Rhetoric: Definition, Purpose and Persuasive Power

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Definition

Rhetoric is a tool that is mainly used by writers and speakers when presenting ideas to the public. Otherwise stated, it is an art that writers and speakers use to persuade their audience to accept their course of action. Politics and advertisement are the most common contexts in which rhetoric is used. It involves application of rhetorical devices, such as irony, rhetorical questions, repetition, humor and anecdote among others to achieve particular rhetorical purposes. Although, rhetoric has other purposes, this discussion seeks to justify that it is mainly used for a persuasive purpose.

Key words: rhetoric, persuasion, speakers, writers, audience, ideas

 

True Purpose of Rhetoric

All literary works are aimed at achieving particular purposes. Characteristics of the target audience for a particular literary work determine the manner in which information is delivered. Writers and speakers must consider their readers and listeners respectively so as to ensure that they render their language to be acceptable and satisfactory to the audience. When writing or giving a public speech, people often use rhetoric to enhance acceptability of their messages to the audience. Rhetoric refers to an art that writers and speakers use to persuade their audience to accept their course of action (Roberts, 2004).

Writers and speakers use rhetorical devices such as irony, rhetorical questions, repetition, humor and anecdote among others to achieve particular rhetorical purposes. The art can help writers to seek acceptance of their argument, to express feelings, show emotions, explain an idea or to entertain. The importance of rhetoric is understood by acknowledging the fact that the target audience for a speech or a written piece of art is not always familiar or friendly to the idea presented. As such, writers and speakers mainly use rhetoric for the purpose of persuading their audience to accept or understand the possibility of a different point of view. This essay seeks to use illustrations to justify that the true purpose of rhetoric is to persuade the audience to accept or acknowledge the worth of a writer’s or a speaker’s point of view.

Roberts (2004), states that rhetoric helps writers and speakers to achieve more than the basic purposes that their written art or speech is intended to achieve. The main intention is to ensure that an author or speaker succeeds in persuading his or her audience to think along the line of the literary work or speech. It is common to have an audience whose perception over an issue is completely different from that presented by an author or a speaker.

In such a case, writers and speakers can apply various rhetorical devices to manipulate perception of the audience so that their points of view predominate. It is not obvious that using rhetoric leads to acceptability of all ideas presented in a written work or a speech. However, manipulative capacity of rhetoric is essential in persuading an audience to consider different concepts that are presented, which is a common occurrence in politics (Williams, 2008). When campaigning, politicians tend giving several promises to have voters convinced that they are the right candidates for particular political posts.

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In some cases, politicians use humor to attract interest of their audience for them to get an opportunity to sell their policies. Politicians also use rhetoric to reinforce value of their audience so that they appear focused on pursuing public interest. With communication skills enable them understand public interest prior to or in the course of their speech. After understanding the interests, politicians render their speech to appeal to interest of the audience so that they become popular and acceptable. In some cases, speakers use rhetoric to persuade their audience to reconsider their values.

For example, there has been a heated debate on the need to acknowledge and accept those with deviant sexual orientation. When giving a persuasive speech with an aim of making an audience appreciate diverse sexual orientation, effective use of rhetorical devices like humor can help speakers appeal to their audience to reconsider their social values.

Williams (2008), states that rhetoric was commonly used in Europe for persuasive functions in public settings. When giving public speeches in courts and assemblies, speakers often use rhetoric to persuade the listeners due to the understanding that rhetoric is often effective in democratic societies where citizens are granted the right of free speech, association and political enfranchisement. In such occasions, rhetoric is classified as a civic art as it is perceived to be capable of shaping communities, leading to formation of character of the citizens and having a significant impact on people’s civic life.

Roberts (2004), states that early philosophers, such as Aristotle referred to rhetoric as a civic art. They attributed ability to establish institutions through communication. The argument is based on perception that rhetoric is an integral aspect of every society and a feature that shapes everyone’s character. In courts, lawyers use rhetoric in their attempts to defend their clients. Effectiveness of the defense is always based on ability of lawyers to convince the judge of their clients’ innocence. It is common to find lawyers using humor to persuade the judge to accept the idea given. There are known several cases when innocent people were sentenced to serve jail terms due to failure of the lawyers to persuade the judge to accept their defense. Aristotle stated that rhetoric is a faculty that involves making observations of every possible way of persuading an audience (Roberts, 2004).

He also argued that persuasive ability is helpful in the public settings. When making reference to Aristotle, Roberts (2004), suggests that there are three oratory divisions namely: political division, forensic division and the ceremonial oratory that involves display. The three divisions are applicable in civic life and can be applied to influence the society. As observed earlier, rhetoric is common in politics as it is used as a persuasive tool that enables politicians to conciliate their voters, hence, come into office. Besides, whenever there is a proposal to effect any change in the society, proponents of the change must find a way of convincing and persuading people to accept their proposal (Verhulsdonck & Limbu, 2014).

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The approach is common for organizations that operate based on well-established organizational culture. Making a change in such organizations can lead to resentment. Therefore, appropriate measures must be taken to ensure that those who are likely to be directly affected by the proposed changes are persuaded to accept the changes before they are implemented. In most cases, the purpose is achieved by using appropriate channels of communication. For example, management of an organization must use rhetoric when persuading employees to accept a change in management styles.

The Persuasive Power of Rhetoric

The persuasive power of rhetoric is at times abused by writers and speakers. Since art can be used to shape people’s opinion, Verhulsdonck and Limbu (2014), suggest that use of rhetoric can at times have negative effects on the society. They argue that there are several occasions when the public is capable of analyzing issues on their own to arrive at an informed decision. However, it is possible for people to be persuaded by renowned authors and powerful speakers to act in a manner that leads to conflicts in the society. It means that ability of speakers and writers to use rhetoric to persuade the public to accept their views can make them controllers of civic life. Political context can be used to confirm this notion.

There are several occasions when the public is undecided on the right political aspirant for whom they should vote. The masses heavily rely on politicians’ persuasive abilities to decide on their favorable candidates. Therefore, competent aspirants can lose in elections due to their inability to persuade voters as incompetent candidates sail through because of their good oratory skills. The above may lead to complaints by the society the public realizes that incompetent leaders were elected.

The persuasive power of rhetoric is also used in advertisement to influence public opinion over products and services (Verhulsdonck & Limbu, 2014). Advertisers use several rhetoric devices to present their products and services as the best in the market. In most cases, humor is used to attract attention of the audience. Advertisements also use repetition to make the target audience memorize the name and functions of the advertised product or service. It is believed that advertisement is one of the most effective methods of boosting sales. It has gained fame due to global e-commerce that has made business to become more competitive. Product or service popularity among consumers is based on the level of effectiveness of advertisements.

Advertisements that are made by the means of the new media, such as the internet, use catchy statements that apply rhetoric to attract attention of the target audience. It is also necessary to note that advertisements can have a negative influence on consumers, especially in cases when advertisers fail to adhere to ethical standards of advertisement that requires them to present valid information about products and services. Some of the information given can mislead customers to believe that the advertised product or service meets their demands while this is in opposition to the facts.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the above discussion justifies the fact that rhetoric is a powerful tool used by writers and speakers in persuading their readers and listeners to accept or consider their point of view. Despite other purposes, that rhetoric can help to achieve, such as expression of feelings and entertainment and showing emotions among others, the main purpose of art is to persuade the audience. It is evident in political speeches and advertisement where success of politicians and advertisers depends on their ability to persuade the audience.

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