Appendix B. How to make a point

On my way home from Norway last June, I had a layover in Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. With hours to kill, jet-lagged out of my mind, I sat in the only comfortable place I could find, a bench next to the United Airlines customer service desk. I couldn’t help but overhear the conversations taking place between irate passengers and the under-siege United Airlines service staff. Annoyed at first by the constant arguing, I soon found these dialogs fascinating. Every two minutes, another drama would play out—downtrodden passengers made their cases for something they didn’t have but wanted: upgrades, better seats, refunds, or meal vouchers. Sometimes they were simply trying, after long hours stuck in the airport, to get home. After hours of encounters, I recognized three ways people made their cases:

  1. United Airlines is wrong.

  2. I am special and deserve a seat.

  3. I am angry, and you should appease me.

If Aristotle were stuck in Dulles with me, after wondering why no one else was wearing a toga, he’d recognize this list. These three approaches fit what he outlined more than 2,000 years ago for how to make a point. Back in the day this was called rhetoric: the ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion. Most people today only know of the most limited use of the word, as in a rhetorical question (a question asked for effect: “Do you think I want to be stuck in Dulles Airport all day?”). But it turns out the Greeks ...

Get Confessions of a Public Speaker now with the O’Reilly learning platform.

O’Reilly members experience books, live events, courses curated by job role, and more from O’Reilly and nearly 200 top publishers.