I don’t like books on rhetoric, generally.
There are too damned many of them, for one thing.
University of Richmond rhetoric prof Jerry Tarver donated his collection of “Elocution, Rhetoric and Oratory Ephemera” to Ohio State University some years ago. Its size is described in cubic feet–16.7, to be exact–filling 43 boxes. That’s 125 liquid gallons, of rhetoric books.
Do we need one more? (That’s a rhetorical question.)
Yes, says British speechwriter Guy Doza, who recently published a book titled, How to Apologize for Killing a Cat: Rhetoric and the Art of Persuasion (Canbury, 2022), to help laypeople know how rhetoric works. Why? “This book is designed to help you become more award of the role that rhetoric plays in the world around us: the good, the bad and the ugly,” Doza writes in the introduction. “And, with a certain amount of caution, you will be prepared to use it yourself while simultaneously being conscious of how it might be used against you, whether for morality or manipulation, money or malice.”
Doza shares this communication-democratization cause with a number of other prominent British scribes, including Simon Lancaster, who gave a TEDx Talk a few years ago, revealing “the secret language of leadership,” and expressing his wish to share with the masses the rhetorical training that “a powerful, privileged few” few learn at elite universities. The goal? To “give every child on the planet a chance to become a leader.”
If any one text could conceivably fulfill that heady mission, it would be Doza’s warm, friendly, witty, and learned little book. It’s not an easy read as much as it’s a fun chat, with a fellow who has been collecting apt examples of how rhetoric works (and how it fails) like some kind of egg-headed squirrel, for many years. He’s just bursting to show you his collection.
Aside from rhetorical references ranging from the classics to pop culture, Doza frequently gets you with meta remarks, as when he concludes a section about the power of praising an audience, “But of course, you know that already. I feel exceptionally honored to be writing for such an esteemed and eager reader. You are amazing!”
As is this book, for its ability to maintain a light tone while laying down some really heavy communication wisdom. And for its ability to show how people use rhetoric not just in grand public pronouncements but in the most intimate daily situations. (Such as in apologizing for the accidental killing of a neighbor’s cat.)
Now: Do I expect it to see Doza’s book in the hands of Welsh coal-miners’ children? Unfortunately no, though the young lasses and lads would love it—as would any English-speaking, liberal arts-minded young high school or college student, anywhere.
You know who I do expect to see reading it? Speechwriters, and for many years to come: New ones, to learn the techniques within; and veterans, to learn the names of the techniques they’ve been using their whole career (and to delight in the author’s breezy elucidation of their sophisticated craft).
And so ultimately, Doza’s book will have the effect of making the rhetorically rich rhetorically richer. But because of the good intentions of its author, one hopes this book will also make its readers appreciate the power they have to use words for ill or good, and encourage them to bring maximum integrity and care to the crucial task. “Rhetoric has been used to start and end wars, win hearts, and change the world in ways beyond our imagining,” Doza writes.
And I reckon that’s why there are so many books about it.
This is one of the best I’ve read in a long while.