What are rhetorical skills?

Have you ever heard of the person that was able to sell sand in the Sahara desert? Or the one who could sell ice in the North Pole? Norway has access to some of the world's cleanest tap water, and still Norwegians buy millions of liters of bottled water every year. Why are Norwegians convinced that this is a good idea?

Accessibility icon What are rhetorical skills?

The art of persuasion

There are many reasons why you may become convinced that something is right or important. The most influential reason may potentially be the use of language. You may not really think about it at first, but language affects you – both the words themselves and the way they are spoken. Using language consciously to persuade is called rhetoric. It is an ancient art and is perhaps even more important today than it was 2,000 years ago. The great thing is that, by following a few simple steps, everyone can become good rhetoricians – even you!

What is rhetoric?

The word rhetoric comes from the Greek language and can be translated as “speech art”. It originated in Greece more than 2,000 years ago, and now the term refers to the art of persuasion.
One of the first people to write about rhetoric was the philosopher Aristotle. In his opinion, rhetoric was all about defining what a case was all about, before deciding whether or not to agree with said case. Rhetorical skills are all about presenting, justifying, and arguing one side of an issue to persuade others to agree with your point of view. Aristotle divided rhetoric into five different parts which he believed were necessary to give a good speech, including three different styles of persuasion.

Shape and format

There are five points you should follow to appear knowledgeable about your subject and give a good speech:

1. Identify all of your arguments.
This means gathering all of the strong information supporting your standpoint along with weak or negative information that may be used by your opponents. Think of it like a scavenger hunt. You are hunting for information, and the goal is to come home with as much relevant information as possible.

2. Organize.
Hopefully you have a good collection of arguments by now, so the next job is to sort through them all and organize everything. Think of it like cleaning out your sock drawer. To get it organized, you will have to throw away any socks that are too small or worn out. You will also have to return any socks that aren’t yours and pair up all socks that belong together. This is basically what you need to do with your arguments: keep the best ones, put the ones that belong together next to each other, and throw the bad ones away.

3. Find your style.
Decide how you want to convey your message. Do you want to give a speech? Perform a rap? Write an article? This is where you’ll have to decide which rhetorical style will be the best fit for your purpose.

4. Memorize everything.
Are you more convinced by a person reading something out loud or by someone telling you something naturally? The vast majority of people will believe a person who owns what they say, in other words someone who knows their points and arguments by heart. This is where it all comes down to practice.

5. Decide on your style of delivery.
If you’re planning on giving a speech or making an appeal, the style of delivery is important. In ancient times, people practiced speaking clearly while their mouths were filled with pebbles and speaking with enough volume by shouting at waves on the beach. These techniques may not be necessary while you practice, but it is, without a doubt, essential to practice the delivery of your speech. In addition to clarity and volume, think about the tone you use and what kind of body language and movements are the most effective for your speech.

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Styles of persuasion

When using rhetoric yourself or analyzing the way others are trying to persuade you, look for these three specific techniques: ethos, pathos, and logos. They are three distinctly different styles of persuasion that employ different tools and evidence to appeal to and persuade the target audience. If you really want to be able to influence someone, you need to address the whole person, their head, heart, and hands.

Ethos – being credible

Some people are naturally credible due to their positions of power or being experts in their field. You can also appear credible by using strong reliable sources. Aristotle believed that what strengthens ethos is how smart, credible, and honest you appear to be. Ethos is important for researchers, politicians, teachers, and even Sensodyne, who wants to sell you toothpaste.

This ad is a good example of the use of ethos.

Pathos – speaking to the heart

While it is important to be credible, you also need to be human. Pathos is eliciting an emotional response from your audience to persuade them to act the way you want them to. This is important for army generals who have to send soldiers to war, charitable organizations collecting money and donations, and for politicians canvassing for more votes.


This ad is a good example of pathos at work.

Logos – aha, that’s logical!

Logos is about appealing to the audience’s mind and persuading them that your arguments are sensible, logical, and believable. In this form of debate, you’ll use statistics, research results, and generally appeal to common sense. Logos is particularly important to researchers wanting to present new findings, organizations needing to raise money, and politicians canvassing for more votes.

We can all find time for an organic breakfast in a bottle, right?

Why is rhetoric important today?

Rhetoric comprises several different techniques that, when put together, create an ingenious recipe to convince others of your side of an issue.
Is this skill still relevant today? Isn’t it just something that old men used to do several thousand years ago? The answer is yes, rhetoric was important 2,000 years ago, it was important 100 years ago, and it is still important today.

Why? So that you will not be deceived! So that you can establish if a person is telling you the truth, or if they are simply blinding you with their rhetoric. Some people are very good at public speaking but have poor ideas or messages. Some people present good arguments to convince you to buy something, but the product they’re selling is bad. Others have good ideas but lack good presentation skills.

Sometimes it’s not too bad, you might just end up with something harmless like a new type of toothpaste. Other times it can be more dangerous and have greater repercussions, such as being misled by the rhetoric in a political election.

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Be critical

When Aristotle and his cronies were wandering around thinking their clever thoughts, the world was a very different place compared to today. At that time, one could be convinced or deceived by someone standing in the square and giving a good speech. Today we are surrounded by information in the form of text, sound, and images. Multiple voices are constantly seeking our attention, and many seem both credible and genuine even when they are not.

It is demanding and time-consuming to determine what is right, true, important, and smart. There is increased focus on thinking critically and autonomously and not letting yourself be fooled by fake news or advertising. Recognizing the tools used in marketing and politics to influence your opinions and beliefs will make it easier for you to make wise and well thought out decisions.

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Where do you encounter rhetoric today?

Political speeches may be the most common genre that uses rhetoric. To gain more voters, it is vital for people to believe in you, trust you, and emotionally connect with your platform. This is also key for an organization or a person who is passionate about a particular cause. Skillful use of rhetoric will often cause certain speeches to be remembered as distinctly exceptional.


  • Svendsen, Lars Fredrik Händler; Grue, Janretorikk i Store norske leksikon på snl.no.
    Hentet 7. oktober 2020 fra https://snl.no/retorikk


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