Book Review: You Talking to Me? by Sam Leith
Rhetoric is the strategic use of communication to persuade others. The study of persuasive speech and writing has a history that stretches back beyond we can reliably know, perhaps originating (like so many things) with the ancient Greeks around 2,500 years ago. It has since been an obsession of some of the greatest minds in history, and is a constant influence on all of our lives today. Sam Leith’s recent book, You Talkin’ to Me? takes a fascinating look at the theory and practice of rhetoric as deployed by some of the most well known persuaders of our times.
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Although not the first famous rhetorician, Aristotle, the 4th century BC philosopher (and tutor to Alexander the Great) is widely regarded as the father of the art of rhetoric*. However, despite his lofty reputation, Aristotle didn’t originate the principles of persuasive communication, but rather provided a comprehensive and (still) accessible summary of influential speaking and writing techniques entitled The Art of Rhetoric. It is this ancient guide that provides the inspiration and theoretical framework for Sam Leith’s book.
Don’t assume though, that You Talking’ to Me? is a dusty, academic tome. As the allusion in the title to one of pop culture’s most famous rhetorical questions suggests, this is a book for the intelligent person on the street, not otherworldly dons steeped in the classics. Indeed, although it does set out to provide an understanding of the fundamentals of rhetorical theory as well as a grasp of some of the more common rhetorical terminology, it is really a practical guide for modern living. We, after all, live in a world where rhetoric (be that political speeches, litigation, TV advertisements, or rap videos) is king. In a world so dominated by persuasive, influential language the ability to spot – and step around – the rhetorical mantraps that are slung under our feet in order to deprive us of our better judgement (or hard earned cash) is a vital modern survival skill. So too is the ability to deploy our own rhetoric. Without the ability to influence others through language it’s hard to imagine how we as a species could have progressed beyond the wooden club wielding, wife’s hair dragging phase of our social evolution.
You Talking to Me applies Aristotle’s rhetorical analysis (along with ideas from more recent rhetorical scholars) to the language of some of the great persuaders of the last few hundred years, from Winston Churchill to Martin Luther King – via Homer Simpson. He conducts a series of analyses of famous speeches, helping the reader identify rhetorical archetypes in action, and in the process, to develop a healthy respect for – and distrust of – the wily speechwriters who have had such a significant, yet anonymous role throughout modern history.
You Talkin’ to Me is very skilfully written, and manages to treat a potentially stuffy subject in a way that makes it accessible, informative and useful. It’s also a funny book that doesn’t take itself too seriously – which is no mean feat for one which also isn’t embarrassed about using the original Greek and Latin terms for the rhetorical tricks it describes (all properly explained, of course). All in all this is an excellent introduction to rhetoric for those with an interest in the subject or those who want to sharpen up their awareness of the range of persuasive gambits deployed in our modern, sound bite driven, media infused age. Professional communicators would also enjoy and benefit from reading this book as a stimulating alternative to the numerous more stolid ‘businessy’ perspectives on persuasion and influence currently available.
* Aristotle himself, however, bestowed this title on an even more ancient ancient – Emedocles, who lived a hundred years earlier.
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