The Business of Persuasion

June 26, 2024 | Hamilton, ON
Contributed by Izabela Shubair, DeGroote Contributor

It has been more than 2,000 years since Aristotle outlined how to master the art of persuasion. In that time, pretty much everything has changed, including the significance of rhetoric. Our digital world of text messages, social media character limits and competitive business settings has turned persuasive strategy into a fundamental skill — making rhetoric more important than ever.

At DeGroote, Sheena Jary, a postdoctoral fellow in the Office of the Vice Provost, Teaching and Learning, helps students become persuasive communicators. Jary facilitates the Integrated Business and Humanities (IBH) program’s Interpersonal Communication course. It teaches students how forging genuine connections with their audience through effective communication is an understated asset, in and out of the boardroom.

We asked Jary to share her insights on rhetoric and why it is an essential skill for business students to learn.


What is rhetoric, and why is it important for students to develop as a skill?

Rhetoric is a misused term often associated with knavery and manipulation. In fact, it is simply the art of persuasive speech and writing. Sophistry, on the other hand, is the ancient Greek snake oil, meaning that it is language intended to deceive. I think the latter definition is how most people conceive of rhetoric today.

In our highly networked world, language is manipulated and used to deceive people en masse. So, learning rhetoric becomes a means of detecting malicious intent on social media, the news, and any other content. Rhetoric is a tool in the toolbox. It helps students become persuasive communicators, but it also equips them with the critical thinking skills required to debunk misleading information.


Are there specific rhetorical techniques that aspiring business leaders should master?

If students were to master one rhetorical skill, it would be John Searle’s concept of dramaturgy. Dramaturgy is concerned with human interactions, relationships and self-presentation. It uses the analogy of a stage to examine human interactions, likening them to a performance.

Dramaturgy relies heavily on students’ understanding of what their audience wants and needs to hear. Knowledge of dramaturgy helps students respond to their audience in a compelling and engaging manner in real-time, manage real-time feedback, and make changes. If you can tell your audience has become disengaged, it’s time to pivot into a position where you are able to recapture interest. It is preventative damage control.


Could you share examples of how rhetorical strategies are used in business contexts?

One common rhetorical workplace tactic is the art of reframing. The logic is that the leader or manager can respectfully shift the perspectives of their employees by approaching the original problem through a new lens. I should point out that rhetorical strategies also work in tandem with semiology, or the study of signs. One example is nonverbal communication, such as active listening, facial expressions or body language.


In what ways does understanding rhetoric and the power of persuasion enhance effective communication in business settings?

A successful vision for a company is rhetorically effective because it persuades the team to get on board of their own volition. When language is used strategically (rhetorically) in a company’s vision, it is likely to inspire people to work collaboratively and independently. Likewise, when the team is invested in the vision, they do not require hands-on/micro-managers because they already view the vision as something with which they have united.

Another 20th-century rhetorical tactic is the power of unification and division, which is integral to employee buy-in. When people are united in vision, they are likely more committed to the team’s success.


The Interpersonal Communication course culminates in a mock Dragon’s Den competition. How does it feel to see students employ everything they have learned in this context?

It is incredibly rewarding. Teaching rhetoric is not always easy, but my students have such a great attitude towards learning something new.

Last semester, there was definitely one rhetorical device that students loved: apophasis, which is introducing information by denying it. For example, “I would never say that you are short because that would be rude.” It’s a bit of a zinger, and we see it in politics every day.

It is important for students to understand that information can be conveyed in strategic and creative ways. This applies not only to students conveying information but also to students receiving information from others.


Mock Dragon’s Den Competition

Practicing the Art of Persuasion

Do you want to become an effective communicator? These resources will help you get started, no matter your learning style.



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