How to strike the right note with your audience

One of the first things coming to mind when I think about the bits of rhetoric I had to study when I was in high school, is the so called captatio benevolentiae, which is to say that rhetorical trick aiming at getting your audience's approval through something you may reasonably expect they are going to appreciate. In this post, I'll explain in english what is this concept about.

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For instance, if you are giving a presentation to a board of directors, you may start off enumerating the many virtues and qualities of the company, such as the prestige and strength of their brand, the reliability of their products, their ethically conscious practices, the efficiency of their business model and so on.

A captatio benevolentiae is, in other terms, a contention, a remark, an anecdote, meant to resonate with the values, desires, beliefs, expectations and background knowledge of your audience, so as to make you or your arguments more relatable and your interlocutor more agreeable and inclined to give you and your case a chance.

This practice does not come without perils however! You may come across as exceedingly flattering, obsequious and even servile. Not everyone is elated at the idea of dealing with a fawning adulator after all. Moreover, your listeners may be led to entertain the belief that you are being hypocritical and insincere.

It may be that striking the right note turnes out to be less obvious than what one is inclined to assume at first glance. For example, should you find yourself delivering a speech to a crowd of veterans, what would it be the better approach? Putting on a show of chauvinism and unconditional love to your country or displaying awareness of the harrowing spectacle of war and the consequences on the mental health of those who have partaken to it?

This suggests that what may be considered complimentary by some, may indeed sound inappropriate and even offensive by others. The elderly may be keen on the old good trinity consisting of God, Country and Family, but if you are speaking to university students, you may not necessarily want to place too much emphasis on these values, as younger people are more likely to frown on traditionalism and prize those whose words evince a more progressive mindset.

Though I have used public speaking as my fundamental term of reference here, it goes without saying that the same technique can come in handy in different contexts and raise similar issues as well.

Praising the virtues and assets of a company is thought by many to be a convincing strategy to make all the right noises at a job interview; after all, no one will employ you if they are not persuaded of your enthusiasm and passion.

To an extent, this may apply also to a univeristy exam. If you have ever been a university student, you can't have failed to notice how many illustrious members of the academia pride themselves with their "enlightened" views and theses and they expect their student to refer to them during the exam.

Which is not to say that every professor hankers for the rubber-stamping of their pupils; my case is that even the most balanced teacher can't help but be pleased with seeing their student's education being shaped and steered by their influence. Especially if they are good students.

This last contention, I believe, offers me the opportunity to draw a all-things-considered conclusion over this topic. Whether you are sitting a university exam, a job interview or you are delivering a speech in public, aiming for the benevolence of your audience can do the trick only insomuch as there is some substance behind.

Going to great lengths to glorify your listeners (whether it be a prospective employer, a professor or a crowd) is going to be of no avail if, at the end of the day, we don't have nothing to offer. Thus, very few professors will let you pass their class exclusively out of the pleasure they extract from hearing their ideas flowing out of your lips; you must satisfy them that you have grasped at least the gist of the subject.

The same goes for a job interview: you may be in love with the company who is offering that job your are craving, but if you can't prove that you are up to the job, this won't make much of a difference.

Eventually, I believe flattering a bit our listeners to be a valid strategy as long as we look out for its pitfalls. We should not overkill, lest we appear dishonest and servile; we should make sure we have collected enough information about whom we are addressing before any attempt to sway them, so as not to make a potentially expensive faux pas; we should not forget that a captatio benevolentiae, at the best of times, is nothing more than a buttress for our case and it cannot make up for our lack of arguments, skills or preparation.

I acknowledge there is an elephant in the room here or, as we say in Italy, "un convitato di pietra": what about the moral side of it? Is it morally acceptable to set our views aside or to espouse or pretend to espouse someone else's views just to make it in our life? The answer clearly is in the negative, but you don't have to turn into a moral vacuum successfully to please your audience. Arguably, the mark of the great rhetor is this: always finding one way to accommodate intellectual honesty and persuasiveness.

At the end of the day, practice is the secret.


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A first item of a series of articles where I provide (hopefully) helpful tips about the English grammar. The instant article is about the present perfect and the past simple.Contattare
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