I’m fascinated with the concept of rhetoric. This is the art of persuasion that goes back to the ancient world of orators giving grand speeches, moving audiences with the power of words and creating an emotional connection.
Today, rhetoric remains an invaluable part of public speaking and marketing. There are many layers to this complex system of communication and people have used it for good and bad.
Learning how to use rhetoric ethically is a worthwhile exercise, particularly in the marketing realm. It was fun to get nerdy on the subject with Niluka Kavanagh, a presentation coach and branding consultant well-versed in rhetoric.
In this conversation, we discuss signs of good and bad rhetoric, branding philosophy, how to use ancient oratory techniques in public speaking and more.
What was your first experience with rhetoric and has your understanding of it changed over time?
My first introduction to rhetoric was at school and it was through rhetorical questions. I got a broader introduction to rhetoric when I went to Oxford, where a large part of my degree included linguistics and the study of language.
What’s interesting is that when I left the world of academia, my understanding of it changed to seeing it applied practically in the business space. Primarily in the spheres of marketing, communications and public speaking – areas I love!
That’s great. I think it is important to see rhetoric as something that goes beyond theory and is put into practice day to day. I’m reminded of ancient orators like Socrates and Cicero who could move people with the power of their words.
How important do you feel rhetoric is in the modern world?
It’s super important. Words have power and in an age of fact-checking and divided opinions, rhetoric is being used more and more in the public domain. However, it shouldn’t be misused and it can be dangerous when used for the wrong reasons. Rhetoric requires safeguarding.
Rhetoric is also important for brands because it helps businesses create an emotional connection with the customer. But again, it has to be used carefully in this context too. Brands can’t be seen to emotionally guilt trip customers or persuade them into buying something in ways which aren’t fair or can’t be backed up by substance.
What does rhetoric and philosophy mean to you in a branding and values context?
Brand philosophy is about your reason for being. It’s the core of why a business exists and what you stand for.
Brand rhetoric is what you put out to the world through language. It’s how you communicate what you offer and compel your customers to create a connection with you through language, tone and emotion.
Brand philosophy is your foundation. Brand rhetoric stems from this.
You mentioned rhetoric can be used for good and bad. How should it be used for ethical purposes?
I’ll talk about this from a brand and business perspective. I think that there’s a great opportunity for brands to use rhetoric for good. For example to further causes around sustainability, social mobility, climate change etc.
But this has to be backed up. The common error I see is that brands will use rhetoric for these purposes because they know they are hot topics at the moment and will grab consumer attention. But when you dig deeper, if they haven’t backed it up that attention will quickly turn into distrust. It’s what’s known as greenwashing or woke washing. There’s no substance.
So to answer your question, rhetoric can absolutely be used for good by brands to further key causes. But it has to be rhetoric backed by action and change. Not just rhetoric on its own.
That’s a good segue into my next question as rhetoric is also useful for the arena of public speaking.
What are some other useful rhetorical devices people can use for public speaking and do you incorporate any techniques for teaching through your HelpmePresent platform?
I use a few and one of my favourites is pauses. This is ironic because people hate silence and we find pauses awkward! We want to fill the silence with words.
When used in presentations, I like to call pauses ‘golden silences’ because they really are fantastic to use. They add further impact and weight to what you’re saying. The moment of silence also allows your audience to catch up to you and gives them a moment to pause and collect their own thoughts.
The challenge is actually being deliberate and brave enough to use them in your presentation because it’s much easier said than done. This is something I help my clients with.
A rhetorical device I find fascinating is Aristotle’s three proofs of logos, ethos and pathos. What are your thoughts on these techniques?
They definitely apply to public speaking. Logos is the logic of your speech. Cause and effect arguments, conclusions backed by data etc. It’s the logic behind what you’re saying.
Ethos is about credibility. It’s about why I should listen to you. Ethos is often used at the start of a presentation when someone will talk about their background or say something like ‘After 25 years in this industry….’ That’s credibility demonstrated. It’s like ok, I want to listen to you now.
Pathos is the emotion of a speech. This could apply to a best man’s speech or a business pitch where you need to bring a human element into a potentially dry subject.
Any public speech should involve logos, ethos and pathos, but the levels of each of these levers will vary depending on the nature of the talk, the audience, your purpose and the context.
There have been lots of awesome orators and rhetoricians throughout history. Who’re some rhetoricians that have inspired you?
I’m really inspired by Shakespeare because his use of language and rhetoric is fantastic. He’s clever with the way he uses it directly, but what I find fascinating is how he actually explores the very subject of rhetoric, through the study of words and language we often see in his plays.
For example in the play Coriolanus, he uses phrases like ‘The araignement of an unruly tongue’. Shakespeare uses rhetoric himself, but he also shines a light on the topic at the same time.
What’re some creative projects you’re excited to share?
I’m wearing a few different hats at the moment. One creative project I want to share is my YouTube channel called ‘Breaking Boundaries with Niluka’. This is a way for me to document my journey taking a sabbatical from my corporate job to working on my own projects and living where I want in the world.
Hopefully it’ll be a way to inspire and inform other people who may be wanting to take a similar leap of faith in their career. Right now, I’m embracing the digital nomad mentality.
Bio: Niluka Kavanagh is a consultant, writer and presentation coach. Her areas of expertise include brand, behavioural science, marketing and communications. She has her own public speaking platform, HelpMePresent and is an active writer on a range of different subjects. You can follow her work through her website, Medium page or YouTube channel and connect with her on LinkedIn.