A lot of what we talk about on this site is, effectively, how to speak well. How to communicate in a way that leads people to believe truer things.

I rarely see it pointed out that, for many centuries, this used to be called rhetoric and was taught as part of a liberal arts education.

I didn't have a classical liberal arts education, so I'm still in the process of trying to learn what rhetoric is, and whether there really is a "science" of rhetoric that STEM-educated people like myself are missing. Certainly, some parts of the classical curriculum, like syllogistic logic, seem pretty basic, while others, like memorization, may be less relevant in the modern day.

However, there's definitely a "level above mine."

I've had a piece of my writing edited by the staff of a major magazine; they restructured the rhythm and pacing and added vivid turns of phrase, while keeping all the important content in place. I still haven't worked out exactly how they did it, or what principles lie behind the changes, but suddenly it sounded like a more graceful, alive voice was making my argument.

That's elocutio.

I've seen a law professor speak in exactly 17 minutes of perfectly organized paragraphs, extemporaneously in a debate, while his opponent got confused as to the structure of the argument and wound up lamely repeating a single point that didn't refute the whole thesis.

That's dispositio.

I recently watched The Ten Commandments, and Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner's resonant voices and dignified, expansive gestures are beautiful in a way I've hardly ever seen anyone in my generation allow themselves to be.

That's pronuntiatio.

On LessWrong, people often make a hard distinction between being correct and being persuasive; one is rational while the other is "dark arts." That's a real tension in rhetoric, and it's as old as Plato. But it's also been traditional in the West to combine the study of persuasiveness and the study of logical argument as a single subject, and there might be a sense in which that's reasonable. An argument is both something that one understands individually, and a format for communicating between people.

From a societal perspective, making any kind of improvement, at any scale above literally one-man jobs, depends on both correctness and persuasiveness. If you want to achieve an outcome, you fail if you propose the wrong method and if you can't persuade anyone of the right method. And you can't just figure out the right plan first and figure out how to "sell" it later -- the process of figuring out the right plan usually requires collaboration along the way. Speaking up about what should be done is an unavoidable element of actually doing it, in most cases. I'm not sure it's the right move to treat the "steak" and the "sizzle" as totally separate.

I'm curious what people have learned, from liberal arts or elsewhere, about rhetoric and its component skills. Do you think there's something to learn from classical rhetoric about how to persuade and argue?

Some of the things I think go into talking well:

Emotional Skills

  • How to be aware of other people’s points of view without merging with them
  • How to dare to use a loud, clear voice or definite language
  • How to restrain yourself from anger or upset
  • How to take unflattering comments or disagreement in stride
  • How to retain focus and interest on the denotative content of an argument
  • How to resist impulses to evade the issue or make misleading points

Ethical Skills

  • How to speak from experience about value-laden concepts (moral imperatives and virtues)

Cognitive Skills

  • How to construct a logically valid argument
  • How to understand another person’s perspective

Writing Skills

  • Vividness
  • Rhythm and variation in sound
  • Organization
  • Figures of speech

Physical Skills

  • Pitch variation
  • Voice support
  • Articulation
  • Speaking speed
  • Posture
  • Gesture

Where have you learned to do any of these things better?

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Regarding the separation between "being correct" and "being persuasive" and whether the latter is a "Dark Art". I think that there are two different types of "being persuasive". The first type is, being good at communicating your knowledge and ideas to other people. The second type is, being good at getting people to agree with you about something.

To put it differently, the first skill is about playing a game where you win when both you and your rationally combine your evidence and update towards a common position, or at least more similar positions. This might involve either your interlocutor changing eir position, or your changing your position, or both of you changing your positions. The second skill is about playing a game where you win when your interlocutor agrees with your initial position, regardless of its objective merit.

The first is definitely an important skill, because most intellectual projects are collaborative and any intellectual project has to produce comprehensible output in order to be useful for society. The second is very different, since, from its perspective, it doesn't matter why the interlocutor agrees and it doesn't even matter whether it's something you believe yourself or just want other people to believe. In particular, it easily allows for deceit and manipulation as long as you don't expect it to backfire. I think that the second skill (or, the part of the second skill which is not redundant w.r.t. the first skill) is definitely a "Dark Art" in the sense that, although it is still valuable consequentially, it might easily run into ethical problems and/or harm your own ability to think rationally (since you might start lying to yourself in order to improve your ability to lie to others).

I am reminded of Guided by the Beauty of our Weapons. Specifically, it seems like we want to encourage forms of rhetoric that are disproportionately persuasive when deployed by someone who is in fact right.

Something like "make the structure of your argument clear" is probably good (since it will make bad arguments look bad), "use vivid examples" is unclear (can draw people's attention to the crux of your argument, or distract from it), "tone and posture" are probably bad (because the effect is symmetrical).

So a good test is "would this have an equal effect on the persuasiveness of my speech if I was making an invalid point?". If the answer is no, then do it; otherwise maybe not.

If I put on my cynical hat, it looks like there's going to be lots of (regressional) goodharting on persuasiveness here. If you look at those who are the *most* believed when they say things on important matters, or the people whose ideas *most* dominate the conversation, its probably significantly because they maxed out other variables that go into 'speaking/writing well' which aren't just 'good communication of true and useful things'.

  • To point to a concrete example of the former, it seems like Peter Singer makes a number of plain factual errors in his writings that reverse the conclusions of his arguments (1, 2). A friend recently suggested to me that Singer likes to take on the frame of 'reasonable person against the incoherent, screaming masses', regardless of the truth of his arguments. I'm not confident in that read of him, but it doesn't seem obviously implausible to me as a tactic a person of the first type would use in current society.
    • (Homework is to apply such analysis to other public intellectuals like Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, etc.)
  • To point to concrete examples of the latter... well, the space of 'things that successfully grab our attention' feels super vague to me right now, so instead let me point to examples of fairly good things that nonetheless have had to compete very strongly in that domain. LastWeekTonight feels like the obvious one (while I don't trust it a great deal, it is better than much of its natural competition in that it learns toward discussing apartisan matters, and often in lots of detail). What's more, WaitButWhy has found that order to get people to take seriously the destruction of all value forever, you have to be funny and do cutesy drawings, and it seems like Eliezer and Scott have had to be incredibly fun writers in order to be read quite so much.
    • (And yup, because of regressional goodharting and conservation of expected evidence, this is also Bayesian evidence that their ideas are not as true/novel as you previously thought.)

...I notice my comment doesn't obviously read as a reply to yours. It was inspired by asking the cynical question "What if there's an arms race / race to the bottom in persuasiveness, and you have to pick up all the symmetrical weapons others use and then use asymmetrical weapons on top of those?"

Added: Unrelated questions: Why do LastWeekTonight, WaitButWhy, and SlateStarCodex all have three words in their titles? What's more, why do Steven Pinker, Peter Singer, Sam Harris, and Jordan Peterson all have an 'S' or a 'P' in their initials?!

Now I'm imagining the unparalleled amount of readers I will get once I start my new blog, SuperPersuasiveSoliloquies.

I realise we should have called our project, not LessWrong 2, but MoreLessWrong.


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"What if there's an arms race / race to the bottom in persuasiveness, and you have to pick up all the symmetrical weapons others use and then use asymmetrical weapons on top of those?"

Doesn't this question apply to other cases of symmetric/asymmetric weapons just as much?

I think the argument is that you want to try and avoid the arms race by getting everyone to agree to stick to symmetrical weapons because they believe it'll benefit them (because they're right). This may not work if they don't actually believe they're right and are just using persuasion as a tool, but I think it's something we could establish as a community norm in restricted circles at least.

Its difficult to discuss this topic on lesswrong for several reasons:

1) The bulk of most people's experience 'trying to convince other people of things' comes from political discussions. This is probably not an optimal state of affairs but its still true for most rationalists. Most of my experience 'learning how to persuade people' comes from discussing things like libertarianism and climate change. I can't go into details about those things on lesswrong.

2) Talking about how persuasive you are makes you sound arrogant and might make you sound manipulative. So its difficult to talk about successes you have had. Even worse, people you convinced of things don't want to hear about your master persuader powers.

3) The 'Dark Arts' taboo is pretty strong. When I was younger I was very bad at persuading people. Looking back I was just spamming arguments that only made sense to people who shared my moral foundations (and they are relatively but not ridiculously rare). At some point I decided to stop trying to make 'good' arguments and just try to convince people of things. I would not actively lie or mislead but I stopped trying to follow especially truth seeking norms (as I understood them). This was actually very educational. The later approach led to me spending much more time trying to really understand and engage with different points of view. I followed this approach for many years until I decided I had learned enough to change mindset. I only practiced this sort of attitude in political discussions with little or no real world ramification. But even talking about this can be socially risky if one is not careful. Among other things I argued for lots of positions I didn't actually hold (with no disclaimers) and made tons of arguments I personally found unpersausive. This rubs alot of people the wrong way.

But even talking about this can be socially risky if one is not careful. Among other things I argued for lots of positions I didn’t actually hold (with no disclaimers) and made tons of arguments I personally found unpersausive. This rubs alot of people the wrong way.

Well, and so it should, right? It should be socially risky; it is expected, and good, that it rubs people the wrong way—because arguing for positions you don’t hold (without disclaimers), and making arguments you personally find unpersuasive, is deceptive and antisocial; it’s a betrayal of cooperative norms.

Yet here it seems like you’re implying that, actually, it’s fine to do these things, but that you just have to be careful, because unfortunately people don’t like when you do them, for some reason (which reason is definitely not “these are actually bad things”). Have I misunderstood?

This seems to depend a lot on social context.

Lawyers are the quintessential speakers-for-hire who apply rhetoric to mercenary causes. Yet lawyers are accepted and high-status in most parts of society. In play, debate clubs are often popular; and at a recent LW meetup we played an Ideological Turing Test game, where we had to convince each other of positions we didn't always hold.

Lawyers don't hide the fact they're biased and mercenary in court. Maybe that helps them disassociate enough from the practice that people don't feel uncomfortable with them in a personal setting. And yet, most people are not bothered by the idea that the justice system runs in part on rhetoric persuasiveness, or that the wider political system runs in part on politicians convincing voters of things. People compliment politicians on their public speaking skills without thinking "dark arts!" every time.

In general, the average person's reaction to "wow what a skilled orator" isn't "therefore I won't listen to them, persuasiveness is orthogonal to truth". How do you reconcile this with your analysis of "betraying cooperative norms", which people are usually good at enforcing?

Note: I'm not well familiar with modern lawyers and exactly how important rhetoric is to them. In classical antiquity it was extremely important; that is relevant insofar as it partially explains why rhetoric is present in today's classical liberal education.

I'm not sure I agree re: lawyers, or about how people/society thinks of this. For one thing, I don't think most people are that OK with lawyers - they tend to get a lot of flack, and e.g. criminal defense attorneys will often get pushback from people who identify them with their clients, irrespective of the fact that they know the lawyers don't necessarily condone their clients' actions.

Another thing - most people absolutely hate hypocrisy. I think it's considered a death-blow to most people's arguments. People compliment politicians on their speaking skills, but if they discovered that the politician's are not saying things they believe in, they'd turn on them. (Well, theoretically - President Trump is a good counterexample).

Btw, an aside, but I also think you misrepresent what lawyers do in some way. They're supposed to be advocating for the rights of their clients, and supposed to persuade, but they can't for example lie. They are a check on the system that works from within the system - they need to make sure everyone is playing by the rules, but they can't just make up their own rules or anything. That said, of course rhetoric is important for trial lawyers.

Trump is a good example. Trump appears to most voters to not be a skilled orator but to simply state the facts in a down to earth way as he believes them to be.

He's persuasive without signaling that he is a great orator.

I did not mean to misrepresent what lawyers do (or are allowed to do). I noted they are restricted by lawyer ethics, but that was in a different comment than the one you replied to. Yes, absolutely, they not supposed to lie or even deliberately mislead, and a lawyer's reputation would suffer horribly if they were caught in a lie.

I'm not sure I understand people who aren't OK with ethical lawyers, as a concept. Is there something they would like instead of lawyers? (See: my other comment.) Or do they feel that lawyers are immoral by association with injustice - the intuition of "moral contagion" (I forget the correct term) that someone who only partially fixes a moral wrong, is worse than someone who doesn't try to fix it at all?

Hypocrisy is anathema to me, but I've notice that many (most?) people are happy to let other people live with their contradictions as long as they are not very painfully glaring.

The best persuasive speakers I’ve ever seen in person are, unsurprisingly, lawyers. I saw Robert P. George speak once and thought “This is an atom bomb in the form of a man; I want that power.”

It’s not mere demagoguery. There’s structure to the arguments. And I’m pretty sure the same places that trained him to make arguments also trained him to speak effectively.

And yet, most people are not bothered by the idea that the justice system runs in part on rhetoric persuasiveness, or that the wider political system runs in part on politicians convincing voters of things.

Uh… I don’t think that’s true. Lots of people are bothered by this. Maybe you’re right, maybe a majority is unbothered, but this is interesting only to the extent that it doesn’t embody a larger pattern of what proportion of people care about injustice. My impression is that this is not a deviation from that pattern.

In general, the average person’s reaction to “wow what a skilled orator” isn’t “therefore I won’t listen to them, persuasiveness is orthogonal to truth”.

Are you sure? I’ve met a lot of people (“average people”, not rationalists) who take the view of “yeah, he can talk real impressively, but it’s all bullshit, no doubt”. Many people like “simple talk”, i.e. speech that simply lays out facts, and are suspicious of impressive/skillful rhetoric.

It's not just average people who are put off by impressive talk. The charge of "sophistry" comes from the sophists, teachers who were skilled in the arts of rhetoric and persuasion. These teachers acquired a (dangerous) reputation for being able to convince anyone of anything, true or false, to the point where our word for such argumentation references them.

Are you sure? I’ve met a lot of people (“average people”, not rationalists) who take the view of “yeah, he can talk real impressively, but it’s all bullshit, no doubt”. Many people like “simple talk”, i.e. speech that simply lays out facts, and are suspicious of impressive/skillful rhetoric.

Then the skilled orator will take that into account, speak simply, and avoid impressive or skillful rhetoric.

Marketers have noticed that some people are suspicious of slick corporate brands, but they haven't conceded those customers to local producers and small businesses and whatnot -- they've rolled out product lines that appeal to those people. Farmer's Garden pickles are a good example of this, although the Vlasic branding is maybe a little too visible.

Are you sure? I’ve met a lot of people (“average people”, not rationalists) who take the view of “yeah, he can talk real impressively, but it’s all bullshit, no doubt”. Many people like “simple talk”, i.e. speech that simply lays out facts, and are suspicious of impressive/skillful rhetoric.

I've met fewer people like that, but then I'm not a native English speaker, so not all of the speechifying I'm exposed to is in English.

It sounds like the thing being described is in part a desire for the speaker to talk in a particular dialect and style, associated with a social class or background, with the appropriate choice of acrolect/mesolect/basilect, etc.

Do you think such people are unaware that the "plain" speakers they like still harness rhetoric, just one tailored to that audience? Good plain speech still needs to be concise, address the right points, have good body language, good delivery (e.g. not stutter or repeat yourself), and in the end say things that the audience will like as speech as well as on the object level. An untrained speaker will rarely carry an audience, however plainly they speak.

(I, also, am not a native English speaker, fyi.)

Do you think such people are unaware that the “plain” speakers they like still harness rhetoric, just one tailored to that audience?

I am not convinced that the “plain” speakers do “harness rhetoric”, unless by “rhetoric” we mean something much broader than what seems to be being discussed in the OP. For example:

Good plain speech still needs to be concise, address the right points, have good body language, good delivery (e.g. not stutter or repeat yourself)

If this counts as “rhetoric”, then “rhetoric” seems to be a useless term.

and in the end say things that the audience will like as speech as well as on the object level

I’m not convinced this is true.

Yes, I think this absolutely does count as rhetoric in the classical sense (being concise, expressing the right points, good body language and good delivery.)

See here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Oratore https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhetoric

It’s not meaningless if you view rhetoric as “how to speak well” rather than “how to speak artificially and misleadingly.”

I think my definition of rhetoric is the same as OP's: namely, the art of shaping words or a speech to be beautiful, moving, convincing, or otherwise effective. How to best verbally convince others of an idea: I think that's a useful term.

In particular the OP referred to dispositio (concise, addressing the right points) and pronuntiatio (body language and delivery).

I’m not convinced this is true.

I'm not sure what exactly you're not convince of. That speech is much more effective when its form is liked as well as its object level claims?

I don’t think that’s true. Lots of people are bothered by this. Maybe you’re right, maybe a majority is unbothered, but this is interesting only to the extent that it doesn’t embody a larger pattern of what proportion of people care about injustice.

I agree that most people are bothered by anything they perceive as injustice. But if they don't know a way to make things better, or what things being better would look like, then they tend not to blame e.g. lawyers for participating in the system and being good at it.

Is there a better way of doing things, that lots of people would prefer to be the case? Not just "I wish judges applied the law fairly and for Justice" - then you might as well wish for people not to commit crimes in the first place. But a system that would work when being gamed by people desperate not to go to jail?

Alternatively, is there a relevant moral principle that people can follow unilaterally that would make the world a better place (other than deontologically)? If we tell a defendant not to hire a lawyer, or a lawyer not to argue as well as they can (while keeping to lawyer ethics), or the jury not to listen to the lawyers - then the side that doesn't cooperate will win the trial, or the jury will ignore important claims, and justice won't be better served on average.

Lets look at a relatively non-controversial example. Say people are arguing about conciousness. As it turns out I do not agree with Dan Dennett's point of view on this topic. However lets say I start making for the Dennett point of view. How might I be hurting by doing this? I can think of some plausible mechanisms:

1) I might be disrupting Aumannian Agreement. However in most arguments I don't see many aumannian processes at work, people are rather reluctant to change their views. I agree its important to state your beleifs accurately in situations with substantial aumannian processes ex: A double crux or a friend asking me for advice.

2) I am slightly distorting the sample of community opinion. I suppose this is a real harm but it seems slight. In addition trying to gauge the distribution of community opinion based on observing discussions seems problematic anyway. The majority of people do not comment much at all. Its better to look at various community surveys. Some questions are not represented on surveys but in those cases its very hard to get info anyway.

3) Maybe since I disagree with Dennett I will probably argue for his views badly? I think this sort of issue comes up alot for people trying to 'steelman'. However since I am trying to persuade my incentives are alligned with arguing well. I am not trying to 'steelman' Dennett then shoot down his views. I am actually trying to spread them. Various debate organizations seem to think its possible to argue well for many sides of an argument. The legal profession also seems to assume you can argue well for 'both sides'. (though in the conciousness debate there are more than two sides).

4) Maybe its actively bad to 'spread wrong ideas'. First off this seems like it conflicts alot with the ideology around having a 'marketplace of ideas'. People can evaluate ideas for themselves, I don't think exposing them to Dennett's pint of view is hurting them (or hurting society). Maybe this is a crux but I think the concept of a marketplace of ideas has proven very beneficial (even if its an over simplication). Secondly I don't know Dennett is wrong! I should not privilege my own opinion too much.


Can you explain why you think this sort of behavior is harmful and which norms are being broken?

Why should I seriously engage with anything you’re saying, given that you just admitted that you find it perfectly fine to say things that you don’t believe, just to win an argument? If you’re willing to say whatever it takes to be persuasive, then I am, in effect, not talking to an actual person with actual beliefs—I’m talking to some sort of mutable simulacrum of a person, who has no beliefs, no values, no interests, etc. I can’t rely on this simulacrum to be honest, or to be charitable, etc.; it can have no consistent character at all. Why should I waste my time conversing with such an entity? I rather prefer to deal with humans!

That aside, I notice that in your question, you assume a strictly harm-based ethics—and not only that, but, apparently, an act-utilitarian ethics. I reject that assumption. I am not a utilitarian, much less an act utilitarian.

As for “which norms are being broken”, I think you know the answer to that one perfectly well. We have norms against saying things you don’t believe. We have norms against hypocrisy, and against two-facedness. We have norms against lying, and against deception in general. All of these are being broken.

Don't use your answer to an argument to make a point about (your interpretation of) another argument.

Well, and so it should, right? It should be socially risky; it is expected, and good, that it rubs people the wrong way—because arguing for positions you don’t hold (without disclaimers), and making arguments you personally find unpersuasive, is deceptive and antisocial; it’s a betrayal of cooperative norms.

And so we end up selecting for people who have passionate beliefs that don't pay any kind of rent whatsoever. Instead of deception, we got dissonance, and I'm not convinced this is better.

And so we end up selecting for people who have passionate beliefs that don’t pay any kind of rent whatsoever.


Indeed, it's enough to make you wish for a feature to disable identities/voting in the comments for certain posts.

When I went to college the first time it was for liberal arts. I also participated in Mock Trial, which is a sort of performative pre-law competition where two teams compete as Prosecution/Plaintiff and Defense on in a fictional case. Points are awarded by judges based on individual performance of team members and then the total determines the winner.

Since there is an established set of (fictional) facts, and we use a simplified version of the rules of evidence, it is a kind of boundedly-extemporaneous speaking. I was good at this, and in a good program; I occasionally won tournament awards and we competed at the national championships. This trains the physical skills well, in the main through frequent practice. They were also disproportionately rewarded. The judges were volunteers; clear exposition that did not require them to think too hard routinely shifted the evidence in your favor. It trained cognitive skills reasonably well, because even though the rules were simplified and known to everyone it was adversarial so there was continuous testing of your ability to respond on your feet to what the opponent said.

This format has a better system of feedback than any other speaking competition I know of: a tournament will usually have three or four trials in it, and the case stays the same throughout the season. As a consequence you get to repeatedly test your rhetorical skill with small variations and very fast feedback. This is distinct from oratory or debate competitions, where it is common to only speak once per competition. For anyone who is still an undergraduate, I recommend it.

It departs from the question asked in the post a bit, but I would like to weigh in on the side of rhetoric. Richard Feynman is a good candidate for the most popular physicist of the postwar era, and I think you will agree that the driving force behind his popularity is not the Nobel Prize he won; rather he is called the Great Explainer and the public knows him most through his skill at communicating. This was how I learned about him, and this video is his most memorable moment for me. Consider also the anecdote about Shannon and Von Neumann concerning entropy:

Von Neumann told me, ‘You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place you uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name. In the second place, and more importantly, no one knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.'

Can anyone think of any examples where the course of science was directed as much by the debater's skill as by the technical merits?

I put it to all of you that we are dealing with challenging subjects, often removed from people's everyday experience, but which are of critical importance to them nevertheless. Expository work in math and science is effectively technical rhetoric; we should seriously consider what the motivation is for arbitrarily stopping efforts at clear communication when we come to the spoken word.

Also, two points of interest:

Point of interest 1: while it was a standard part of liberal arts educations for centuries, it is not a standard part of them now in the United States. For some intuition as to why, I offer an article from Harvard Magazine called How Harvard Destroyed Rhetoric.

Point of interest 2: it may not be standard, but it is on the rise. In the engineering program where I went to school, Public Speaking was a curriculum requirement. The reason is that engineers will be expected to give presentations throughout their career, the majority of which will not be to technical peers - the ability to speak clearly and in a manner that inspires confidence in technical conclusions is expected to be key to success.

P.S. I had in mind using a transcript of a talk given by an older mathematician, wherein he described lessons from his career, including not spending enough time on exposition and killing his field as a result. He ends with some comment on learning to enjoy being a mathematical institution. I initially thought it might be Richard Hamming's 'You and Your Research', but that is not correct and it is maddening to me that I cannot find it. Can anyone help?

I think you're looking for Thurston's "On proof and progress in mathematics": https://arxiv.org/abs/math/9404236

That's the one! Downloaded, bookmarked, emailed to myself - it will not escape me again.

For the interested, in the above link I intended to reference Part 6, specifically where he talks about his experience with foliations. This is page 13.

Thank you, query!

For what it's worth, I have three years' experience with university-level competitive debating, specifically with the debate format known as British Parliamentary (which is the style used by the World Universities Debating Championship or WUDC). Since many people are unfamiliar with it, I'll briefly explain the rules: one BP debate comprises four teams of two members each. All four teams are ranked against each other, but two of them must argue for the affirmative ("government") side of the issue and the other two for the negative ("opposition") side. The objective is basically to persuade the adjudicators why your team should win. In this format you do not get to research the topic beforehand, and you don't even know what you are going to debate until 15 minutes before the debate starts -- which means that it requires a lot of quick brainstorming and improvisation. And since each individual speaker gets only 7 minutes to make their case, you have to prioritize the most important content and structure it coherently.

In our training sessions we actually do not study classical rhetoric. So I'm not familiar with terms like elocutio, dispositio or pronuntiatio -- although I can definitely recognize clear delivery, organized structure, and appeals to logic as important principles of varsity debating. I think there are skills one can learn from this kind of public speaking:

  • The target of persuasion in BP is the judge, who we regard as a layman, or "average informed voter". This means that he or she has a high-school education and reads a newspaper once a while, but is not an expert on any particular subject. Furthermore, the judge is not supposed to have a bias in favor of left-wing or right-wing arguments (but is moderate by the standards of a Western liberal democracy). This rule encourages speakers to use arguments that will appeal to a broad segment of people.
  • The persuasiveness of a speech is evaluated not based on how impressive your style is, but on how compelling your arguments are. A good argument is one that is (a) believable, i.e. the premises are acceptable and the conclusion follows logically; and (b) relevant to the concerns of the debate, i.e. something that counts in favor of your side and against the other side. It is up to you as a speaker to explain why a claim you make is likely to be true and why it implies that your team should win. This encourages speakers to be clear about what it is that they actually stand for, and why the rest of us should care.
  • Due to the short preparation time and the fact that judges do not fact-check the participants' speeches using Google, it doesn't make much sense to cite academic papers or statistics in one's speech. Additionally, to base an argument on a single example makes it vulnerable to refutation by counterexample. So if you can neither say "Studies show that in 73% of cases, X happens..." nor say "Last year, there was a case where X happened..." and get away with it, then what can you say? Well, a useful trick here is to remember that debating entails a comparison between two worlds: you can claim that "X is more likely (or less likely) to happen if we enact this policy than if we don't". Then you need argumentation to explain why that is the case, starting from premises that most people would accept as common knowledge or some kind of first principle about how the world works. You also need to explain why, assuming your argument is correct, this justifies/warrants the kind of action or conclusion you are proposing. This aspect of BP debating encourages speakers to think in terms of general rules rather than specific data points.
  • The interactive nature of the game requires you to respond to the arguments presented by the other teams. A rebuttal works the same way as an argument, but with the opposite intention: you explain why the claims made by the other side are either (a) unrealistic; or (b) unimportant, perhaps because they are not mutually exclusive with your claims, or because they are of such little consequence that they are outweighed by other factors. Thus, speakers have to simultaneously see both sides of the dispute in order to isolate the core tensions and advocate successfully for their side.
  • One quirk of this kind of format is that you don't get to choose beforehand which side of the topic you will be arguing for. This means that you will occasionally be required to defend positions that you personally disagree with, and poke holes in the ones you cherish. This is great for challenging confirmation bias and inviting speakers to consider different points of view. Even if you don't radically change your worldview, you will at least develop a greater understanding of the other side.

Of course one could also criticize this type of debating. Firstly, it inculcates a competitive spirit rather than a spirit of collaborative truth-seeking. Secondly, as a game it is in some ways detached from the nuances and practicalities of persuasion in the "real world", where things like statistical figures and budgetary limits and constitutionality do matter. Finally, one might become too adept at constructing plausible-seeming justifications for any conclusion one likes regardless of the actual evidence -- and this Eliezer warned us about:

And that problem—too much ready ammunition—is one of the primary ways that people with high mental agility end up stupid, in Stanovich's "dysrationalia" sense of stupidity.
You can think of people who fit this description, right?  People with high g-factor who end up being less effective because they are too sophisticated as arguers?

When you start with a given position on a topic (let's say you have to argue against legalizing recreational drugs) and construct arguments in its favor, you are essentially engaging in rationalization instead of rationality.

So do the benefits outweigh these risks? I don't know.

I've debated as well and I'll add the following disadvantages:

  • Sometimes debates enter what is roughly called "debater-world" where the arguments are ones that tend to get accepted within the debating community, but wouldn't actually get accepted in real-life
  • Persuasion in the real world is much more about understanding your opponents psychology than trying to argue them into believing you

I think there's a few concepts in debating that people here might find useful:

  • Claim-Truth-Importance-Comparativity: First make a claim, then explain why it is true, then explain why it is important, lastly explain why it is more important than what your opponent is saying. It's very easy to leave steps out if you haven't had a lot of experience in debating
  • Painting a picture of two world: In particular, for comparativity in policy debates, you want to paint a picture of the world where your opponent's policy is accepted and a picture of the world where your policy is accepted to make it as clear as possible why your world is better
  • Structure: This is one area that I was never good at, but generally you want to start off strong with something your opponent has not addressed at all, outline your speech so that people know what's coming (generally with three main arguments), then finish strong by reiterating what you proved

I think rhetorics can be "friendly" and "adversarial", and the two things require different skills (and of course there is "art".)

**About friendly rhetorics:**

at the meetings of our team for bioconservation, being the "scribe" meant you have fewer chances to put in your own five cents, and kind of more desire for others' clarity of thought:) so in practice it meant mutual training:

  • asking people to clarify;
  • tracking who said what (we sent out write-ups afterwards and naturally people got upset if their position was misrepresented);
  • sometimes reminding everybody we need A Conclusion;
  • preparing tea (it is better for the voice than speaking "drily", it's *not* beer (which not everybody likes or can afford), it means you can stuck the kettle into someone's cold hands and so make them welcome without a hitch in the discussion, & the making of it can be used for a break from That One Topic which nobody agrees upon);
  • speaking shortly. I still remember the time when we couldn't decide how best to chart a pigsty (being built somewhere on protected land), and I said "there's a GPS", and there was blessed silence :)

**For adversarial rhetorics,** the one thing that helps most is letting 'em know you come prepared - it means they will waste resources on weighing their own arguments against your possible answers; so:

  • decide what you want to say beforehand and have all references either learnt or written down;
  • if possible, BYOS - bring [copies of] your original sources (law print-outs, etc), earmarked and highlighted;
  • if you can help it, don't enter arguments you expect to lose, if this means setting a dangerous precedent or a hit to your image;
  • do not get off topic, do not be less than polite (which is harder when you have limited time and need shortcuts - informality can hurt, and it will be easily used against you);
  • citing precise figures is good - there's a "but the numbers speak for themselves" feel about them, and if you are wrong about them, you will have maid "a noble mistake", unless, well, it was obviously not noble;
  • study the other side's sources closely;
  • if you work with journalists, demand reading the piece before publication and check, at least, all names in it (srsly).

I notice that I'm thinking about "friendly rhetorics" as having two sides, and "adversarial rhetorics" as having three - you, your opponent. and the observers; I am merely used to this setting, but it doesn't mean it can't be the other way round.

A good way to practice pronuntiatio is simply to watch yourself speak. Even without external feedback, you yourself will notice many bad habits in the way you speak and correct them.

I did this as part of a class: each week we would give a short talk on some subject, then watch the video of ourselves talking. For the next talk, it's best to focus on improving just a single thing that went wrong, starting from the mouth and moving outward. For example, on a particular week I would focus on fixing on of the following:

  • Too quiet (usually) or too loud.
  • Too fast (usually) or too slow.
  • Filler words: "umm" and "ahh".
  • Monotone, or tone changes that don't match the context.
  • Eye contact with audience - you want to make brief eye contact that moves around the room, rather than staring at the floor or at a single person.
  • Shoulder posture, arm movement.
  • Body posture, some people tend to sway in the wind.
  • Moving around the room.

At the very end, which came out to our 6th or 7th talk, we went back to the subject of our first lightning speech and tried to deliver the exact same text and compared the videos. The difference was astounding.

As someone who is here mostly to improve my personal life (and perhaps since that tends to generate a surplus, get some EA done along the way) it's definitely worth it for me. A few points on the things in your list

  • Think of your practice:theory ratio for a thing you're good at. Think of how often you deliberately practice conversational skills like connecting with other people. Realize you should be doing less reading more doing. Feel scared to start. Go somewhere nobody will know you and practice anyways.
    • Side note: I feel like there must be a better feedback loop since this just gives a fail/pass/ace result and little feedback as to why. Close friends are poor feedback loops for this due to their bias and selection bias in general.
  • Tone and posture > attractiveness. Marilyn Monroe could turn her charisma on and off with body language. Read the whole book for more specifics. Controlling my lisp and lordosis causes a visible change in the reaction of people I approach. Losing 20 lbs of muscle in a long period of sloth changed things a little but not proportional to the amount of time it took to gain 20lbs of muscle.
  • Making a habit of simulating other people with your system 1 side before including your system 2 side makes conversation more fun and makes people feel more cared about by you. But that's something I got from this site so you may have already read about this.

In my experience, those are the only things specific to rhetoric I've had to learn to get to the level I could have fulfilling and productive interactions with other humans. I'm aware I'm still behind a lot of other people so I would be happy if someone pointed out things they feel are important. Discovering a new deficiency always comes with some great effort:reward areas of focus.

Currently, Difficult Conversations is the only book I recommend to literally all people, because it establishes the principles and practices of effective collaborative truth-seeking. If you want a good chance of persuading someone of something they are already opposed to, you have demonstrate that you understand their point of view and value their well-being. (On a similar note, I read Ender's Game in middle school and took to heart the idea of understanding your adversaries so well that you love them.)

Can the art of influencing emotions be used for destructive purposes? Yes. It's certainly possible to play off of many humans' biases to get them to adopt positions that are arbitrarily chosen by an outside source, by presenting different perspectives of situations and associating different emotions with them. However, it is also possible to explore as many relevant aspects of a situation as possible, validate people's concerns, and have your concerns listened to in turn. Like any other tool it can be used to constructively get people to feel better about seeking the truth. Rhetoric allows you to reframe a situation and get people to go along with it. Some try to reframe a situation for selfish purposes, but you can still frame a situation as accurately as possible, and persuade people to accept and contribute to this reframing.

Here's a twist, though: rhetoric would still be important even if people were rational truth-seekers by default. You can't accurately and efficiently convey the relevant aspects of a situation or idea without rhetoric. The people listening to you will have to spend more energy than necessary to understand your meaning, because you don't know how to arrange your message in a logical order, with clear language.

You'd also be missing a quick method for getting people to start appreciating others' emotions different cultural frames of reference. Even putting them through a simulation wouldn't work as well; their own frame of reference (the Curse of Knowledge) would likely prevent or delay them from having an epiphany about the other person's paradigm. Sometimes you just need to spell things out, and for that, you need rhetoric and other communication skills.

Just because rhetoric isn't sufficient to seek truth doesn't mean it's not necessary. If we tossed out everything that can be used for destruction as well as for construction, we'd be facing the world naked.

Marvelous post.

It's worth reading Aristotle's Rhetoric at some point —



The famous points like arguing from ethos (roughly, character/credibility), logos (logic), and pathos (emotional appeals, especially around harm and suffering) — these are well-known enough, but Aristotle went into a lot of specific and counterintuitive examples.

I feel like I got a lot from reading it that I haven't seen elsewhere, but it does oscillate a bit between a dry and slogging type read and some real gems of insight. Probably worth checking out if you're interested in the topic — I don't think summaries do it justice; there's some particularly good and non-obvious examples.

I read it and didn’t see much there I didn’t know before, but I can give it another shot.

Elocution is something of a lost art. My first encounter with it as a concept was reading about the life of Alexander Graham Bell. While Bell is today remembered for the telephone, he was also an elocution instructor that took a keen interest in both the human voice and teaching the deaf to speak like someone who can hear. He could deliver a speech from a phonetic representation in such a way that it was persuasive to foreign speakers, without understanding the language he was using. This interest in the human voice is part of what eventually led him to create the telephone. Naturally then, we should expect Bell's voice to represent a strong example of what the art of elocution can do for you. As fortune would have it, we do in fact have a recording of Bell's voice to examine:


It's distorted, but the inflection, tone, and general cadence can be made out. I'll allow listeners to judge its qualities for themselves.

This seems to suggest that elocution is not a very worthwhile art, since Bell’s voice, pronunciation, etc., are all quite unimpressive. (Was that your point?)

After listening to that video, my best guess is that it's purpose was to record him saying a bunch of numbers, with a pronunciation optimized to make it so that you can understand it when played back, and as such the pronunciation feels highly unnatural to me and probably doesn't reflect his normal elocution skills.

This would be my counterargument to Said Achmiz's comment if I were inclined to make one.

I don't really have a point beyond "this is a piece of evidence, I'm not entirely sure how to evaluate it because it's such a distorted fragment of the past recorded in a very particular context". This post was after all a request for evidence, so I don't mind providing something interesting without having my own spin to put on it.

I kind of want to learn elocution — any thoughts on how?

Toastmasters? Never tried them myself, but I get the impression that they aim to do pretty much the thing you're looking for.

In a best case scenario, a fellow traveler will already have studied rhetoric and will be able to provide the highlights relevant to LWers. In the spirit of offering the "obvious advice" I've heard the "Very Short Introduction" series of books can give you an introduction to the main ideas of a field and maybe that will be helpful for guiding your research beyond the things that are easily googleable.

Promoted to frontpage.

Just over three years after this post was published, I returned to it and switch to a strong upvote from a regular upvote.  The post is well written and engaging, and it recently appears to me that it continues to be highly relevant.  The proximate cause was the post over at the EA forum about an EA debate competition; there was a lot of well-articulated and popular concerns about debate as an activity, the most excellent of which had, if I understand it correctly, the following true concern:

Methods of communicating that are not truth-seeking compete with methods that are for our mastery. Which is to say, by spending time on symmetric weapons like rhetoric, we are forsaking time spent on advancing the truth.

I think this is a mistake, and that the value of rhetoric spoken-or-written to pursuit of the truth is being neglected. I publicly register my intent to write a post on this.

Classical rhetoric is old hat these days. The really persuasive Art is making PowerPoint slides!

My current job involves a lot of writing and talking about emerging technology in order to help companies make strategic decisions in a variety of contexts. I have had lots of practice (and live editing sessions as you describe) with pieces of many different lengths for different audiences (specific individuals, conferences, my coworkers, and the press). I don't know any good substitute for the experience of having people try to follow your arguments and fail, or just refuse to listen to or believe the first however many ways you try to explain something until you succeed.

That said, if someone had asked me before reading this where I learned the most about persuasion, my answer would be... here. All the articles about cognitive biases, how to actually change your mind, and so on, also double as lessons in how to help other people do the same.

As far as persuading those who actively don't care about arguments or don't want to be right instead of just being misinformed or not knowing something... rhetoric as a tool to figure out what psychological levers to pull may be the only way to get that result. Spending time just talking to people used to having a lot more power and status than you can be very helpful there, if you approach it right. Or watching others do the same, since trying it yourself is a higher risk approach.

they restructured the rhythm and pacing and added vivid turns of phrase, while keeping all the important content in place. I still haven't worked out exactly how they did it, or what principles lie behind the changes, but suddenly it sounded like a more graceful, alive voice was making my argument.

I'll just put this great quote here (which is a great explanation for at least one thing they might have done, depends on whether you did that already)

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
― Gary Provost

Also, remember *Captain Brassbound's Conversion*? Lady Cicely was my Rhetorics Ideal for a while...

• How to be aware of other people’s points of view without merging with them
• How to restrain yourself from anger or upset
• How to take unflattering comments or disagreement in stride
• How to resist impulses to evade the issue or make misleading points
• How to understand another person’s perspective

It wasn't the reason I got into it in the first place, but I have found mindfulness practice helpful for these things. I think that's because mindfulness involves a lot of introspection and metacognition, and those skills transfer pretty well to modeling other people, and are useful for restraining unhelpful emotional impulses. In particular, knowing how to recognize and restrain anger in oneself, I strongly suspect, makes one better at anticipating how one's words might set off other people's anger, and coming up with strategies to avert or de-escalate such confrontations. It's analogous to a phenomenon that I expect will sound familiar to LW readers, which is that getting better at noticing mistakes and biases in one's own thinking also makes one better at noticing them in other people's thinking.