wDo you understand, carrots? Or do you see the bacon? This is the question Tabitha Brown asks at the beginning of her video in which he instructs his followers in alchemy or turns carrots into bacon. Seems like a meaningless question. See a pencil or a zebra? Clothespins or the moon? A cement truck or a bouquet of flowers? Yet, within two minutes, the charming chef had managed to inextricably tie the orange root vegetable with the best cut of pork known to man. Sounds absurd, right? But Tabitha Brown’s message is so effective that she convinced my husband, a busy carnivore, to chop up carrots, apply the recommended seasoning, and roast them, all in the name of vegetable wraps. And how did he accomplish such a marvel? By engaging in the lost art of rhetoric.
The art of rhetoric, or persuasion, is hard to master. Ancient philosophers made rhetoric their life’s work, studying communication, behavior, and response to learn how to convince others that their ideas were right and worth adopting. They created rules and canons, guidelines and categories. They analyzed emotional appeals, sorted out different types of data, and attempted to systematize how people trust, listen, and make choices. Their work became the foundation for the modern study of rhetoric. Since then, various leaders have become students of the art of persuasion.
There is little joy in many of our arguments, yet joy is the most persuasive tool we have when we need to persuade.
Thanks to social media, we tend to think of rhetoric as a shady practice, something politicians use to trick us into cooperating with their selfish schemes. Or perhaps we think of rhetoric as a shouting contest, a contest of loud hyperbole in which speakers beat their chests and shout increasingly extreme slogans, then turn those slogans into clickbait, poorly punctuated headlines. And it is true that there are people who abuse art and use it to take advantage of others. But almost everyone needs this skill at some point, from teenagers wanting to borrow a car, to politicians trying to galvanize votes. Master this art and you will find yourself in possession of a golden key that can open any door.
Tabitha Brown has the golden key. Her warmth, her friendliness, and her general charm are certainly genuine, but they don’t fully account for her persuasiveness. She does not strictly follow the guidelines set by the ancient philosophers. What really convinces Tabitha’s audience is that she doesn’t directly sell anything. She started out posting videos just for fun, but her wit, delicious catchphrases, and obvious passion for delicious food earned her three million followers and the appropriate title of vegan influencer.
RTrue rhetoric – the academic discipline – actually follows a formal structure. The ultimate goal is persuasion, not manipulation, and its hallmark is the premise of respect for a decent and diverse audience. Most people don’t like salespeople and will quickly dismiss a rhetorician who seems manipulative or just too eager.
Without the traditional tools of rhetoric, how is Tabitha so persuasive? How does it attract people to the vegan life without canny sales jargon and high-pressure techniques?
Tabitha really likes food. She makes the vegan lifestyle look easy and, remarkably, fun. She speaks softly, but confidently, demonstrating confidence that her methods will produce good food without exorbitant effort. What interests her is sharing the joy of eating and connecting through a recipe or a shared meal. She is, quite simply, delightful.
AAnd this is what is largely missing from our current rhetorical discourse. We tend to veer into combative emotions: outrage, offense, vengeance, gloating. There is little joy in many of our arguments, yet joy is the most persuasive tool we have when we need to persuade. It’s disarming and enticing, a way to connect instead of defeat. It’s what we need to not only persuade others, but also to invite them to join us.
When we find ourselves in need of the art of persuasion, it is good to adopt certain strategies. Appealing to reason, offering compelling evidence, and presenting a united front of trusted experts will likely convince others. But the most compelling form of rhetoric is pure joy: sharing what we love for pure pleasure.
And that’s how I found myself pleasantly surprised by the smoky taste of a carrot, eerily reminiscent of bacon. The health data or the shame didn’t convince me. Rather the art of persuasion is shared joy, like this, like this.