Saturday, June 20, 2015

Book Review: You Talking to Me?

You Talking to Me? The Art of Persuasion from Aristotle to Obama
Sam Leith

A witty and well-written introduction to the classical theory of rhetoric, with examples and explanations. The glossary of rhetorical terms is particularly useful.

I don't think You Talking to Me will be of enormous practical use to most readers. It's hard to envision sitting around listening to political sound bites and thinking "By Jove! That was a jolly fine zeugma!" 

It is, however, an enjoyable way of analyzing and describing how a persuasive argument should work. As usual, the people who would most benefit from reading it are the people least likely to do so; we seem, indeed, to have largely given up on the idea of "persuasion" as a part of public discourse, in favor of mere bombast--the sort of thing that's meant to sound good in short bites, so that the people who already agree with you will have something to agree with you on.

American readers should be warned that You Talking to Me? has a substantial quotient of British cultural references, some of which are quite obscure.

Anyone interested in this topic should run out and buy Gary Wills's Lincoln at Gettysburg, if you haven't read it already.


  1. People believe what they want. Very few people can actually be persuaded. I just recently read _Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion_ Something struck me in the book regarding how people will protect themselves from the troublesome consequences of thought. The author and another professor went to a cult-like self help recruiting meeting. They “pointed out precisely where and why the lecturers’ complex argument was contradictory, illogical, and unsupportable." While the lecturers were devastated by the logic, the audience still signed up for the self help. Not only did they understand, but said that when the professor "started talking, I knew I’d better give them my money now, or I’d go home and start thinking about what he said and never sign up.” People want to believe what they want to believe and Logic will often push them further to strengthen that belief.

    1. I read Influence many years ago and was tremendously impressed. I remember lending to people whom I saw falling for some of the tricks detailed in the book. Knowing how susceptible people are to illogic is like having a minor superpower.

      The interesting thing about rhetoric, as described in You Talking to Me?, is that the structure of a persuasive speech is similar or the same regardless of whether the appeal is to logic, or to emotion, or to self-interest. That's not to say that all individual speakers are equally strong regardless of the content! Sam Leith makes the point that Winston Churchill was considered a powerful yet largely ineffectual speaker because he used a particular type of appeal, which was quite out of style ... until it became exactly right, in 1940.