Is Ethical Persuasion a Thing?

For someone who is all about empathy and promoting purpose-driven initiatives, I wear a couple of hats that have kind of a scuzzy reputation. (I’m a poet, and I have spent time adjuncting. I’m not above putting on a scuzzy hat once in a while!) Writing is what I do in a broad sense, but more specifically, the function of that writing usually falls under marketing or rhetoric. (Gasp!)

Depending on your experiences, you probably have some pretty powerful feelings about both of these practices. We’ve all been prey to clever “marketing tricks,” and we have the buyer’s remorse to show for it. But rhetoric, or persuasive writing and communication, is a bit more slippery. It’s a word many of us associate with politics, campaign speeches and everything we hate about both of those things. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that most people only use the word “rhetoric” to talk about silver-tongued dishonesty.

However, I do think that both marketing and rhetoric have their good sides that tend to go unnoticed (or get labeled as something completely different) when used in good faith to send important messages. Think about Oprah’s entire empire, based almost solely on TV and magazine content, or Brené Brown’s messages in her podcast and books. I’ve worked with a few different thought leaders in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging who have dedicated their careers to fighting bias in the workplace and creating equitable opportunities for all. That takes some effective rhetoric!

Back to Basics

What I’d like to do here is take you back to the roots of the persuasive arts and walk through a few of the most common techniques in an attempt to draw a line between ethical persuasion and—anything less. Yes, this is the Greek stuff you talked about in Freshman English! But I promise I will try to make it a bit more relevant and interesting.

Here’s a quick review of the basic rhetorical purposes and techniques:

You’ll notice that ethics is already built into the framework of classical rhetoric! You’ll also notice rhetoric be either “good” as in convincing or “good” as in benevolent—or both. We aim for both! The issue with scuzzy rhetoric is that these tools are only as “good” (or evil) as the people using them. If you have a confused idea of what’s “ethical” or decide that ethics isn’t super relevant for the case you’re making (when it super is), you risk crossing the line into scuzzy territory. 

In the most basic sense, the key to honest and ethical rhetoric is making sure your purposes align with your techniques. In other words, don’t skirt around the issue by appealing to the wrong sort of “proof” for your argument. You’ve got to use the right measuring sticks to talk about how “good” (read: effective) your solutions are, and in what situations. If the decision you want your audience to make is purely emotional, by all means, paint an emotional picture. But if there are material or logical factors you are avoiding that might change their mind, again, you’re in scuzzball zone. What some people forget is that this works both ways: emotion isn’t inherently a bad thing! Using logic and credibility to talk about emotional topics may or may not come off as scuzzy, but it definitely won’t be effective. 

Here’s a practical example: Have you ever seen a box of crackers touting that “great whole wheat taste?” It makes me laugh every time because I’m pretty sure there aren’t many people who choose whole wheat crackers for the taste. But consumer research tells us that taste (or whatever fleeting sensory experience we get) is usually the top decision-making factor when it comes to snacks. 

In Practice: Rhetorical Techniques

When we try to figure out how to say what we want to say most effectively, we have some different options in our toolkit beyond the basic appeals to logic, ethics and emotion. My typical approach is to find out what problems you can solve for your audience and how they feel about those problems, then show what you can do for them in a way that speaks to their experiences. I’m not always thinking super consciously about these rhetorical techniques, but they sneak into my writing when they are needed—some more than others. They can all be used to manipulate and twist the truth. But when used wisely, they come off as engaging and add some sparkle to your voice. 

Think through some of the communications you’ve put together for your business, from presentations to emails and social media posts, and see if you have used any of these yourself. Alternatively, make them into a bingo card and pop into your spammiest Facebook group for some fun!

Rhetorical Question

A question not meant to be answered, but to provoke your audience into reaching a specific, “obvious” conclusion. (What would you do for a Klondike bar?)

Repetition

“Driving the point home” by re-stating it multiple times or even repeating a single word. (Location, location, location.)

Creating Scarcity

Add urgency to literally anything by limiting the time or space to opt in. (FLASH SALE)

Inclusive and Exclusive Language

Creating a sense of solidarity with your audience, while usually “othering” another group. Pronouns like “we” and “they” can both describe commonalities and build walls. (Not Your Father’s Root Beer)

Figurative Language

Metaphors, similes and analogies can be really fun ways to paint a picture in your audience’s mind, but it’s important to remember that they aren’t based in fact. (Red Bull gives you wiiings!)

Overstatement/Understatement

Exaggerate or ironically undervalue something to add emphasis. (Which one is Better than Sex cake? Only you can decide.)

Plain Folks

The assumption and appeal to an “average” point of view. (Hint: it usually isn’t as “average” as you’d think.) We all remember Joe the Plumber.

Bandwagon

You know it, you love it! Your friends are all jumping off a bridge (or voting for so-and-so, or having a hot girl summer), so don’t be the odd one out.

You might have learned some of these terms in a media literacy class as red flags for dishonest messages, but as you can see from some of my examples, there isn’t always something sinister behind them. Nobody really drinks Red Bull expecting a transcendental experience. But when you’re on the creative end of the equation, you have to know exactly what expectations you’re setting.

Part of my job is to choose clients that care about ethics in the first place. Because I write about topics that have high ethical stakes, I also feel a responsibility to raise questions and bring some respectful accountability into my content planning process. The ability to prioritize ethics by choosing clients I personally believe in is a big reason why I work independently.

The other part of my job is empowering people to make the best decisions for themselves by educating them about products and services that are meant to make a positive impact on their lives. Even if they don’t sign up for your course or schedule a discovery call (this time), I want the content we produce to make its own positive impact by teaching them something or helping them understand a situation in their own lives. 

Are you interested in promoting your services more intentionally? I’d love to hear your thoughts and help you strategize. Schedule a quick call with me and let’s talk it out!

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