2 min read

What we can learn about influence by studying rhetoric

Many of my friends graduated from college with degrees they don’t use when they do their jobs. When I was deciding what to major in, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do to make money. The one thing I knew is I wanted to study something I could use no matter what career path I took.

After a bit of searching, I ended up choosing to major in communication studies. I’ve had a ton of different kinds of jobs, at a wide variety of companies. At every stop, I’ve used things I learned in my communication classes all the time.

Studying communication is what brings me to Bill and Ted.

When Bill and Ted visited with Socrates they were visiting the infancy of the systematic study of communication. Direct democracy made public speaking a requirement in Ancient Greece. If you wanted to pass a law, you had to convince people to vote for it. When you were accused of committing a crime, you were expected to defend yourself.

It’s not a coincidence we see people begin to theorize about the best tools to persuade each other, either to change their point of view or continuing supporting a certain point of view.

This new field of study was called rhetoric, or the ability to influence. It’s easy to think of rhetoric as just being the study of public speaking. When we hear the term used today, it’s usually being thrown out as a pejorative. If "drop the rhetoric" was the phrase that paid, I'd be a very rich man.

Classically, rhetoric is really the study of influence.

Influence is natural, but when you think about it you probably think of a pushy sales process. You know, the aggressive guy at the perfume kiosk in the mall who thinks he's got the perfect scent for you. Have you ever pretended to have a conversation, just to avoid that perfume pitch? The guy could interrupt you, but when he sees you engrossed in a conversation he chooses to try and sell to someone else.

That's influence, and we do little things like this all the time.Influence includes speeches, one-on-one conversations, but extends even when we communicate without saying a word. You put your earbuds in when you hop on a bus, or carefully pick out what you wear to a job interview.

For a time, the average person’s sphere of influence was rather small: family, friends from your town, friends from work, your boss. This made it easy to know the best way to influence the people in your life. When it’s time to ask your dad for the keys
to his car, you know exactly how to approach him.

These patterns made it easy to spend our time developing other skills.

Over the last twenty years the world has expanded. Our governments may no longer be direct democracies, but if you’re active on the Internet you are participating in an attention democracy where people vote with their time.

In this larger world it pays to strip away all the shiny packaging around how we influence each other and go straight to the theories of rhetoric to help us understand how we can better influence our friends, neighbors, and strangers around the world.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve shared a few posts with random stories, but I want to create a more focused approach to what I’m writing here. With this in mind, my plan is to dig in to the study of influence. We’ll start with the classical theories and move our way forward from there.

Time to prep our time traveling phone booth and get the time circuits warmed up!