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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 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.​


    Making Your Character Count

    I like to ask audiences for a show of hands: How many wish arguments were purely logical? Almost everyone’s hand, including mine, goes up. But Aristotle—the guy who invented logic as we know it—says that logic isn’t the biggest persuader. Nope. The biggest persuader is character. (Aristotle called it Ethos, but he was speaking in Greek.)

    Watch this amazing TED talk by the great ecologist Allan Savory and pay close attention to the character he projects.​

    You can persuade people much more easily if they like and trust you. The three tools to get yourself liked and trusted: Craft, Caring, and Cause. (Aristotle: phonesis, eunoia, and arete, all Greek to me.)​

    Craft means showing you know what you’re talking about and knowing how to apply that knowledge to specific problems. Savory does this in spades, showing deep knowledge and applying it innovatively.

    Caring ​has to do with convincing your audience that you’re willing to sacrifice yourself for their interest—that you’re not after money or power. In short, that you care. Savory’s soft-spoken approach and modest dress convey a someone who’s there just to deliver an urgent message, not to get rich or famous.

    Cause: This is the biggest tool of all. ​When you pitch a product or service, or argue an issue, ask yourself: What’s your cause? What does your argument do for humanity? 

    It’s the cause that wins the standing ovation. How do you think Savory did? Let me know what your own cause is. How does it relate to your work? Do you serve a larger cause in what you do to earn a living?​

    I’ll tell you mine: It’s to teach people how to argue without anger and persuade without fear. Our democracy depends on it. I quit my job to promote it. That doesn’t make me a saint. But I hope it makes me more persuasive.​


    Stop Apologizing!

    Figaro has been going around the country telling corporations not to apologize. Has he gone to the dark side? Hardly! In fact, we think corporations would endear us to them a whole lot more if they stopped apologizing, followed his directions to the letter, and paid him lavishly for the privilege.

    Bloomberg Businessweek offers a fine example. It’s a truly great magazine—one that has undergone a wonderful renaissance. (Full disclosure: the magazine did a profile of us last year. But we were loving the magazine before that. Honest.) Its most recent cover, though, is awful. Click on the thumbnail to see the full image.

    The magazine, predictably and mistakenly, apologized: 

    Our cover illustration last week got strong reactions, which we regret. Our intention was not to incite or offend. If we had to do it over again we’d do it differently.

    What’s wrong with that? Let us show you how to do it right.

    1. When you screw up, you need to switch quickly to the future tense. Say what you’re going to do to fix it.
    2. Don’t mention the reaction to your idiocy. Ever. It sounds like you’re apologizing for people being oversensitive to your wit and risk-taking. Nothing’s worse than an insincere-sounding apology. The problem is, an apology is never enough for an angry audience. Instead…
    3. Focus on your values and standards and say how you temporarily slipped. Remind people how awesome you usually are and how you’re going to get back to that awesomeness, stat. 
    4. Present a plan for restoring awesomeness. Give it a short timetable.

     And do it without cartoons making fun of people of color. Got it?


    Figaro Rewrites a Half-Naked Woman

    Want to persuade? Keep it simple. Start by not talking like a Women’s Studies major.

    Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart commits the rhetorical sin of unnecessary complexity with her take on Sport’s Illustrated’s latest swimsuit issue:

    This photo cements stereotypes, perpetuates an imbalance in the power dynamic, is reminiscent of centuries of colonialism (and indentured servitude) and serves as a good example of both creating a centrality of whiteness and using “exotic” people as fashion props.

    Having stared at the picture judiciously, Figaro agrees with Ms. Stewart. The photo is truly offensive. But whiteness centrality and imbalances in the power dynamic? Phrases like these only trigger spontaneous eye-rolling. 

    Instead of multisyllabic bloviation, let’s try good ol’ ridicule, focusing on the photo’s most cringe-worthy aspect. How? By turning it into an offensive cartoon. Got a better balloon? Tell us!


    How to Screw Up

    Know your rhetoric, and your own mistakes can enhance your career. My most popular presentation shows how. And Fast Company wrote it up.  You can see it here.

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