Orators and Writers

Yesterday I was reading an op-ed in Mint when it struck me was that this particular columnist never argues – in the sense that he never constructs an argument using inductive or deductive logic. His method or argument is to say the same thing over and over again – in different ways, using different metaphors. He hopes to make his point by way of reinforcement, and considering his popularity and his ubiquity across the media, I’m sure it works for a lot of people (though not for me).

Then I started thinking about people who are known to be “great orators”, mostly from the Indian political space. I started thinking about Vajpayee, about Chandrashekhar and several other similar people. I discovered the same thing about them. That they seldom construct an argument using deductive or inductive logic. Their way of getting the point across is the same as the Mint columnist’s – to say the same thing forcefully and in several different ways.

And thinking about it, it seems quite logical. When you are addressing a large audience, you will need to take everyone along. You will need to ensure that everyone is clued in on what you are speaking on. And when you speak, there is no way for the listener to take a step or two back if he/she misses something you said. Unlike text, the speech has to be interpreted in one parse. So if you are to be a great orator, you need to make sure that you take the audience along; that you construct your speech in such a way that even if someone gets distracted for a few words they can join back and appreciate the rest of the speech. Hence you are better off indulging in rhetoric rather than argument.

A writer, on the other hand, has no such compulsions. It is easy for his reader to go back and forth and parse the essay in whatever order he deems fit. As long as he keeps the language simple, the reader is likely to go along with him. On the other hand, if the writer indulges in rhetoric, the reader is likely to get bored and that could be counterproductive. Hence, writers are more into argument than into rhetoric.

Which brings me back to the Mint columnist I was reading yesterday who, as far as I know, has been a prolific writer but not as much as an orator (or maybe he is but I wouldn’t know since he lives abroad). And I’m puzzled that he has settled on a rhetorical style rather than an argumentative style. I’ve happened to meet him and even then he was mostly using rhetoric rather than reasoning in his arguments.

So yeah, the essence is that there are two ways in which you can construct arguments – by logical reasoning which is mostly preferred by writers and by rhetoric which is preferred by orators. I’m not sure how successful you can be if you interchange styles.

2 thoughts on “Orators and Writers”

  1. Very very useful insight. Just when I thought this blog was becoming uninteresting!
    I tend to have a ‘big’ picture understanding of things. Hence, most concepts are abstract in my understanding. Naturally, I like maths and physics. All concepts in my head are kind of interconnected… sometimes it gets so complex that I am useless in ‘putting’ last minute fundaes. When my sister asks me about some formula that she wants to commit to rote memory, I try to derive it for her (area of a conic or even antiderivative of arctan-x for e.g.). While such ‘logical’ understanding is sacrosanct to me, my sister invariably complains about the long time and effort it would take to get fundaes from me. Sometimes, i get so caught-up with logical consistency that i tend to nit-pick statements made by others (in my ideal world, everyone will speak in absolutes… stating the assumptions behind every statement they make).

    As a writer, it is extremely important to communicate in a linear understandable fashion. Its a significant effort for me to produce an article that i am happy with… one that has the right linear narrative (at least local to a paragraph). Even while writing this comment, I have to actively shut out some ‘tangential/non-linear’ thoughts. A useful trick that usually works for me is to force myself to complete the article, and then go over it (iterate till i am satisfied/tired/bored).

    I think anything is only understood as the ‘big’ picture. If you cannot derive the big picture (its not an option for an orator), your best bet is to repeat the big picture rhetorically. A smart orator would do it such that most of his audience take it to mean deductive reasoning. Something akin to me ‘understanding’ that the area of a circle is pi*r*r in 7th grade (i couldnt have derived it then). Various teachers over the years had repeated the formula, and i accepted it. Operationally, that was sufficient for the next 4 years. Of course, when I could derive the formula using calculus, my joy new no bound.

    Thats the reason why I don’t like comments that do not add value (on blogs/facebook). But comments like “awesome” or “so cute” can have effects equivalent to “hear hear hear” in an oration. It can add an emotional component to the topic (picture/post) that is missed by people like me. Logically, its my flaw for missing out on it… i cannot get pissed that things don’t conform to my ideal world.

    I adore your concluding paragraph. There are two styles to construct arguments, each can be handy for different purposes. The communication (oration/written article/..) has a purpose (rallying/propaganda/content discussion), and it might be wise to choose the style based on the purpose.

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