and an effective use of pathos.  She calmed the crowd with the image of her beloved girls; she made her supporters feel proud by reminding them of how she and her husband consistently keep their composure under stress; and then she inspired them with the challenge to “go high” rather than go negative.  Sanders supporters in the convention hall laughed and applauded just as the Clinton supporters did at these words.  Mrs. Obama reset the mood of the audience, putting them in a more receptive frame of mind to listen to her arguments on behalf of Hillary Clinton.

The remainder of the speech was a logos-based argument in support of Clinton’s candidacy.  In support of this argument, Mrs. Obama articulated Clinton’s extensive record of public service, her decades-long support of various Democratic causes, and evidence of her strength and tenacity.

More importantly, Mrs. Obama worked to repair some of the damage to Hillary Clinton’s ethos.  According to Aristotle, ethos requires calm, good sense, and good judgment.  Michelle Obama described Hillary Clinton in just those terms.  She referenced Chelsea Clinton, “who she has raised to perfection.”  She pointed to Mrs. Clinton’s reaction to losing the nomination in 2008 as evidence of her good will and level-headedness:

“And when she didn’t win the nomination eight years ago, she didn’t get angry or disillusioned. Hillary did not pack up and go home, because as a true public servant Hillary knows that this is so much bigger than her own desires and disappointments. So she proudly stepped up to serve our country once again as secretary of state, traveling the globe to keep our kids safe. And look, there were plenty of moments when Hillary could have decided that this work was too hard, that the price of public service was too high, that she was tired of being picked apart for how she looks or how she talks or even how she laughs. But here’s the thing. What I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life.”

That grace under pressure is an essential part of ethos, and Mrs. Obama pointed to it as an essential quality for a president:

“Because when you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady and measured and well-informed.”

The final moments of Mrs. Obama’s speech returned to pathos-laden images, connecting Hillary Clinton to the sweep of American history and succinctly offering the reason that Hillary Clinton has inspired many of her followers:

“Leaders like Hillary Clinton who have the guts and the grace to keep coming back and putting those cracks in that highest and hardest glass ceiling until she finally breaks through, lifting all of us along with her.  That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.  And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.  And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”

She ended with a call for unity, and also a positive message—pride in and hope for America:

“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on earth!”

The first day of the convention included several powerhouse speeches by Democratic favorites such as Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders.  But Michelle Obama’s speech stood out for its exemplary use of pathos to calm and persuade an angry crowd.


Trump’s Acceptance Speech, Republican National Convention, Day Four

Trump’s Acceptance Speech, Republican National Convention, Day Four


Donald Trump confronted an unusually daunting task in this speech:  to satisfy his supporters, eager to see a show of strength; to unify the Republican party behind him, including its moderate establishment members; and to persuade undecided voters, perhaps followers of Bernie Sanders, to back his candidacy.  His address was given against the background of a vituperative primary race and a convention characterized by dark, angry speeches.


According to Aristotle, a speaker persuades through inspiring trust and projecting good moral sense and goodwill.

The negative tone of first three days of the convention would make it difficult for any speaker to pivot to a positive message. Mike Pence did his best to accomplish this on Day Three, but the convention largely has been focused on what Trump’s supporters don’t like (Hillary Clinton, whom they would like to jail or execute), with little attention on what they do like.  Trump did nothing to close this gap.  It is clear that his supporters are united in their disdain for Hillary Clinton, but it is less clear what positive goals they find inspiring.

Trump also did very little in his speech to demonstrate his credibility as a leader, another requirement of ethos.  It is not persuasive to claim, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” without actually explaining how the fixing will be done.  His plan to address crime? “I will work with, and appoint, the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country to get the job done.”  His plan to address urban blight?  “When I am President, I will work to ensure that all of our kids are treated equally, and protected equally.”  To fight terrorism? “We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS.”  These are noble goals, but they are not plans.  Simply declaring “I am the law and order candidate” does not magically turn you into a candidate capable of creating law and order.  In law school, we require our students to substantiate the claims they make in their oral arguments.  “Believe me” does not suffice.

The biggest boost to Trump’s ethos has come from his children.  They acquitted themselves well at this convention, delivering speeches with charm, good sense, and genuine affection.  They have argued that he is a good father and a good businessperson, and because they appear credible, listeners are more likely to believe those claims.


We’ve seen plenty of pathos, or appeal to emotion, throughout this convention.  As we have argued in previous posts, appeals to positive emotion rather than anger or fear are a more ethical effort of persuasion and likelier to lead to a positive result.

The first three days of the convention were dark, angry, and sometimes frightening.  Trump continued to gin up fear in his remarks.

It is telling to look at the amount of time Trump spent on the various topics in his speech.  Looking at the transcript, one can see that he devoted the most space—over 840 words—on claims that illegal immigrants will kill you.  In second place, at 529 words: the streets are overrun with crime and violence.  Coming in third place, at 456 words: the Middle East is in chaos, and ISIS will kill you.  Fourth place goes to arguments that Hillary Clinton lies or should be jailed (345 words).  And in fifth place, at 306 words?  Only Donald Trump can fix it.  This is classic demagoguery, as we have described here—the rhetorical technique of inciting fear and anger, coupled with the claim that only the speaker can put things right.  Trump spends very little time on normal Republican talking points (lowering taxes, gun rights, religious freedom, coal and steel, school choice, protecting veterans, and cutting out wasteful spending each receive a short paragraph), because this was a speech about feeling, not thinking.

The result?  Listeners tend to walk away from a speech like this holding the same opinion they held before the speech.  Those who were already persuaded enjoyed the catharsis of screaming along with Trump.  Those who were on the fence may have tuned out long before the speech ended because it is fatiguing to be yelled at.

Trump was at his best when he spoke about his family.  His affection for his father was palpable, as was his pride in his siblings and children.  He also ad-libbed two lines that made him appealing.  When he spoke of the support of the evangelical community, he quipped, “and I’m not sure I totally deserve it”—a Mike Pence-style joke that worked.  And after the crowd cheered at his promise to protect the LGBTQ community, he said, “I have to say, as a Republican it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”  In those moments, Trump connected with his audience in a positive way, exhibiting good pathos.


Logos requires a speaker to explain facts clearly to lead to a conclusion.  Trump is easy to follow because he is plain-spoken and conversational.  He promised early on in the speech to lay out the details of his plan, “to present the facts plainly and honestly”—a nod to logos.

It is easier to understand an oral presentation if the sentences are short and the writing vivid.  Trump’s speech includes some good examples of the kind of writing that is easy for the speaker to deliver and for the audience to process.  Take, for example, this passage about the Middle East:

“In 2009, pre-Hillary, ISIS was not even on the map. Libya was cooperating. Egypt was peaceful. Iraq was seeing a reduction in violence. Iran was being choked by sanctions. Syria was under control. After four years of Hillary Clinton, what do we have? ISIS has spread across the region, and the world. Libya is in ruins, and our Ambassador and his staff were left helpless to die at the hands of savage killers. Egypt was turned over to the radical Muslim brotherhood, forcing the military to retake control. Iraq is in chaos. Iran is on the path to nuclear weapons. Syria is engulfed in a civil war and a refugee crisis that now threatens the West. After fifteen years of wars in the Middle East, after trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, the situation is worse than it has ever been before. This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness.”

Notice how short the sentences are (“Egypt was peaceful.”) and the vivid imagery.  The weakness of the argument is the conclusion—that this is the legacy of Hillary Clinton.  He has not proved that Clinton is the cause of the chaos he describes.  If he were to conclude, instead, with the penultimate sentence, “the situation is worse than it has ever been before,” his logos would be stronger.

Most of the speech was light on substance, and therefore light on logos.  For example, Trump indicated that he would bring back the coal and steel industries without saying how.  He will fix TSA—no details about how.  He will repeal Obamacare—again, no details.  Fact checkers are challenging the few details Trump did offer, such as his statements about the crime rate or the causes of the unrest in the Middle East.  But this really wasn’t a speech about solutions.  It was a speech about fear.

Does resorting to fear matter?  After all, it’s been done before—you might remember Lyndon Johnson’s daisy ad, implying that a vote for Goldwater would result in nuclear war, or the famous Willie Horton ad, which implied that Michael Dukakis would let rapists roam the streets.

But we think fearmongering is destructive.  When people are frightened or angry, they don’t think clearly or make the best decisions.  And it’s a tone that is unbecoming of a president.  The Republicans are the party of Lincoln, who after the Civil War offered these words:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

That is the quality of character we expect from a president.  This is a tone that makes a speaker persuasive.

The First Three Days of the Republican National Convention

The First Three Days of the Republican National Convention

The Republican National Convention is in full swing. Here are a few rhetorical lessons from the first three days.  (Remember, we are not trying to take political positions in this blog.  Instead, we are taking positions about who speaks well—and who doesn’t.)

Patricia Smith: Care about your topic, but don’t let your emotions overwhelm you.

Patricia Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, who was killed in the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, gave an emotional speech about her the death of her son.  Her grief was palpable; her anger, even more so: “For all this loss, for all this grief, for all the cynicism the tragedy in Benghazi has wrought upon America, I blame Hillary Clinton.  I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son.”

The speech was hard to watch because of Ms. Smith’s raw emotion.  Imagine how much more persuasive Ms. Smith could have been if she had been able to hold some of that emotion in check. But because the emotion was uncontrolled, it is easy to dismiss her claims against Clinton as extreme. The danger of the overuse of emotion is that audiences may believe that a speaker in the grip of uncontrolled emotion cannot think clearly; others may resist the speaker’s message because they believe the emotion is being used to manipulate them.

You can watch this misuse of pathos here:

Melania Trump: Why plagiarism became the central story.

Melania Trump, the candidate’s wife, had a tough task.  She is not a politician herself; nevertheless, she needed to give a speech before a large, rowdy audience in a language that is not her own.  That’s an intimidating prospect for most of us.

When she began her remarks, she employed techniques that can help if you find yourself speaking in a foreign language.  She spoke slowly, which is important if there is a chance that the audience might not understand your words—they need time to get used to your accent.  She paused to let important points land, which also helps with comprehension.  Her eye contact was steady, important when you speak to an American audience, who will perceive you as being more credible if you project physical confidence.

Her logos was less impressive. She made the typical claims a candidate’s wife must make: “He will never give up.” “Donald is, and always has been, an amazing leader.” “Donald thinks big.”  But she also made claims that needed to be substantiated: “Donald wants prosperity for all Americans. We need new programs to help the poor and opportunities to challenge the young. There has to be a plan for growth — only then will fairness result.”  What is the plan?  “Donald intends to represent all the people, not just some of the people. That includes Christians and Jews and Muslims, it includes Hispanics and African Americans and Asians, and the poor and the middle class.”  Where is the evidence of this?  If Mrs. Trump had provided details—a story to back up her claims, or details of the plans she refers to—then the audience would be more likely to be persuaded.  It is less persuasive to state a position with no evidence to back it up.

Finally, the plagiarism.  This speech caused an uproar when analysts realized that parts of the speech were identical to Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech at the Democratic national convention.  This matters because it takes away from the message Mrs. Trump hoped to communicate; instead, the story became about whether there was cheating, who did it, and what this says about her character or Trump’s campaign. Can one conclude that plagiarism in his wife’s speech proves a lack of moral compass on Donald Trump’s part?  No.  But does this raise ethical questions that make the speaker less credible and the speech less effective?  Yes.  The take-home message from this speech was not that Trump will save the day.  Instead, the message was that of disarray, and, ultimately, embarrassment.

We all make mistakes.  When it is clear you have made one, own up to it clearly and promptly. During the 36 hours after Mrs. Trump’s speech, the story coming from the Trump campaign went every which way—from insistence that the passages weren’t similar to accusations that this was a Hillary Clinton-devised plot to the tale of a staff writer operating on her own.  The final message from the campaign—that Mrs. Trump admires Michelle Obama and that they made a mistake—was a much more graceful way to handle the situation.  The various excuses leading up to that transformed what could have been a minor hiccup into a major news story.

You can watch Mrs. Trump’s speech here:


Chris Christie versus Mike Pence: Refrains work; anger has its limits.

On Day Two, Chris Christie exercised his prosecutorial chops to make his party’s case against Hillary Clinton.  This speech is worth watching to see the power of using audience interaction and a pithy refrain.  Christie made point after point about Clinton’s alleged transgressions, punctuating each with the refrain, “Guilty or not guilty?”  As the audience responded, “Guilty!” it became more and more enraged, adding to the energy and punch of Christie’s performance.  The refrain worked to keep the audience’s attention.  It also helped with the logos of the speech, separating Christie’s points from one another to make the structure clear.

However, Christie’s speech is vulnerable to attack on logos grounds.  In a courtroom, opposing counsel would be quick to point out his selective use of facts and places where Christie stretches the truth. You can see a fact-check of the speech here, and an argument that ethical breaches in Christie’s speech disqualify him from serving as the Attorney General in the future here.

Another weakness of the speech—Christie’s tone was over the top.  His delivery was savage, ginning up anger in the audience.  For moderate Republicans or undecided voters, watching the delegates devolve into an angry mob, shouting “Lock her up!” could serve as an uncomfortable reminder of the undercurrent of violence that has permeated Trump’s campaign.

Contrast this tone with the affable, calm tone struck by Mike Pence as he accepted the nomination for the vice presidency.  Pence used self-deprecating humor to good effect, saying that Trump is “a man known for large personality, a colorful style and lots of charisma.  So I guess he was looking for some balance on the ticket.”  He introduced himself to “those of you who don’t know me, which is most of you.”  He talked fondly of his father, saying that if Dad were with us today, “he’d enjoy this moment—and probably be surprised.”  Self-deprecating humor can help a speaker establish the “good will” that is part of ethos.

Pence also made a case against Clinton, but without any of Christie’s ranting.  For example, he described Clinton as offering a third Obama term, but supported this position by calmly articulating ways in which Clinton’s policies are similar to Obama’s.  He correctly noted that the next president will appoint at least one Supreme Court justice, which may affect issues his party cares about, such as gun control.  And he made a succinct argument that Clinton represents the status quo:  “Over in the other party, if the idea was to present the exact opposite of a political outsider, the exact opposite of an uncalculating truth teller, then on that score you’ve got to hand it to the Democratic establishment, they outdid themselves this time . . . At the very moment when America is crying out for something new and different . . . Democrats are about to anoint someone who represents everything this country is tired of.”  His argument was much more effective than Christie’s because it is pithy, pointed, and calm.

Finally, Pence appealed to positive rather than negative emotions, which is an effective use of pathos.  He struck a theme of unity, both within the Republican party (“with this united party, he’s got backup”) and for all Americans: “I believe we’d do well to remember that what unites us far exceeds anything that sets us apart in America. That we are, as we have always been, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  While Christie’s speech triggered cries of “Lock her up!,” Pence’s caused the audience to cheer, “We like Mike!” As we have argued here, it is a more productive model of leadership to appeal to positive emotions.

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 immigration policies or talk about ways to combat terrorism without playing on his listeners’ deepest fears and prejudices. Instead, he proudly boasts that he is rebelling against “political correctness.” He intersperses his salvos with declarations of love for his supporters, flattering them for their support of his candidacy: “By far, the Trump person, the Trump voter is most loyal.” If that loyalty comes from a vulnerable group, all the better: “We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”

His rhetorical habit is designed to diminish the listeners’ abilities to think logically (logos) by triggering their emotions (pathos). This is nothing new. Plato warned against this very practice over 2,000 years ago. Here (in Platonic terms) is why it works against the goals of a representative democracy.

In “Gorgias,” written around 380 B.C., Plato makes the case that rhetoric is potentially destructive if it is mastered by a bad actor. He describes rhetoric as “the habit of a bold and clever mind, which knows how to act in the eyes of the world. I would call it flattery.” The dangerous speaker, in Plato’s eyes, is the one who flatters the mob to manipulate it. In “Phaedrus,” written about 10 years later, Plato postulates the existence of both evil and noble rhetoric. Evil rhetoric uses colorful language to enslave and deceive another, “a universal art of enchanting the mind by arguments.” Noble rhetoric uses language to teach and inspire rather than to cloud truthful thinking.

The point: Rhetoric can move us to good or to evil. Plato feared this power and warned against it.

In the book “Primal Leadership,” about emotional intelligence and leadership, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee demonstrate that leaders who use dissonant messages trigger the emotional part of our brains — the amygdala, which perceives threats and causes us to fight or take flight. When your amygdala is triggered, it is difficult to think logically; instead your brain is hijacked by anxiety or anger. Leaders with optimistic messages who can stay calm under intense pressure (e.g., “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”) create an environment of trust and fairness, and open up space for you to think. Resonant messages work on your prefrontal lobe, where rational thinking takes place. Dissonant messages — racism, sexism, xenophobia, fear-mongering — can lead to thoughtless reaction and violence.

Trump says, “The current politically correct response cripples our ability to talk and to think and act clearly.” We say inflammatory language cripples the ability to talk, think and act clearly. When leaders reach for fear and anger, aimed at the universal “other” (women, Hispanics, Muslims, the banks, the wealthy, the media, etc.), the message can cause followers to act destructively. Plato warned in “The Republic” that democracy runs the risk of empowering a despot to seize control by fomenting fear and hatred, then presenting himself as the savior of the people against the threatening “other.” The United States, a representative democracy, is vulnerable to the danger Plato identified.

But the design of our nation also contains within it the defenses required to bring down a demagogue. The power of the federal government is limited by the Constitution. The president is checked by two other branches of government. And our elections take place after months of robust debate. People disagree. Journalists and private citizens alike check facts. It is remarkable that even though we have a history of partisan politics, members of Trump’s own party have resisted his inflammatory rhetoric. As Paul Ryan said in response to Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States: “I do not think a Muslim ban is in our country’s interest. I do not think it is reflective of our principles, not just as a party, but as a country.”

Here’s the tricky question, though: how do you persuade listeners who have fallen under the spell of demagoguery that they are being manipulated?

In courtroom advocacy, jurors typically see through inflammatory rhetoric because they must sift through all the evidence before they are allowed to cast their votes. Judges offer the jury a framework through which to view the evidence to encourage organized thought. Inflammatory rhetoric is likely to backfire on an attorney who uses it because the judge will curtail it and the jury may be angry at the attempted manipulation.

But there is no requirement in an election that voters pay the same careful attention to facts; in fact, there is some evidence that voters in thrall to a candidate will go to great lengths to explain away facts that might harm their candidate. And voters have more at stake personally than jurors do — they are more likely to feel personally threatened about the outcome of an election than a juror might feel about the outcome of a trial. Trump’s supporters have real grievances — economic fears, loss of power and frustration about their place in a changing world. No one likes to be lectured to or told that they are bigoted or sexist; these sorts of arguments are more likely to anger than persuade.

When you are combatting overwhelming emotions, insisting on a rational framework alone is not enough. Someone in the throes of overwhelming emotions is literally unable to think without a way to shrink the emotions back down to size. Empathy is paramount. Beth Turner, LICSW, a psychiatric social worker at the Austen Riggs Center, says that therapists help clients move from disorganized, overwhelmed emotional states to having minds capable of thinking through using their own emotions and thinking as a bridge from chaotic emotion to manageable thought. This is the concept of “containment,” first articulated by the British analyst Wilfred Bion. For example, she explains, “If you just tell your kid logically there’s no monster in the closet, they probably will feel left alone with their experience of terror. If you first emotionally resonate with the experience of the dark being scary, taking in the experience of terror and using your mind to transmute the terror into something more manageable or understandable, then showing there’s no monster, they may feel contained. The dark isn’t so scary after all.” Similarly, a politician who moves too quickly to logical arguments without first recognizing and empathizing with the emotional state of the people runs the risk of leaving people emotionally “uncontained” and unable to use their minds to think in an organized way.

Our nation has historically done a pretty good job of electing leaders who aren’t demagogues, even though we have never agreed unanimously on who the leader should be. Our election system, which relies on robust debate over a period of months, is designed to encourage voters to grapple with facts. Not all will, but many will. The best defense against fearmongering is speaking the truth. Opponents of any demagogue should aspire to the “noble rhetoric” described by Plato, which we argue includes a resonant, uplifting message (not fearmongering in kind); a fair recitation of facts; calm in the fact of hatred and panic; empathy; and patience. Perhaps not everyone in thrall to a demagogue will be persuaded, but enough of us will to be able to stop him.

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 us think him more credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others. There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character: Good sense, good moral character, and good will.” If you trust and like a speaker, you are more likely to believe him or her.

Pathos, or emotional engagement. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.” A speaker who is able to get the audience to care about what she says is more persuasive.

Logos, or logic. Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.” To persuade listeners, a speaker’s logic must be clear and easy to follow.

Hillary Clinton

Ethos: Ethos is both Clinton’s greatest strength and at the same time her greatest vulnerability. To be credible, a speaker must know about a topic. Clinton has tremendous experience through her service as a U.S. senator, the secretary of state, and as the first lady. As President Obama said in his endorsement of her, “I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office.” She is tough, intelligent and clearly understands the importance of preparation — witness, for example, her performance during the 11-hour hearing by the Senate’s Select Committee on Benghazi, in which she displayed a mastery of facts and policy. When Clinton speaks, her preparation and experience cloak her in authority.

But Clinton also comes to this election weighed down by the baggage of many years in the public eye. Trump’s label of “Crooked Hillary” is a direct attack on her ethos, and reminds the public of various ethics-related accusations made against Clinton or her husband, such as stories about foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation, Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, and the impeachment of her husband arising out of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Even when allegations of ethical misdeeds have proved unfounded, the sense that the Clintons are shady characters has stuck. This is an ethos problem; to counteract it, Clinton would be wise to be as forthcoming and frank as possible in all her campaign appearances.

Pathos: This is another area of both strength and weakness for Clinton. In the plus column, Clinton’s nomination for the presidency is a historic moment. She is the first female candidate nominated by a major political party. The prospect of a woman shattering the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” has galvanized many supporters and packs an emotional punch.

But Clinton also triggers strongly negative emotions in those who oppose her. “I’d vote for the devil before I would ever vote for that woman,” says one Trump supporter. Some of the vitriol aimed at Clinton bears a decidedly misogynistic tone — she has been labeled a shrew, a bitch, a harpy and a castrator (“I cross my legs involuntarily every time she comes on the air,” said Tucker Carlson).

Clinton also lacks the rhetorical skills of her husband or President Obama. Her delivery can be alternately flat or irritable, and she appears more comfortable with logical arguments than with emotional appeals. This is not universally the case, though — witness her fine victory speech as the presumptive nominee, which you can watch here. To be at her most persuasive, Clinton should aim for this level of emotional engagement in all her speeches.

Logos. In this area, Clinton shines. She has a lawyer’s mind, and knows how to make a logical, clear argument. We expect Clinton to show great strength in the debates in the area of logos.

Donald Trump

Ethos: Trump’s supporters find him to be credible because they believe he has business acumen and “tells it like it is.” Trump is willing to say things that are not politically correct; consequently, he appears frank and authentic to those who support him.

However, Trump lacks experience in governing. He has never held an elected office. He has no foreign policy experience. To maintain credibility, he will need to show how his business experience qualifies him for the position of president.

Finally, many Americans believe Trump lacks the “good moral sense” and “good will” that are foundational to Aristotle’s concept of ethos. He has a complicated backstory — he runs gambling casinos, has a history of marital infidelity and has been less than forthright about his own business success. And rather than demonstrate goodwill, he routinely denigrates those who disagree with him with xenophobic, racist and sexist attacks (a woman is a “fat pig,” “dog,” “disgusting” or a “beautiful piece of ass”; Mexicans are “rapists” bringing drugs; a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against Trump cannot be objective because his parents emigrated from Mexico; Muslims should be banned from entering the country). Without a moral center, it is difficult to achieve ethos.

Pathos: During the primary race, Trump has done a better job than Clinton at galvanizing his supporters. His campaign appearances are marked by the high energy and enthusiasm of his followers. He is able to get his crowds to laugh and to cheer.

But he has also demonstrated the dark side of emotional engagement by fanning the flames of bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia. Plato warned against the teaching of rhetoric for precisely this sort of reason — he worried that it could be used to inflame a mob. Euripides described the problem like this: “A man of loose tongue, intemperate, trusting to tumult, leading the populace to mischief with empty words.” If he hopes to become presidential, Trump should drop the inflammatory language. He is charismatic enough to keep his listeners engaged without resorting to hate-filled discourse. (We promise a more complete analysis of the dark side of pathos in a future blog post.)

Logos: Trump’s proposals during the primaries have been largely devoid of any substance on which his logos could be judged. However, he uses plain language that listeners can easily follow, even if it is not always logical. He has gotten into trouble for making bombastic statements (such as when he said women should be punished if they get abortions), that he has later retracted. He will have to fill in the details of his proposals and lay them out clearly to the American people if he wants to succeed in his campaign.

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 believe that anyone can — and should — learn to speak effectively.

Verbal persuasion also plays an essential role in the proper functioning of a healthy democracy. Government “by the people” requires that the people be involved — that they possess some basic understanding of how to speak to one another, and how to evaluate what others are saying. Debate — even sometimes contentious, unpleasant debate — is the way we hash out ideas.

The 2016 presidential campaign season is upon us, offering the perfect laboratory for examining the inner workings of verbal persuasion. 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 debate of your own with friends and family. If you understand rhetoric, you will be better positioned to evaluate the political campaigning that you hear, and to make successful arguments yourself.

What can you learn about rhetoric from the 2016 presidential race? Has this race changed all the rules? Our answer: No.

From time to time, we will offer rhetorical analysis on this blog. The point of this exercise is not to express opinions about the candidate’s political positions; instead, we will evaluate how the candidates express and explain their ideas.


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.

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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?”

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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.

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Tongue-Tied America featured in the 2012 Virginia Festival of the Book

Tongue-Tied America featured in the 2012 Virginia Festival of the Book

Molly Bishop Shadel and Robert Sayler, authors of Tongue-Tied America spoke March 23rd on the topic of effective public speaking.

In their presentation Shadel and Sayler give several examples of poor public speaking taken from recent Republican primary stump speeches. They then follow with examples of many great speeches including the one in which Lou Gehrig moved a nation with his speech about the disease that now bears his name. You will learn why “It’s a bird, it’s a plane it’s Superman!” is so memorable. Learn how presidential candidate Al Gore transformed himself from a poor to an excellent speaker. And, you’ll hear Robert Kennedy speak on the night Marten Luther King was assassinated.

An audio recording of the presentation is available on the Charlottesville Podcasting Network, and video is available on Vimeo.


Professor Shadel Speaks to the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia

Professor Shadel Speaks to the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia

Professor Shadel spoke today to the Insurance Law Forum of the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia. The topic was effective communication skills for female lawyers. In her speech, titled “Advocacy and Gender: Women, Speech and Power,” Professor Shadel discussed gendered behaviors women may exhibit while speaking in public.

More information can be found at the DC Bar web site.

Online Public Speaking Course with Professor Shadel on January 26, 2011

Online Public Speaking Course with Professor Shadel on January 26, 2011

Professor Molly Shadel will be available for live Q&A after an encore presentation of a public speaking course she presented last October. The course, titled Public Speaking and Oral Advocacy: How To Do It Well! was originally presented live via webcast for ALI-ABA. The course qualifies for CLE credit. Visit the course page at ALI ABA to sign up.