Did you know that every day at work, your day features many rhetorical situations? When Jeff, your project manager, walks by your desk and asks for an update about the Zenith program, you’re involved in a rhetorical situation. When your boss calls you to discuss your plans for the Paris rollout, you’re in a rhetorical situation. If the dental receptionist calls to remind you that you missed your appointment for the third time, you’re involved in a rhetorical situation.
Defining the Term
Aristotle described rhetoric as ‘the faculty of discovering the available means of persuasion in any particular case.’
1Another definition I enjoy is, ‘rhetoric is the art of identifying communication needs and strategically responding to them.’
Rhetorical situations vary in topic, setting, audience, occasion, and credibility. You need to alter your responses to accommodate these dynamic parameters if you want to be persuasive across multiple channels. A consistent approach to rhetorical situations will derive consistent results.
All communication has a context (as in the first paragraph). Whether we initiate the contact or not, how we respond and react will significantly impact how people perceive us. How people perceive us will have a massive impact on our relationships (both personal and professional). The way we communicate says a great deal about ourselves (what’s happening in our mind and body) at that moment.
How Do You Want People To Perceive You?
For the last 25 years or so, I have been a trainer in IT, and ten years ago, my colleagues and I launched the College of Public Speaking. When you are a classroom trainer, you quickly become aware of rhetorical situations. If I ran two back to back courses with the same content, one in London and one in Manchester, I’d be astounded by the difference in my impact on people. But why was that? I delivered the same material in the same language just two hundred miles apart.
I have always worked with lots of international students and colleagues in London. When I first moved to London 30 years ago, I was astonished by the ethnocultural diversity of my colleagues. In the days when we had company telephone books, you just looked down the pages and observed that traditional UK names were hard to find. Giving presentations to these groups was not easy at first, primarily because I didn’t know who they were or anything about their backgrounds, identities, and cultural norms. The English language was the common denominator that made the class possible, but there were other dynamics in play.
I have always loved travel, and travel certainly broadens the mind and personal experience. Connecting with students and colleagues personally, respecting their backgrounds and cultural identities, and showing a genuine interest in their lives and issues go a long way to helping create a positive perception.
Life As A Trainer
As a trainer, you are into personal and professional development for the long term—both your own and your students’ development. I say this because the connection with people is the most wonderful aspect of my work. How people perceive you and how you make them feel are critical for a great atmosphere in class, work, and home life.
Suppose you go for a sandwich at lunchtime and shout ‘Soup!’ at the guy behind the counter. That is communication of a basic nature. I suspect he will negatively perceive you, and you might leave the shop wearing it. How we respond and react to communication is our choice. When we make requests, the tone of our voice says a great deal about us.
Rhetorical situations – we want to persuade those with whom we communicate that we are a good person, a genuine person, a caring person. Every communication has a best and the worst outcome. The choices you make are critical. Effectively, we need to tailor our response to each situation. Whether working with a group in class or with an individual on a helpline, the way we make people feel (about us and the situation is all-important). Being too demanding or defensive will not create the correct outcome for you or those you interact with.
Vince is a well-known speaker/trainer and has won a number of awards for leadership, education and development. He is a founder of the College of Public Speaking and works as Education Director managing all aspects of course delivery and content.