How to Identify Empty Rhetoric

In his blog post How CEOs Can Improve Speeches, Nick Morgan analyzes the opening pargraphs of Obama's state of the union address:

You can tell when rhetoric is empty — and therefore should be cut — because it would never be possible to say the alternative. Could a president begin by insulting the Speaker, 'dissing' a tragically ailing representative, trashing the democratic process, or coming out against jobs? Of course not. Therefore, nothing is being said. Speeches are much more interesting for the audience when they dispense with the polite nothings and get right to the meat.

In other words, could someone substantively disagree with your point? If not, it's probably not a very interesting point.

Once you know a counterpoint exists, understand the logic of the counterpoint — this will help you affirmatively explain your point with clarity and rigor. As I noted in a post a couple years ago, an efficient and reliable way to probe the depths of a person's knowledge of an issue is to ask the person to explain the other side's perspective.

10 comments on “How to Identify Empty Rhetoric
  • That is a nice concise method. In “On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B”, Kerr discusses how the American public rewards politicians with their votes when they speak in terms of “official goals”.

    Official goals are purposefully vague, generalist, and agreeable. While at the same time the voters claim to want campaigners who have “operative goals”, which are clear and specific.

    The vote of course goes to those who speak in official goals before the election and is why why then see those elective officials switch to operative goals type of speech after the election.

    It is a great articulation of why the American voter repeatedly shoots herself in the foot – because they punish those who give them what they want.

  • Somewhat related: I heard somewhere – and I wish I could remember where – that in order to understand something, you must necessarily accept it as true—as in that’s just the way our brains work. Disagreement, then, requires a subsequent process of rejecting the idea you previously accepted as true. And as you’re saying, in order to strongly hold a position, one must go through the process of rejecting counterarguments. That makes sense to me because to do that requires that we first accept the counterarguments as true.

  • Jay Hayley, the famous psychologist, has a really good essay called
    How to Fail at Psychotherapy (or something like that). Point being, if you don’t know how or if it isn’t possible to do a bad job, then you don’t actually do anything.

  • “An efficient and reliable way to probe the depths of a person’s knowledge of an issue is to ask the person to explain the other side’s perspective.”

    Spot on.

  • The fear of losing the rating war if not the electoral base drives most politicians to occupy the center stage even as they are not fully clued into the issue before them…The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it…!!!

  • A better way to determine empty rhetoric identify claim, warrant, and data. See also Stephen Toulim’s model of argument. Certainly, his is ideal and generally not lived up to, but provides guidance to those who want to improve and augment their claims. Its not perfect–but far more grounded than Morgan’s theory.

    Nick Morgan’s argument is also false on its face. Sarah Palin came out against innovation and his invocation of the “Sputnik Moment.”

    Morgans argument also bases its premises on faulty assumptions about the fundamental nature of democracy. The nature of politics is that no one agrees 100% of the time (ie very few votes on the Hill are unanimus). Ultimately, anyone who silenced themselves would in the way Morgan seems to recommend would pre-emptively crush the marketplace of ideas.

  • I’m a professional speechwriter. The rhetoric of presidential speechwriting calls for a certain amount of throat clearing and claiming of the auditory space. The president, the CEO, the boss, have to make certain noises along with their arguments. They’re not just men and women. They also represent their office. What you call “empty” rhetoric is necessary in its way. The public demands it, and officeholders omit it at their peril. Speeches aren’t about giving arguments, information and data. That’s what lectures are for. Speeches are mostly ceremonial affirmations of status and authority.

  • This is important in the realm of economics, as well: Economists often offer unobjectionable qualitative ideas–“Expanding the EITC will lead to an expansion of jobs for those with few skills”–but say nothing about the quantitative–how many new jobs?–or what tradeoffs we’re considering–would the taxpayer be willing to pay $10,000 per job created? $100,000?

  • On the one hand you’re right–but I think only partially so.

    In her interview with Fox the following day, she took issue with the metaphor as a driving vision of policy and she seemed to implicitly take issue with it a a policy item worthy of financial support. If short-term budget constraints trump innovation, that means its not a priority.

    I don’t think she’s anti-innovation, but probably is significantly less for government support for pro-innovation communities and individuals. But arguably that could be the very university communities which are the raw materials for innovation (particularly in the medical area).

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