Diplomats seeking to analyse political rhetoric can benefit from knowledge of the terms and techniques of classical rhetoric as well as techniques frequently used in modern political speech.

Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric provided by Dr Gideon Burton of Brigham Young    University, is a guide to the terms of classical and renaissance rhetoric: definitions and examples of Greek and Latin terms, discussion of general rhetorical strategies and examples of different types of rhetorical analysis.

While the site focuses on classical rhetoric, many points are equally relevant now. Rhetorical analysis does not involve simply identifying and labeling linguistic features, but an examination of the entire context of the communication:

“Speech or writing never occurs in a vacuum, but in some historical, cultural, temporal setting that is intimately tied up with how one frames discourse. In one sense, the ‘rhetorical situation’ refers to what prods or inspires communication: a pressing need, a conventional ceremony, a specific intention.”

An important part of context is the audience: “Rhetoric is never about discourse in the abstract; it is always concerned with directing one’s words with specific intentions towards specific audiences…All rhetorically oriented discourse is composed in light of those who will hear or read that discourse.” As an example of rhetorical analysis focusing on context, Burton writes about Hitler’s rhetoric:

Germany of post-World War I was demoralised and disorganized. Adolph Hitler’s rhetoric was successful not only because of his personal charisma and his mastery of delivery, but because he spoke at the right time: the German people wanted a way out of its economic morass and its cultural shame, and Hitler provided them both with his strong, nationalistic oratory. Had Germany been doing better economically, Hitler’s words would have bounced harmlessly off the air.

Professor Hugh Rank of Governors State University proposes an “intensification/downplay” schema to analyse methods of political communication and persuasion in his website How to Analyse Political Rhetoric. Intensifying involves the techniques of repetition, association and composition, while downplay involves omission, diversion and confusion.

Repetition: Repetition is effective because people feel comfortable with what they are familiar with, and repetition creates familiarity. Most people have favourite songs, television programs, etc., that they listen to or watch repeatedly. Chants, prayers, rituals, and dances are all based on repeated patterns; we learn them and remember them through repetition. Politicians often repeat keywords or themes throughout a speech, and also use internal repetition techniques such as rhyme, alliteration and anaphora (repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences). Slogans are another repetition device used by politicians in the hopes that, like in advertising, audiences hearing a message many times will become saturated and remember the message without conscious effort.

Association: Association is the process of linking an idea or product with other ideas, events or products which the audience either likes and respects, or hates and fears, depending on the aim of the association. Politicians may use association by directly asserting, for example, their connection with certain groups and communities with which the audience identifies or respects. They may also use indirect language to establish associations, for example, metaphors or allusions. Association may be established with images, music, colours, flags, choice of location and timing for a speech, etc., as well as words. Association may take the form of literary, historical or religious references or allusions.

Composition: The way a presentation is composed can be used as a technique of intensifying. The type of language used (negative or positive, active or passive constructions, simple or abstract, etc.), the level of detail, the use of absolutes (all, always, never, etc.) and qualifiers (perhaps, some, a number of, maybe, etc.), metaphors, rhetorical questions, exaggerations, the order of presentation and the overall organisation of a speech can all be used to emphasise certain ideas or themes. Non-verbal elements can also contribute to composition: facial expression, gestures, tone of voice, etc. also play a role.

Omission: All communication involves decisions about what information to include and what to omit and therefore is limited, slanted or biased in one way or another. However, politicians often choose to deliberately omit information about the disadvantages, hazards or side effects of their proposals. What US politician, proposing military action in another country has reminded the US population that his proposed action is likely to result in the deaths of a certain number of soldiers not through enemy attacks, but from “friendly fire”? Politicians can also be expected to omit information about any criminal or scandalous activities of their own or their associates in the past, as well as information about their own mistakes or failures. Conflicts of interest may be covered-up and information about the source of controversial information may be omitted also. Finally, information about the opposition’s good points is likely to be omitted. Subtle forms of omission include quotes taken out of context and half-truths, and can be hard to detect.

Diversion: Diversion techniques distract focus or divert attention away from key issues, usually by intensifying unrelated issues, or trivial factors. Diversion techniques include attacks on the personality and past of opposition figures rather than their relevant policies, appealing to the emotions – fears, hopes, desires – of the public rather than their reason, directing attention to the short-comings of the opposition rather than to one’s own weaknesses, evasion of difficult topics, emphasis on superficialities or details rather than substance, and finally, jokes or other entertainment to distract attention.

Confusion: Politicians sometimes make their presentations so complex and chaotic that those listening get tired or overloaded, and give up on trying to follow. Confusion, whether caused by accidental error or deliberate deception, can hide or obscure important issues. Politicians may seek to confuse their audience by using unfamiliar or ambiguous words, technical jargon, euphemisms, round-about or rambling sentence construction, inappropriate or unclear analogies, non-logical sequences of thought or linking of ideas, manipulation of statistics, over complexity, information overload, etc. After introducing confusion, the politician is in the position to offer an easy answer, a simple solution to complex problems, telling the audience: “trust me”.

Henry Jankiewicz suggests some additional tools for analysis of rhetoric on his page The Concepts of Rhetoric. He brings up the topic of intertextuality: using references to link contexts or topics, with the following example: “President George Bush tried to arouse negative sentiment against the Soviet Union by referring to it as the Evil Empire, associating it with the nemesis in George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy. This resonated with the fact that the government’s plans for a cumbersome satellite anti-missile defense system were popularly referred to as Star Wars.” In a written text, traditionally footnotes are used to create intertextuality – a footnote establishes credibility by making a link to the texts written by experts. The most intertextual form of communication that exists today is the World Wide Web, which consists of a huge number of documents linked to other documents through hypertext.

War Propaganda

Hugh Rank offers a set of guidelines for analysing war propaganda, another genre of political rhetoric. He writes: “Words are weapons in warfare. Words affect how people think about themselves and about others. War is probably the time of the greatest language manipulation, when people are most likely to deceive others, least able to negotiate, and are under the most intense emotional stress — of fear and anger — with the greatest dangers of loss, death, and destruction.”

Rank points out that some types of war propaganda target the domestic audience, with the aims of uniting the country, building morale, silencing opposition, inciting action, and channelling energy. Other types of war propaganda are aimed at the enemy, with the intention to terrorise or demoralise. With modern means of mass communication, messages can be ensured to reach a huge audience, worldwide. War propaganda has the risk of getting out of control, and inciting more hatred than originally intended. The basic techniques used for war propaganda are to intensify your own good points and downplay the enemy’s good points, and to downplay your own weaknesses while intensifying those of the enemy. As we have seen repeatedly in the last century, the enemy is demonised, while the “good guys” are portrayed as the protectors of the free world.

To learn more about techniques of war propaganda, visit Hugh Rank’s page War Propaganda.



Professor Peter Serracino Inglott, former rector at the University of Malta and lecturer in philosophy, suggests that humour may be a useful rhetorical technique for diplomats. He proposes that a new type of joke, which he refers to as the “serious joke,” may aid the diplomatic practice of the 21st century, inspiring creative approaches to problem solving through new perspectives and shifting frames of reference.

Inglott writes: “…jokes are the paradigmatic example of language. …the most singular aspect of language – namely its creativity – is most manifest in wit and humour – in jokes.” A joke is a powerful tool because

it shows things in a new perspective, it shifts frames of reference and places things in a new gestalt. As Edward de Bono puts it, it causes perceptions and conceptions which were set up in one pattern to be reconfigured into another different pattern. That is its inbuilt goal…It takes you to an apparently unreasonable point from which the main road along which you have been travelling does not appear to be the only one. A joke is the best device to get you on the side track from where you can see that there are other ways of getting about than just the contraries forward or backward, or right and left. Joking involves glimpsing the improbable and using upside down logic.

Inglott compares jokes to arguments, pointing out that joking may be a more productive technique in diplomacy:

The structure of an argument is the confrontation of contraries aimed at making a choice between opposite ways. A serious joke, on the other hand, is a provocation to both parties displaying the possibility of adapting an as yet unexplored angle of approach. It aims not at the victory or defeat of either side, not a compromise, which means some sacrifice by both sides, not consensus, which is only agreement at the low level of the highest common ground, but at a situation where something is gained by both sides. Serious joking is the prime tool of the mediator who does not conceive of his role as neutral or passive, but as a promoter of win-win conclusions. (“To Joke or Not to Joke: A Diplomatic Dilemma in the Age of Internet,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Historical Analogies

Historical analogies are a rhetorical device frequently used by politicians and diplomats to strengthen their arguments or to persuade the public of their views. Drazen Pehar explains why this type of rhetoric can be so effective:

First, historical analogising is an essential part of national narrative and national identity. Nations tend to group around their most central and deeply rooted memories. Over time many of those memories acquire the status of lasting symbols that nations use to describe their contemporary concerns or fears as well…they help people symbolically transcend the limitations of time and space… 

The second function, which is directly linked to the aforementioned one, is the function of identity maintenance. Historical rhetoric not only provides nations with the sense of worldly immortality; a surrogate of religion, but also with an answer to the question “Who are we?” Historical rhetoric explains the lasting origins of a nation…When a president says that the nation must look to its past for a vision and inspiration to guide its present choice, he actually says that if applied to the present, models from the past will help the nation maintain its spirit and sense of specific identity… 

A third function of historical analogy is simply to provide a sense of cognitive orientation in international affairs. The future is always open and undetermined, and the number of international actors and the complexity of their relations are too high to give a straight clue about future developments… [Historical analogies] indicate a direction for actions in this world, which would otherwise remain too complex to allow for an intellectual grasp. Historical analogy simply projects an image of past developments into the future and thus makes the future cognitively manageable… 

Finally, historical analogies could be used as a kind of anti-depressant; a colourful imagery which neutralises a boring and non-dramatic kind of political reality. Historical analogies make international relations intriguing, interesting, worth watching and participating in, which without such a drama-producing imagery would not be the case… (“Historical Rhetoric and Diplomacy,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Positiveness Rhetorics

Dr Francisco Gomes de Matos of Federal University of Pernambuco, Recife, Brazil, examines diplomatic communication and proposes applying his “pedagogy of positiveness” as a means to improve diplomatic communication. He provides a checklist of suggestions for the pedagogy of positiveness, which includes pointers such as:

  • Emphasise “what to say” constructively. Avoid “what not to say”.
  • Communicate national and international values constructively. 
  • Learn to identify and to avoid potentially aggressive, insensitive, offensive, destructive uses of languages. Do your best to offset dehumanising ways of communication, often the outcome of human communicative fallibility.
  • Think of the language you use as a peace-building, peace-making, peace-promoting force. 
  • Handle differences of opinion in a constructive way. Remember that “negative talk” tends to predominate or often dominate in face-to-face diplomatic interactions.
  • Try to see and describe both sides of an issue. Challenge yourself to make balanced (rather than biased) statements. Don’t be a polemicist. 
  • Conflict can be managed to some extent, and so can language use, especially if you adopt a constructive perspective, for expressing your attitudes, beliefs, and emotions…Educate yourself in identifying “positivisers” in spoken and written texts in your field and challenge yourself to make increasing use of such constructive, human-dignifying adjectives, verbs, and nouns.

Matos believes that “communicating well diplomatically means communicating for the well being of diplomatic interlocutors and, more broadly, for the well-being of humankind.” For more on his pedagogy of positiveness read “Applying the Pedagogy of Positiveness to Diplomatic Communication” (Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001).

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