On Effective Communication and the Importance of Classical Rhetoric

…Yet while technology has greatly enhanced group and collaborative work – the bare essential people skills, the art of oral communication should not be overlooked. Librarians are educators. We must be capable of painting a portrait of the complex systems we curate,  to prepare professional presentations, to bring new personnel onto a project, to assertively participate in a group environment and be  productive and faithful teammates. This is true now more than ever, as group collaboration has shifted from mere good practice to a professional necessity given the breadth of our services and allied professions. How to communicate well orally is another matter.

I fall back upon old forms while considering the new. Many undergraduate liberal arts degrees require a study in communications. This style of instruction, to which I have been a part of, is often business centered. Issues center on group theory, dynamics, group manipulation, and coherent/effective transfer of information, contrasting against the various factors of noise, distance, time and medium. All well and good, but such instruction is fixated on professional rather than holistic ends; the goal is to do one’s professional job in a uniform and often stifling manner which is as expected in western capitalist culture. Personally I find it important to consider such studies as to ground oneself, but to look further back for a normative foundation in communication. While the modern study of communications may often reveal insights into human communication (a particular thing I learned to become wary of from my communication classes is “groupthink”) it is prone to missing the heart of it. The greatest communicators were not businessmen but poets, warriors and philosophers. Aristotle immediately comes to mind as a model of a proper and well versed rhetorician or communicator. In his treatise On Rhetoric Aristotle argues that good rhetoric is based upon three persuasive appeals or “Pillars”:

Ethos: Credibility. You must prove to the audience that you are credible, can be trusted, are of good reputation, good character and authority. Credibility is the foundation for all further communication.

Pathos: Emotional connection. A good argument or communication connects emotionally with the listener. A good communicator does not abuse pathos by manipulating the emotions of the listener, but is able to express genuine empathy.

Logos: Logical argument. A good communication is coherent, contains factual or scientific support and follows a chain of reasoning.

So we see that a good communicator is of “good character,” a critical component missing from most business communication classes. Defining good character is far beyond the scope of this statement, but instead my definition of it can be deduced from my philosophy stated on this portfolio, as well as from my other philosophical writings. Nevertheless, I find it critical that in communication of any kind, the communicator be a genuinely respectable individual who can easily be respected. To this also includes the art of speaking and of being assertive, a mere sophistry if not attended to by ethos. Once good character is established, a communicator must connect to those he speaks to at both the emotional and logical level, using compelling anecdotes and figures to complete the whole of the picture. The “Three Pillars” are critical to being effective at oral and written communication, and they are elements which I study frequently.

I also am partial to the rhetoric of Cicero, whom I have quoted in the introduction to this portfolio. Cicero was perhaps the most skilled and virtuous communicator, and one whom we in the library field should attempt to emulate. Cicero expanded upon Aristotle’s pillars in Rhetorica ad Herennium, positing a six part standard format for argumentation and communication of ideas:

  1. Exordium: The use of pathos (anecdotes, stories, examples) to engage the listener.
  2. Narratio: Statement of the argument.
  3. Divisio: An outline of the argument, including a review of previous concerns, debate and questions.
  4. Confirmatio: Presentation of evidence to support the argument or communication.
  5. Confutatio: A complete treatment of contesting claims and arguments.
  6. Conclusio: A summary of what has been communicated, as well as a statement to importance of what has come before.

While Cicero’s rhetoric was designed for the transmission and consideration of arguments in oratory – they also represent an efficient and universal means to communicate effectively in general. Thinking before speaking, and speaking in a structured and reasoned manner is key to success, both professionally and in life. With a thorough training in the classical way of rhetoric, more contemporary research might be used as a buttress to mature and enrich one’s conceptual philosophy of communication. This synthesis of understanding can then be applied to professional work in library science or elsewhere, as I have mastered and done.

But what is a good rhetorician who does not master logical argumentation and grammar? For this I refer to the Trivium, the three disciplines of logic, rhetoric and grammar which I consider essential not only to good communication but also the rudiments of knowing and wisdom. Developed first in De nuptiis by Martianus Capella, Sister Miriam Joseph was the most staunch modern advocate for an education in these three essentials and defined them as such:

Logic is the art of thinking; grammar, the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.

Logic is concerned with knowledge, grammar with symbol, and rhetoric with communication. But the latter is pointless and groundless without awareness of knowing what is true, and of knowing the shape to which things come: logic and grammar respectively. A study of the Trivium is a study of what is fundamental to human expression and mind, without it one easily becomes confused with complex thought processes and defaults to rote memorization rather than truly excelling in the moment of oratory, to name one of limitless interactions. The Trivium is often neglected in our modern academic curricula: today students groan about philosophy and logic classes, while simultaneously becoming outraged when clever people take advantage of them. The study of etymology and grammar is all but gone, except for linguists and there often not in an educational or philosophical sense. Shame, as these jewels of the classics furnish a mode of communication which is rich, empowering and compelling.

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