Comments on research on persuasive communication

If there is one topic that is central to research on language use and communication, it is persuasive communication. Just look at the website of the VIOT2018 conference held in Groningen, Netherlands, from January 17-19, 2018. Patriotism, humor, typographic language intensification, framing, concrete details, interpersonal communication, narratives, photo-strips, perspective, likeness, frightening messages and threats; a whole bazaar of factors were covered in paper presentations and symposia. The conference was a sampling of the research of language masters and communication experts.

Not only for researchers, but also for CIW professionals outside the university -and of course for students- persuasive communication is an important topic, not only in Groningen, but also elsewhere in the country. And not just in the Netherlands, but worldwide. Understandable, because in our daily lives we are constantly exposed to attempts to persuade, in word, writing and image. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that much research is being done on persuasive language and text.

The bulk of that research is aimed at improving the effectiveness of messages from individuals and agencies dedicated to the individual and collective salvation of people. With what choices of medium, content, structure, and style do we incite readers or viewers to healthier behaviors? Or: what design choice best promotes an attitude that is consistent with stewardship, with dealing with each other and with our world that contributes to sustainability? Important research into current questions that deserves full attention, at conferences, in scientific and professional journals, in training courses and in the public domain.

Precisely because of the importance of persuasion research, it is useful to also look at it from a distance and with critical glasses on your nose. If you take a longer, closer look at how such research is done and what themes it focuses on, then a few questions arise. I deliberately say you, because I invite the readers of this piece to join me in opening two well-used and beautiful handbooks on research into persuasive communication: Persuasive Texts and Persuasion. Both books note that research on persuasive communication has a long history, dating back to classical rhetoric. In Persuasion, it is noted that Aristotle in his Rhetoric rightly stated that the art of persuasion consists in the orator choosing the appropriate means of persuasion in a specific situation. Rhetoric, in other words, is a situated art and skill. In striking contrast to this situatedness is the penchant of the bulk of persuasion researchers for experimental research that takes place in laboratories or -conveniently- lecture halls. Is the modern pursuit of generalizable and generalizable techniques of persuasion really wise and promising? I doubt it.

Rhetoric was traditionally considered a weapon and a shield. In order to be proved right and to win not only heads but also hearts, as an orator you can arm yourself by appealing to logos, ethos and pathos. From these three sources you draw successively arguments that support your point of view, character traits that take your audience for you and instruments with which you can play on the feelings of your audience. However, knowledge of rhetoric can also serve as a shield. With an understanding of rhetorical techniques, you can protect yourself and others from attempts at persuasion. Modern persuasion research has a notable preference for research on the design of persuasive texts. Researchers, teasingly, primarily serve the rhetorical arms industry and are not a shield patron. This gives pause for thought.

Being right or being right? What should count? What are you supposed to be aiming for? And what means of persuasion are permissible? In classical rhetoric, questions like these have traditionally received plenty of attention. In one of his dialogues, Plato had the philosopher Socrates dismiss the rhetorician Gorgias as a sophist and rhetoric as a false art that rather pleases the soul than improves it, just like the cook and the art of cooking that give the stomach what it asks for, but do not offer the body what it needs to be healthy. Today, morality of text design is hardly a theme. Modern persuasion research stands with its back to ethical-philosophical discussions, but inevitably with its feet in the middle of them. High Sammy, look up Sammy, sent Ramses Shaffy. For persuasion researchers, it’s good to look down once in a while, too. Then they can see where they stand.

A broader methodological palette and more attention to shelter and ethics: these, as far as I am concerned, are some of the points that deserve the attention of researchers, professionals and students in the field of linguistics and communication studies.

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