Rhetoric, Communication & Leadership
According to Nitin Nohria, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard, leaders spend between two-thirds and three-quarters of their time communicating. Communication is the means by which we gather information, identify problems, causes and solutions, negotiate shared meanings, develop plans, give orders, put things in motion, develop relationships – in short, these things are what a manager’s daily work is all about.
Ask yourself what you spend time on that at some point doesn’t get communicated to others? If you can pinpoint something it’s probably not something you would say creates value – for you or your organisation. Communication, says Nohria, is in fact the real work of leadership itself.
It doesn’t matter our industry - journalism, advertising, consulting, or banking; it doesn’t matter the task - leading, problem solving, motivating, building our brands or strengthening support for the next strategic initiative - success for individuals and organisations rises and falls with the ability to clearly and convincingly communicate our knowledge, ideas, solutions and our passions to the minds and hearts of others.
Not only is communication the real work of leadership, leadership competence is a function of communication competence. A leader is only as great as their ability to communicate. Without the vital skill of communication, communication becomes the problem to a leader’s answers.
Communication is the Domain of Rhetoric
Anyone who has even thought of developing a new communication concept would greatly benefit from simply applying the principles of the “wheel” of rhetoric, for rhetoric itself is the entire faculty of communication. But what is rhetoric and how is it applied to any leader situation?
No single definition of can pin-down rhetoric. As Aristotle declared, rhetoric has no specific territory or subject matter of its own, since it is found everywhere. Since its beginnings, Rhetoric has traversed time like a roller-coaster: from a position as the most essential learning of all the arts, to the most dangerous of human tools, down to what John Locke in 1690 called “the powerful instrument of error and deceit”. Yet it rose again to be considered the whole range of communication activities for informing, persuading or pleasing. Today, rhetoric is again most commonly defined in Aristotle’s terms: “the ability in any situation to discover every possible means of persuasion.”
According to Aristotle, people are convinced only when they receive a logical message, which touches them emotionally, delivered by a person with credibility. Whether we wish to inform, entertain or persuade, the toolbox of rhetoric contains 5 broad tools:
1. Intellectio – The first principle of communication: It’s not about you, it’s about them. Intellectio is the science of understanding your audience and a toolset to do it. The key to selling any message to any audience at anytime is to first understand what your audience needs to hear and see in order to accept your message. If you don’t know what moves and motivates, what their hopes and fears are, you are shooting from the hip and shooting in the dark.
2. Inventio, the muscle of rhetoric, is the ability to craft a clear and compelling audience-centred message supported with the right audience-centred arguments, which in turn are supported by the right types and quantity of evidence. Inventio is the science of craft convincing core content.
3. Dispositio – A persuasive message can and must in fact consist of five specific elements to be effectively persuasive. Dispositio is the science of structuring these elements in your communication to remove message complexity and ensure the crystal clear communication of your content every time. A wickedly effective tool for any written or spoken message.
4. Elocutio – Any argument or message without emotion is dead. Both decisions and actions originate not from reason but from emotion. Elocutio is the ability to go beyond communicating ideas logically and clearly. It is the power to stimulate emotions, to focus audience attention on or away from things, and to deliver messages which are not memorable, but unforgettable. Elocutio is the true source of true power in communication. Elocutio is what separates the professionals from the amateurs. It’s the greatest reason why the greatest communicators are considered to be great.
5. Actio – All studies in communication report that communication doesn’t take place on the word level alone but also through our body language. In fact, Standford University studies declare that 60-80% of communication emanates from the body itself. Actio goes far beyond good and bad body language habits to include the concepts authenticity, power dynamics, audience connection, and perhaps most importantly, persona projection. Actio is about aligning not just your message and content to your audience but also your physical persona, which necessarily changes in tact with changes in audience. Actio is about understanding who your audience needs to physically see your message come from in order to accept it.
Rhetoric and leadership
Regardless of its definition, rhetorical communication is the primary tool by which we manipulate, influence or control the thoughts and actions of other people. Rhetoric is the roadmap we must follow when developing any communication designed to create understanding, to challenge attitudes and beliefs, to change behaviours and to stimulate actions. Through rhetoric we are able to build organisational momentum for actions we desire and opposition for the actions we wish to block. These skills are critical to us as leaders in our ability to get things done.
Ultimately, rhetoric is the ability to choose the thoughts that others will think and the actions they will take. It can be done well or it can be done poorly, but it cannot be avoided.
Great leaders understand their audiences. Great leaders understand what moves and motivates them. They understand what they can and cannot hear. Great leaders understand how to send messages through open doors, not push them through walls. Great leaders know there are only 3 ways to reach and persuade an audience: rational, emotional and value-oriented appeals. They know which of these to use, when and how. Great leaders know how to break down messages however complex to make them understandable to those who may not have the same knowledge. Great leaders know how to say what they say to paint passionate, memorable and motivating pictures. They understand that they still lead by example, and that behaviours, actions and decisions are also ways of communicating. These communications must be aligned and consistent with what they say to ensure the credibility necessary for message acceptance.
The power of word
The truth of the matter is that words have an enormous potential either to make organisational action happen or to prevent it. Without the right words used in the right way, the right actions may never occur. Our ability to lead and take action depends on our ability to use rhetoric as a speaker, a listener and as a leader. Rhetoric is certainly not the only leadership skill but is likely the most critical leadership skills. For those not skilled in rhetoric, communication becomes the problem to their answers.
By Richard B Stephenson