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Figaro rips the innards out of things people say and reveals the rhetorical tricks and pratfalls. For terms and definitions, click here.
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    What Anthony Weiner Can Teach Us (Really)

    Thanks to stupitityiscontagious.com for the image.

    Presumably you haven’t been a serial sexter, and you’re not running for mayor of New York. You haven’t quit your job as a member of Congress, apologized to your wife, gone through therapy, resumed sexting, and then restarted your political career. If you had done all those things and asked me, an expert on screwing up, what to do…

    I’d tell you to quit. Quit right now. Find a shrink who will coauthor a book on sexual addiction.

    But wait. You’re not quitting just yet? Then here’s what I’d tell you. (You’ll find more detailed advice in new edition of my book, Thank You for Arguing.) It applies directly to any kind of public mistake, as well as most private ones.

    1. Set your goals.

     Our first instinct in a screw-up is to get defensive—or, in Weiner’s miserable case, to cover up until it’s too late. But in many cases, a mistake can actually become an opportunity to improve your reputation. It’s a chance to talk about your values. I’d tell Weiner to describe himself as a man who has applied great discipline to his public life, and that drive has opened cracks in his private life. He now knows that therapy isn’t enough. He must apply that same self-control to every part of his life.

    2. Be first with the news.

    Every PR person will tell you this, for good reason. Get all the news out. All of it. And put it in a personal context. “I have made this mistake, and I made it again. Here are the sordid details. I am revealing everything so that you know how I violated my own code, and so that I can explain how I’m working to keep it from happening again.” The latest news about Weiner didn’t come from Weiner. Shame on him—literally. 

    3. Pivot to the future.

    Weiner should have given a solid reason for staying in the race, and that reason should be New York’s future. He should paint a stirring picture of a bright and shining city, and add that that future is too important to abandon to his mistakes. Part of that future, of course, needs to offer convincing proof that those mistakes won’t happen again. Maybe his wife will agree to screen all his private emails. In any case, the real future is New York, with Weiner leading the way.

    4. Enhance your ethos.

    That’s what rhetoricians call character, the leader’s projected image. Ultimately screw-ups are all about ethos. Your job, rhetorically speaking is not just to recover your reputation but to enhance it. To come out with a better, shinier, more trustworthy and likable image than you had before the scandal. Look at Obama after the Jeremiah Wright incident, or—to go way back—Richard Nixon during the Checkers affair.

    My advice has helped numerous corporate clients and individuals. Would it save Weiner? Frankly, I doubt it. Screw up once, shame on you, but we can get past it. Screw up twice—the same sordid screw-up—and, well, you might get a book deal.




    We Suppose "Le Slurpe" Was Taken

    For centuries the French have been kissing for without talking, but now they have to get all, like, oral. The Petit Robert dictionary (pronounced like Colbert’s first name) contains the verb galocher, meaning “to kiss with tongues.”

    The term comes from la galoche, an ice skating boot. Only the French could look at galoshes and think of sex. But apparently they were thinking about skating as well—you know, gliding tongues and all that.

    Philosophers of language say that all words are analogies, templates that connect us to reality. To a linguist, a kiss isn’t just a kiss. It’s also a figures competition.


    Nerdy Dancing as Decorum

    One of the trickiest ways to practice the leaderly art of rhetoric is decorum, the practice of fitting in with an audience. Why’s it tricky? Because if you aren’t a member of the tribe, you don’t want to fit in exactly. Instead, you want to portray an audience’s most favorable sense of you.


    Well, watch this video. Instead of trying hip hop moves for a student audience, this teacher practices a nerdy form of Irish dancing.



    Should We "Invite" Instead of Manipulate?

    Kay Halasek, a professor at Ohio State, interviewed me for a writing MOOC (massive open online course). The main topic, besides rhetoric itself:  Is manipulation a good thing? 


    What if SCOTUS Sounded Like Americans?

    Decorum doesn’t mean using the right fork—unless your audience cares deeply about using the right fork. So what if the Supreme Court justices were plunked down in average America and forced to speak decorously?

    See this Onion piece. It will forever change your notion of decorum.


    Persuade by Shutting Up

    ​”My theory has an opinion. I don’t have an opinion,” says Harvard B-school prof Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma. He’s employing a great rhetorical strategy. Want someone to agree with your opinion? Take yourself out of the picture. It makes you sound objective and disinterested—free of special interests. Those who have read my book or heard me speak know that appearing disinterested helps make an audience trust your opinion. So how do you take yourself out of your own point of view? 

    1. The Reluctant Conclusion.

    “I used to agree with the other side. But the facts (or changing circumstances) forced me to change my mind.” Christensen doesn’t exactly do this. But he does say Listen to the theory, not to me. That takes personality out of the picture. How does the audience know whether to believe the theory? By looking at the facts. Not at Christensen.​

    2. The Passive Voice.

    Writing coaches tell you to stick to the active voice. But scientists (and B-school profs like Christensen) use the passive voice in most of their academic papers. “The mouse was placed into the maze,” not “My hot young research assistant placed the mouse into the maze.”​ Again, this takes the personality out of the picture, making the author seem disinterested.

    3. Shutting Up.

    I call this tool Stalin’s Timing Secret. Before he became the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin would sit mute until the very end of meetings. Finally, if there was any disagreement, he would weigh in on one side or the other and settle the issue. He did this so often that comrades would look at him toward the end of every meeting, waiting for his judgment. It works. Wait until late in a meeting, then say, “This is what I’m hearing.” Then spin it in a way that favors your point of view.​

    Shutting up. Consider it the new eloquence.​

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