Rhetorically speaking

One of the hardest things about being a designer is that we have to spend a lot of time and energy convincing people to believe in our ideas. Not only do we have to come up with a great idea in the first place, but then we almost always have sell that idea to a big group of people that you must work with to turn these great ideas into reality.

Of course, we all love to believe that the elegance of our vision is self-evident upon a simple walk through and that our beautiful renderings will stun our audience into adulation. Unfortunately, even if you’re very good, this probably only happens some of the time.

The rest of the time we have to explain ourselves. We have to put words around our pictures in such a way that we get our audience to engage, consider and hopefully support our plans and schemes. And this better not be slight of hand. This is no political campaign—if you trick someone into believing you, they can always change their mind after they vote.

Lucky for us, this isn’t a new problem. With its roots in the philosophical pursuits of the ancient Greeks, rhetoric is the study of effective spoken and written communication. It is based upon the idea that form and content may be distinguished from each other, and that certain common forms may be applied to communicate a variety of content. As boring and old fashioned as it might sound (kind of like learning Latin), I’ve found that returning to these basics can be invaluable in clearly articulating the kind of conceptual thinking that often forms the foundation for our proposed design ideas.

Crafting an argument — on the fly or in advance

While I’m not always conscious of it, I think there’s a basic process that I usually go through when I’m putting together an argument, whether its in contemplation with my colleagues before a formal presentation, or spontaneously in the middle of a meeting:

  1. Figure out what you want your audience to take away. This probably seems stupidly obvious. But how often do you really have a clear sense of the point that you’re trying to make? It’s difficult to be incisive in your explanation if you have fuzzy idea in your head. Resist the temptation to just wing it. Really think through what you want them to think when you’re done speaking.
  2. Assess what your audience already knows that is relevant to the topic at hand, including things they “know” that you might think are incorrect. This is the starting point of your argument. If you don’t know what your audience knows, you may have to ask or make some assumptions.
  3. Ask yourself what you know that your audience may not already know. Convincing people of your position may require that you do a little education.
  4. Compose your argument. This is where you put it all together—figure out how to build on what the audience already knows with some new facts or ideas, how to sequence your points and tie them together, and the right emotional tenor for your delivery. It is here where rhetoric’s encyclopedic attention to both pathos (emotion) and logos (logic) can help you think through your options. Of course, charting the right course depends a lot on understanding your audience and being true to your own character. And, if after all this, you’re overwhelmed by the knowledge of the ancients and you’re unsure how to proceed, you could do worse than return to a more recent classic.
  5. Deliver your argument. Try to speak clearly and succinctly and stick to your story. I’ve heard plenty of arguments fall apart, not because too little was said, but rather, too much.

Of course, few of us are masters of the extemporaneous argument like Stephen Douglas or William F. Buckley. When you find yourself struggling at step one, it’s probably because you don’t know enough. Pause, take a breath, and ask for clarification. A slapdash, rambling reaction does little to inspire confidence or communicate clearly. Give yourself and everyone else a chance to fully understand the question, problem or need for explanation. Then, float like a butterfly, or sting like a bee.

Dave Cronin

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