3: Persuasive genres
When analysing a persuasive text we need to look for features that the writer uses to get his or her point across, or to influence (persuade) the readers. Two typical persuasive texts are the editorial and the speech, both of which will make liberal use of rhetorical tools (see table below).
In a way, editorials are like brief written speeches delivered in the same section of a newspaper each day. Editorials are relatively short; they state a case, make a few points and then summarise by pointing out a need or calling for some sort of action. The text below is an editorial from the New York Times:
The Obama administration is pushing the Federal Communications Commission to make it easier for consumers to “unlock” their cellphones and tablet computers once their wireless contracts are completed. The F.C.C. should do so quickly.
Most cellphones and some tablet computers sold with a wireless plan are locked so that they can be used only with the carriers that sold the devices. The locks ensure that users fulfill the two- or three-year contracts they sign in exchange for getting the devices free or at a discount.
Consumers who try to unlock their devices on their own face a fine of up to $500,000 and up to five years in jail under a 2012 interpretation of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act by the United States Copyright Office. Wireless companies claim they will unlock phones for customers who have fulfilled their contracts, but some force users to wait days to get a response or require that customers produce the original sales receipts on the devices. In some cases, the companies just never follow through.
There’s clearly a need for regulations that streamline this process. Ideally, wireless companies should unlock all phones automatically once users fulfill their contracts, without the consumers having to do anything.
- The New York Times, 26 Sept. 2013
The language is quite formal, with relatively high lexical density and a tone of authority. In the first paragraph the case is stated and the editor’s point of view is also made very clear with the use of the auxiliary verb “should” which suggests duty or obligation. The adverb “quickly” states that this is an urgent matter. The next two paragraphs state facts in the case in a neutral tone even though the extent of possible punishment for breaking this consumer contract is five years in jail! The final paragraph then comes with a strong demand where the editor states his standpoint on the issue using an adverb to underline its importance (“clearly a need”).
2) Political speech
There are of course many types of speech: after-dinner speeches, valedictory speeches, wedding speeches and so on, and not all will be as persuasive as the political speech. Because the political speech relies heavily on rhetorical devices, it is the most interesting type of speech to look at here.
The aim of the political speech is to get the audience on the speaker’s side of an issue, to persuade them. The speechwriter has many tools, or techniques, at his or her disposal to help persuade the audience, and these techniques can be used in other types of text as well, for example editorials, blogs and personal texts that aim to persuade the reader about something.
If we look at a few lines from the famous "I have a dream" speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. we can see how effective the language he uses is and then try to explain the effect:
“I too have a dream. A dream where all men are with dignity and decency. A dream where we are all equal. A dream where we look upon each other with respect.”
(See pp. 405–409 in Access to English: Social Studies to get the speech in full.)
Here the effect is created by using short sentences that grasp the audience’s attention. The repetitive style (repeat of “a dream”) draws our attention to the importance of the dream and by repeating it so often King is trying to convince us of the possibility of the dream being realized. King uses the personal pronoun “we” and refers to “each other” as a way of including both blacks and whites in his vision and in this way he indirectly defines the dream and defies the racial lines that were drawn between blacks and whites at the time when the speech was first delivered. When he says “where we are all equal”, the use of the personal pronoun is inclusive. This makes the idea of equality seem to be an obvious truth and easy to accept. In choosing his language carefully King is subtly challenging the dominant view on race of his time.
King uses alliteration to highlight what is important: “dignity and decency”. It is said that the human brain responds better to things in threes, and this text lives by that golden rule by repeating “a dream” at the start of three sentences in a row.
The noun “dream” is a metaphor for justice and equality as it reminds the people listening to King that the basic foundation of American democracy was still only a dream for many of the country’s inhabitants.
In the list below are a few of the terms used for rhetorical devices typical to speeches and editorials.
Quoting directly from another known source, for example the Bible or another famous speech (“I have a dream…”). Or referring to such a work.
The repetition of a consonant sound in two or more neighbouring words. For example: “dignity and decency”, “a desperate decade of decline”, “petty pace” and dusty death”.
Explaining what you do NOT want to do, often followed by what you do want to do. For example: “I do not want to wait until everyone is ready – change must come now”.
- False dilemmas
When the speaker offers a limited number of options, while in reality more options are available. For example: “Either we cut the social programs or we live with a huge deficit, and we cannot live with a huge deficit!”
- Hyperbole or overstatement
Extreme exaggeration for effect or to make a point. For example, an advertiser claims: “It doesn’t'’ get any better than this”.
Repeating parts of a sentence within the same sentence for rhetorical effect. For example: “If anyone wonders why you should leave your sofa, why you should go to the polling station and why you should vote …”
Repeating words, phrases, lines, or stanzas, or an entire sentence to suggest order, or add special meaning to a text. For example: “Where are the banks now? Where is their money now? Where is their generosity now?”
- Rhetorical question
A statement formulated as a question which does not require an answer. For example: “Are those the values that made our country great?” or when the speaker poses a question and answers it him or herself (also called hypophora) “What is the solution? The solution is to create more jobs!”
- Varied sentence length
Contrasting sentences of different length to emphasize a point in the shorter sentence. For example: “You need a man who is the hardest working man you will ever meet, with a dedication towards his work like no one else you will ever know. Tom is just such a man.”
Expressing an idea as less important than it actually is. “But we don’t care about health care [pause]. Or do we?”
A comparison of two things to make things clearer or more expressive. The metaphor is considered stronger than the simile. The simile uses like or as. For example: metaphor “the curtain of night”; simile “the night was a dark as a sorcerer’s hat.”
The advertisement is perhaps the most typical persuasive genre as the aim of any advertisement is to sell something: a product, an idea, a cause, a political party and so on. A related genre is the sales speech.
3a Product advertisement
An advertisement that is selling a product will normally aim for a light, upbeat tone. The language will be fairly simple with lots of positive adverbs and adjectives and pronouns will be used to make the text inclusive (much use of you and we). Emotive words will be used liberally (adore, excite, thrill, delight, care…) and the ad will probably try to be trendy. Both language and style are part of the persuasive nature of the ad.
Here is a very simple but effective advertisement.
The first thing you notice is the picture of the car, it is almost racing off the page right at you. Second, there are not many words in the advertisement. The most prominent space is given to a picture of the car itself, showing that Audi is very proud of its roadster, it is almost a question of who needs words for such a beautiful car. The vehicle is silver grey which makes it blend in with the sky and the road, which appears to be streaked with snow or ice. This adds a sense of movement and speed to the picture. The two large black frames with text above and below the picture help to push the vehicle even more into the foreground.
The text is simple. It is in the imperative form, telling you to test drive the car. Again this exudes pride and confidence in the car. Without saying it, the ad suggests that if you test drive it, you will love it. However, the most prominent feature of the text is the use of the personal pronoun “your” which suggests the car is yours, it has been made just for you. This underlines the car manufacturer’s confidence that you will love the car, test it once and it is yours, in your heart at least.
3b Political advertisement
The advertisement above is one of the many artistic and very effective Amnesty International ads. The text is instructive; the main focus is the picture. The man in the picture is dressed like a prisoner and the text tells us he is indeed a political prisoner held for his beliefs. The picture makes him appear to be squashed inside the ad, pressed up against the glass. The background is just a dirty wall and the prisoner is dirty and bloody. The colours used are dark to suggest a cell with no or little light. All the dark colours add to the feeling of depression and squalor that is this prisoner’s life.
The text is written on an unfolded piece of brown wrapping paper and has been randomly taped to the poster as if suggesting an Amnesty International activist has taped a declaration of sympathy with the prisoner on the prison wall. Once the picture has grabbed your attention your eyes move up to read the text, which is a simple statement that appears to be objective and truthful, and thus authoritative, informing us that this type of scene is repeated for thousands of political prisoners every day. They are “held prisoner for their beliefs”. This is then followed by the call to action using the imperative command: write. This is a call to join in one of Amnesty International’s famous and often successful write-in campaigns. The prepositional phrase “until you free them all” is deliberately optimistic. Amnesty International’s aim is to save all political prisoners. The use of the personal pronoun “you” in the phrase makes it sound like you alone can make a difference. The picture and the text together make an effective appeal to get you involved in this worthy cause.
4) Personal persuasive text
In Course 2 we looked at an example from this textbook (two paragraphs on page 118) and remarked that it was objective, neutral and informative. Let us look at the first paragraph of that text again and assume that the author was not so professional and had another, more personal agenda. The text in bold has been added:
The great and sympathetic Obama administration inherited the worst economic crisis ever; an economy in deep recession, two unpopular and seemingly endless wars, and an America bitterly divided between cynical and mean-spirited Republicans and nation-building liberal Democrats. For the first two years of the administration, the Democrats thankfully controlled both houses of Congress. This allowed our dear Obama to follow a more liberal political agenda in which government was made more active, the way it should be. The most significant legislation the Democrats passed was the enlightened and fantastic federal program extending health care to about 31 million people who had lacked coverage. The greedy and uncaring Republicans deeply opposed this on the grounds that 1) the private sector could provide better health care, yeah right 2) it would increase spending and therefore taxes and 3) a government should not have power over individuals’ private health care choices. They vowed to stop what they referred to as “Obamacare” and received help in this from the even worse, and more evil Tea Party movement, a nefarious conservative movement which sprang up after Obama’s election.
As you can see, the objective author has been replaced by a sympathetic, presumably liberal Democrat. While the author may truly believe what he writes, he has turned the paragraph into a personal text in which he tries to persuade us to have a positive view on Obama, mostly by speaking negatively about the Republicans and over-praising Obama. We can see this already in the first paragraph when “an economy in deep recession” has become “worst economic crisis ever”. When the paragraph loses it objectivity like this, we lose our trust in the information it provides. Even though the same information is given; the personal opinion in this version of the text has totally undermined its credibility. The text has been “personalised” by adding adjectives (Obama’s legislation is “enlightened”, “fantastic”, Republicans are “greedy”, “uncaring”, the Tea Party is “evil”, “nefarious”), but the author also inserts himself into the text, using the first-person pronoun and sentence tags with opinions (“the way it should be”, “yeah right”).
This text could still function in e.g. a personal blog for like-minded people, but it has lost its credibility as a neutral source of information and has no place in an objective source such as a school textbook, nor for that matter in an expository or analytical article or essay.
Determine the genre of each of the texts below. Write one or two paragraphs for each text in which you give reasons for your choices using examples from the texts.
a) The puffin is a picture of innocence and a picture of the global warming threat. Do we want to see the end of this bird? No, we must protect it. Do we want to lose the special variety of life that nature has given us? No, we want bio-diversity. The question is therefore, do we need biodiversity? And the answer is: of course we do! Our lives depend on it! Join me in the campaign to save the puffins.
b) Puffin tour is the only tour of its kind. Come to beautiful Iceland and breathe the fresh air. Relax in the cool comfort of Iceland’s Star One Hotel before embarking on the trip of a lifetime. We’ll take you to the heart of puffin colonies to see these unique birds in their own environment. We guarantee it; this is the chance of a liftetime!
c) The Center for Global Affairs
This institution located at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies facilitates vital change by educating and inspiring our community to become dedicated global citizens capable of identifying and implementing solutions to pressing global challenges. We firmly believe that the development of solutions to global problems must be informed by an understanding that the world’s challenges are not merely challenges for and among states, but challenges for and among states and non-state actors; urban and rural communities; regional organizations as well as traditional diplomatic outlets. Through rigorous graduate and non-degree programs and public events we prepare global citizens who will be at home – and thus be effective agents of change – in all of these environments.
d) Accurately measuring time is of course the very essence of high-end watchmaking. Even more challenging, however, is to precisely divide seconds into the smallest possible fractions by means of a chronograph function. From the beginning, TAG Heuer has pioneered utmost precision and ever pushed limits of accuracy beyond conventional frontiers, making it today the undisputed master of every tiny fraction of time, 1/10th, 1/100th, 1/1,000th and 1/10,000th of a second.
The text below is a personal text in the form of an online commentary on a political topic. Rewrite the text so that it becomes an expository text. Write a paragraph in which you explain what you have done to make the text expository rather than personal.
The extremist Republicans who control the House of Representatives have destructively shamed the United States by introducing government via extortion to the American political canon.
In their blind, who-gives-a-damn zeal to be rid of Obamacare — an end they haven’t the power to achieve legitimately — the GOP fanatics bargained with the essence of the country’s federal functions, the employment of 800,000 of their fellow citizens and the state of the struggling national economy.
House Speaker John Boehner and the Tea Party band took all of that hostage, offering deals that were no deals at all: Bow to us on this, that or the other Obamacare provision and we will keep Uncle Sam in business. This wasn’t the art of compromise. It was political criminality.
Write a text in which you analyse the following extracts from famous speeches and discuss how effective they are. Use terminology from the list of rhetorical devices given above.
a) Winston Churchill World War II speech:
"Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty –never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy." Winston Churchill
b) More from a Winston Churchill World War II speech:
“… we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
c) Extracts from the "Gettysburg Address" by Abraham Lincoln.
“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground.”
“[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
d) Extract from the speech in which King George VI informs the British nation that they are at war.
“In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.
For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war.
Over and over again, we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies, but it has been in vain.”
In groups, find examples of product ads or political ads in English-language media. Analyse the advertisements and determine how successful each ad is, giving examples of visual effects and language features in your answer.