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The role of rhetoric in everyday advocacy

Written by: Luan de Burgh
Published on: 25 Sep 2013

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Professional public speaker and presentation coach Luan de Burgh advises on a skill that every good barrister must have.

The Ancient Greek poet Sappho wrote of it: “Persuasion is Aphrodite’s daughter, it is she who beguiles our mortal hearts.” Plato described it as “an influencing of the mind by means of words.” Homer said of it: “Do I know what ‘rhetorical’ means?” (That’s Springfield’s great thinker, Homer Simpson, of course and not the epic poet of Iliad and the Odyssey fame).

Put at its simplest, rhetoric is the art of persuading or influencing others through words. It is a skill that most of us tend to associate with the great and the good (and sometimes the less good); those who lead us and those who seek to lead us, those who lead great businesses and great armies and those who seek to lead us to salvation. But that is not always the case.

Gandhi, Karl Marx and Jesus Christ certainly all used words to persuade (and what a dinner party that would be) but so too do we all in our everyday lives and we hear it all around us, often without even recognising it. Stephen Fry – and it is fair to say that there’s someone who knows a thing or two about the power of language – says of rhetoric: ‘It’s like watching ice dancing and seeing a great move – you know it’s beautiful but have no idea what it’s called.’

Some of the oldest jokes use one of the most commonly employed and effective rhetorical devices as part of the set up – the tricolon (three units of speech in a row). In the fourth series of Blackadder, the eponymous Captain speaks of the ‘three great universities of the land – Oxford, Cambridge and Hull’. Advertising slogans use rhetoric – ‘Find it. Get it. Argos it.’ Politicians use it all the time, although it can be a double-edged sword as the Governor of Texas found to his cost (Google ‘Rick Perry + oops’).

Indeed, in my opening paragraph and those that follow I have almost obsessively used ‘tricolon’ for the very simple reason that we like things in threes. I also ruthlessly deployed another rhetorical exocet from my oratorical armoury – anaphora (repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of a sentence). If you can give three concise, snappy and succinct reasons why somebody should either take a particular course of action or consider your position on a matter you are far more likely to achieve your desired outcome than if you overload them with information or fail to give them enough to go on.

In the world of law, the ability to persuade, inspire and inform is paramount. There will be times when you will have to pitch for business. There will be times when you will have to persuade people to your client’s point of view. There will be times when you will have to inform clients of developments, changes and difficulties (‘Oh and there it is, a classic tricolon-anaphora combination and just listen to the crowd go wild…’)

When you are presenting or pitching, you should not only think about the strongest reasons why you, your product or your company are the one to go for but also how you are going to structure the language around those reasons to inspire your audience to abandon all others and jump for joy like a teenage girl at a One Direction gig after hearing you speak. Please don’t actually expect a reaction anywhere near that just described and be grateful for even the slightest hint of a half smile and a ‘thanks for coming in.’ But when you do get the call or email that starts with the words ‘good news’ you will know that you won it because you were considered the best for the job and you are the best for the job because you bother about detail. Thinking about persuasive language is detail.

Advocacy is influencing through communication. When you are representing a client you need to influence the opinion of others and short of the use of force, which is not a widely practised technique in law firms, your best available weapon is language. Most people can use language to a certain degree in the same way that most people can kick a ball. If you develop an aptitude for ball-kicking to the point where it becomes something you do for money then you spend time developing your ball-kicking skills so that you become the ball-kicker of choice, the go-to person when a ball needs to be kicked. As someone who has developed a different aptitude, you should think of practising your linguistic skills with the same attention to detail as a professional ball kicker.

There are three essential building blocks of rhetoric – ethos, pathos and logos – and to be able to convince or influence anyone you need to “establish credibility (ethos), have the right information and know it by heart (logos) and to make whomever is listening believe you, you need to have the right level of emotional involvement (pathos)” – L&D advisor and rhetorician Nicole Borg.

There is anxiety and mistrust over rhetoric in that, to quote Hillary Clinton, it is ‘solutions and not words which solve problems.’ She would have got on well with Plato, who also saw rhetoric as murky dark art that contrasted with logical philosophical enquiry. Unluckily for the former Secretary of State she levelled that criticism at one of the finest speakers of modern times – a lawyer from Illinois who delivered his riposte to the charge in what many observers consider to be one of his finest speeches to date. (Google ’Barack Obama + Don’t tell me words don’t matter’ and watch the first ninety seconds of the speech to get a flavour of the master at work).

Speaking of lawyers form Illinois – and it is no coincidence that the 44th resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue associates himself so frequently to the 16th resident – it was Abraham Lincoln who said: “Extemporaneous speaking should be practised and cultivated – it is the lawyer’s avenue to the public. However able and faithful he may be in other respects, people are slow to bring him business if he cannot make a speech.”

To bring that into today’s legal world, that does not mean you should spend your Sunday mornings at Hyde Park Corner atop your soapbox railing to any and all who are happy to listen, lost or simply sheltering from the rain. Rather, it relates to an ability to construct an argument based on those three tenets of rhetoric and to deliver it with a certain panache even if you are opining on health and safety compliance – how you deliver that preventative advice will be the difference of whether a client has a first class experience with you or looks elsewhere next time.

A word of warning though, and who better to give it than he who delivered possibly the most influential speech in American history consisting of around 270 words in just over two minutes at a town called Gettysburg, “there is not a more fatal error to young lawyers than relying too much on speech-making.” Don’t overdo it. Too much can seem contrived and manipulative, too little and you will underwhelm and bore.

Persuasive language is the tool of your trade – it’s all very well having the knowledge but if you can’t communicate that knowledge effectively and persuasively you may as well have not bothered acquiring it in the first place. Acquaint yourself with anaphora, hang around with chiasmus and positively flirt your socks off with tricolon and then take your new friends with you wherever you go as you beguile, captivate and enthral the hearts and minds of your audience.

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