FRONT PORCH PERSPECTIVE
By JIM ATWELL • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – Many years ago, when Earth was still cooling, I was a young professor teaching rhetoric. That study had been greatly advanced by Aristotle. He was not long dead then, so the topic was still fresh.
Aristotle said that rhetoric is “the art of effective, persuasive speech.” The crassest form is used by the used-car salesman who scuttles across the lot with wide eyes and lockjaw grin, as if his best friend had just shown up.
But simultaneously, the salesman is scanning you like a laser, looking for a personal link. And then he spots your lapel, and claps a hand to his heart. “A fellow Rotarian! ‘Service above self!!’ “Great organization!”
Well, this pigeon was too easy a target, but I couldn’t resist. “Uh,” I mumbled, “I’m pretty sure that’s the Lions’ motto.” And then he really squirmed!
Well, shame on me, picking on this poor guy! Probably the only Aristotle he knows is Ari who runs the corner store. But if the original Aristotle had been around, I’ll bet he would have snorted and punched me in the shoulder.
But let me wrench myself back to my topic. Again, Aristotle defined rhetoric as the art of effective – that is, convincing – speech. (He also gives a great definition for “art”: the rational control of any natural human capacity. Good stuff! – but maybe for some other time.)
Here’s the real skinny: If your language is going to be convincing, you’d must recognize that you must juggle a three-part dynamic. The three parts are speaker (that’s you), subject matter, and audience.
Audience awareness will make you adjust your speech accordingly: You’ll fine-tune your vocabulary, your complexity of sentences, your degree of repetition and clarification.
For example, if you’re talking to a 4-year-old, you may very well bend over or even (if your knees will take it) squat down to the child’s height.
And you will do a similar thing with your capacities as a speaker. You will lower your volume, soften your tone, and automatically simplify your vocabulary. If you don’t, your booming warmth, whatever your intent, will only terrify the child, and perhaps make him scream, pee, and scuttle away, leaving a trail of piddle on the parquet floor or, worse, on his mother’s prize, hand-tied Persian rug.
Now, set aside the kid and his sticky residue, and note that you make exactly the same kind of adjustments in speaking to adults. After a quick, even unconscious appraisal of their age, likely education and employment, and their potential interest in your subject, you shift gears and begin to sell – no, not your subject, but yourself.
Why, because, best beloved, if you get them convinced that you’re bright, ethical, and on their side, you’ll be able to sell them anything, whether a product, a political platform or a sermon topic, the value of calculus in one’s education, or, damn it, the Brooklyn Bridge.
Don’t believe me? Ask Aristotle. He says that the speaker’s credibility is the rock-bottom base for effective speech.
Jim Atwell, a Quaker minister and retired
college administrator, lives in Cooperstown.