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Persuasive Rhetoric and the Brain

Rhetorical Choices in Multimodal Persuasion

Why are politicians always smiling in political campaign advertisements? Why are adorable babies included in such photographs and photoopportunities? Why do candidates seem to integrate the ugliest photo of their opponent while using black and white for the photo instead of color? Why do advertisers seem to integrate babies in advertisements for products or services that have no relationship to babies, such as in vehicle ads? Why do automobile manufacturers use attractive men, women, and families in their advertisements when they are trying to sell a vehicle? All of these are rhetorical choices marketers make in an effort to persuade the viewer toward certain action. Marketers know that nothing is included or excluded from a commercial accidentally; everything in the commercial or advertisement is there for a reason. Answers to all of these questions are easily found in scholarship related to the neuroscience of persuasion and the rhetoric of persuasion. This book attempts to mix the two sets of scholarship toward a unifying theory of persuasive multimodal rhetoric and practice.

To do this I use a model I introduced in another book, How the Brain Processes Multimodal Technical Instructions, refining that model and advancing its application. The model combined neuroscience scholarship with scholarship about multimodal rhetoric and instructions and cognition. Cognition is generally defined to include perception and understanding of the world as well as learning and comprehension. Persuasion involves one’s perception of a given situation; so, this book considers persuasion relative to an audience’s perception.

Politicians have consultants to help them plan their political messages for the best rhetorical effect. Marketers look for any means by which to persuade an audience toward action, and there is a growing body of research on how certain rhetorical choices affect audiences’ perception, right down to the color of a product or facial expression of a child in the commercial or advertisement. Attorneys who are involved with court proceedings and jury trials also have a body of research upon which to draw to understand who their jury, or audience, is. An attorney must understand as much of the demographic and psychographic makeup of a given jury pool as possible. Many attorneys will encourage clients to settle out of court and avoid trial, because an out-of-court settlement may be more favorable than the outcome of a jury trial on the issue. Attorneys can negotiate a reasonable settlement based on an understanding of the details of the case and the history of outcomes of litigation related to similar cases in the particular county.

One can make a reasonable guess as to the outcome of a trial; but one cannot guarantee the outcome of any trial, because a jury involves so many individuals and their own perceptions of an issue. Even Aristotle labelled rhetoric as an art rather than a science. If something is considered a science one can predict a specific outcome of a combination of materials related to that something; science is consistent, objective, and rational. Two plus two equals four; always and in any condition. If something is an art, one understands that the perception of that something may differ across individuals—as the idiom states, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” As another idiom states, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Rhetoric may be considered an art, but it is influenced by science. While pointing to rhetoric as an art, Aristotle made the connection between rhetoric and biology (Aristotle, translated 1991). A growing body of scholarship in cognitive neuroscience is helping politicians, marketers, and attorneys understand why certain messages and how they are presented affect an audience a certain way. All attempt to use a combination of stimuli to affect an audience’s perception of a message; that is why it is important to consider neuroscientific attributes that are involved in multimodal persuasive messages, which is the goal of this book.

Theories about multimodal composition continue to thrive as technology changes provide more access to various modes of representation for audiences and improved quality. Video is now integrated within websites effortlessly, and improving Internet access speeds make viewing video less arduous than before. While advertisers have been placing video commercials online for some time, many companies are now placing video reports and other multimodal messages online. Simons and Jones (2011) allude to some attributes of a persuasive message that may be multimodal in nature, referring to neural processes involved. Specifically, they consider the roles images can play in affecting an audience’s perception of an object or person, and they encourage integrating the full range of resources and tools humans have to communicate (p. 124).

This book attempts to make the connections between these rhetorical choices and a growing understanding of neuroscience explicit by linking the different disciplinary fields using concepts familiar to both but that are not explicitly stated in the literature. As I indicated in How the Brain Processes Multimodal Technical Instructions (HTB), I do this for two reasons: 1) in an effort to help students and professionals understand these connections better toward encouraging faculty and practitioners across various disciplines, including business, communication, and law, to implement this information to help facilitate learning and application of persuasive rhetoric, especially within multimodal settings such as commercials, videos, oral presentations, and even business or technical proposals that integrate graphics; and 2) to link rhetoric further within the growing STEM education tradition that seems to emphasize science and math education over humanities, thereby showing the relevance of rhetoric in this educational approach as I did in that previous book (Remley, 2015).

In this chapter, I provide an overview of the literature in neuroscience, which I will integrate throughout the book. I also introduce connections between rhetoric and neuroscience, laying a foundation on which to build a model of persuasive rhetoric that integrates elements of neuroscience. Some of this is a review from HTB, but I link it to persuasive rhetoric instead of instruction and learning.

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