Lessons in Persuasive Communication: Liberian Political Discourse


By: Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
July 7, 2014

                  

 

Theodore T. Hodge

William Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar”, has remained a masterpiece in the annals of English literature; indeed a masterpiece in world literature. Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator was slain by conspirators. The charge, an attempt to turn republican Rome into a monarchy under Caesar’s rule… The conspirators defended their action by claiming that they did it for the love of country; in other words, it was their patriotic duty to protect the greater good of the country by eliminating him. Brutus, on behalf of the conspirators delivers a rational speech and gets the crowd on their side.

Now comes Mark Anthony to speak on Caesar’s behalf. The situation is tense. He must walk a fine line by delivering the speech. Firstly, he must not offend the powerful conspirators. Secondly, he must manage to not alienate the already angry crowd. He appeals to the emotions of the crowd.  He wants them on his side; he must persuade them to see things his way.

In the speech that follows, he refers several times to Brutus and the other conspirators as “noble” and “honorable” men. As he sarcastically refers to them as noble and honorable men over and over, he gently refutes their claim that Caesar deserved to die because he was ambitious. He does so by reminding the crowd of the good Caesar has done for Rome. He reminds them of Caesar’s love for Rome and its people and how he wept with the poor as they wept… And how he refused the crown three times when offered. Was this ambition, he tactfully asks? The crowd falls in line.

 

By the time Mark Anthony finishes his speech, the crowd is completely sympathetic to his plea. They see Caesar as a victim and the conspirators as enemies of the state. Their sympathies are for the fallen Caesar. Mark Anthony does a successful job as an ardent persuasive orator.

The significant lesson here is: You don’t have to dehumanize or degrade your opponent when appealing to your readers or listeners. Simply state the case. Lay out the facts clearly and state succinctly where you disagree with your opponent. It is not necessary to call your opponents unpleasant names in order to win over your audience; they will decipher the truth and carry on accordingly.

Another good example comes from Susan B. Anthony. When she was arrested on charges of voting illegally in the 1872 U. S. federal election, she undertook an exhaustive public tour giving a lecture whose title was “Is it a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote?” Here is how she began her lecture:

“Friends and Fellow-citizens: I stand before you to-night, under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last Presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote. It shall be my work this evening to prove to you that in thus voting, I not only committed no crime, but, instead, simply exercised my citizen's right, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens by the National Constitution, beyond the power of any State to deny…”

She clearly stated the charge levied against her and her intention to defend herself against the spurious charge. By doing so, she uses the constitution as her principal line of defense. This is how she goes about it:
“The preamble of the federal constitution says:

"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and established this constitution for the United States of America…"

“It was we, the people, not we, the white male citizens, nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed this Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings or liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people-women as well as men. And it is downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government-the ballot.”

Both William Shakespeare (through the mouth of Mark Anthony) and Susan B. Anthony teach us a fundamental lesson in persuasive communication: Simply state your case and present your defense; trust your audience to understand… you don’t have to demean and denigrate your opponents or accusers.

Another important lesson in persuasive communication is brevity and succinctness. This lesson comes from none other than the great communicator, U. S. President Abraham Lincoln.

The Gettysburg Address, which famously begins “Four scores and seven years ago…” was delivered by Lincoln as remarks after the main oration of the day was delivered by the keynote orator, Hon. Edward Everett, who spoke for over two hours; his speech contained 13,607 words. President Lincoln spoke for barely two minutes and his speech contained just 273 words.

While hardly anyone remembers what Everett said that day, Lincoln’s words have become immortalized. He followed the rule now referred to as “K. I. S. S.” or Keep it simple, silly…

Another important rule of effective communication was given by the writer Eric Arthur Blair, also known as George Orwell. He said, “Never use a long word when a short one will do; if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

The point of this article is to point out the raucousness and outright bitterness characterized by Liberians in the public space, especially in the political arena. A bitter and vindictive writer or speaker is not as clear headed as a cool, rational one. Too much emotions get in the way of effective communication.

To summarize, avoid invective; it is not necessary to use too much personal attacks against your opponent when presenting your case to the public. Lay out your case as simply as you can and let the evidence speak for it itself. Secondly, avoid using big, long words to demonstrate your scholarship. Keep it simple. A short piece is better than a very long, rambling one. Always be as brief as possible. Always r emember the example of Abraham Lincoln to speak and write “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”


Jackson Brown
Thanks! too candid...
Jackson Brown at 05:41PM, 2014/07/07.
Sayzay
I agree. Well said.
Sayzay at 06:59PM, 2014/07/07.
Sylvester Moses
Thanks Mr. Hodge, but your view on the mechanics of persuasive communications isn’t as convincing as one would’ve hoped. For instance, you suggested the following: “avoid invective”, “avoid using big, long words”, and “a short piece is better than a very long and rambling one“. Well, some readers would argue that the last two aren’t commandments.

First, to use big, long words or not depends on communicator and intended audience; and rather than emphasizing size, it should be effectiveness in the context used. Second, even a very long piece shouldn’t be necessarily “rambling”. The question is: did the intended audience find the communication adequate, convincing, and, therefore, persuaded?

Writers vary lengths of sentences to avoid monotony, and may write short or very long pieces based on their purposes. In the hands of a careful writer or speaker both styles can be effective; Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a good example. You are correct that we should “avoid invective”, but one - size - fits - all in any communication is a slippery slope.
Sylvester Moses at 07:17PM, 2014/07/08.
Harry Conway
Keep it simple and short(KISS) you mean?
Harry Conway at 04:13AM, 2014/07/10.

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