Monday, November 25, 2013

A Modern Day Rhetorician


 The creative style is known for many things, but perhaps the most popular is its heavy use of rhetorical devices.  Jon Acuff, a speaker, author, and blogger, is well acquainted with the creative style.  He also understands quite necessarily that certain tools are required if a successful blog post is to be created.  Acuff writes many blog entries, but the one analyzed for this critique was published on October 28, 2013 and entitled, “The #1 word that kills dreams.” Acuff strategically and skillfully uses multiple rhetorical devices to keep his readers attentive, interested, and to drive home a point that they will not forget anytime soon.
            Jon Acuff is a seasoned writer and inspirational speaker.  He has published four books and is a New York Times bestselling author, as well as speaking at hundreds of colleges, conferences, churches, and companies.  He became popular after his first book and subsequent blog, “Stuff Christians Like.”  Identifying himself as Christian, Acuff believes it is important to find humor in one’s life.
His more recent books relate to motivation, such as his latest entitled, “Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average & Do Work that Matters.”  He has garnered many followers and fans through Twitter (200,000 followers) and his blog, which is read by over 4 million people.  Such a wide net obviously includes a diverse range of people.  There are Christians, people who love satire, people who enjoy his sense of humor, people who feel motivated by his posts, a mix of any of these (since none are exclusive) and infinitely more types of people who would read his blog.  In general, it is safe to assume that whoever is reading Acuff’s blog is looking for an entertaining, memorable, and motivational note-worthy entry.
They are also looking for positive affirmation.  Acuff is not only motivational, but also optimistic.  He is able to lighten a day through his words, while also providing thought-provoking social commentary.  The difference between Acuff’s writing and those of others is that it is not nearly as negative.  He recognizes the problems of the world, as do his readers, but instead of simply complaining about them he provides solutions, or at least provides a way of looking at the world that is not all doom and gloom. 
The majority of the people who read Acuff then, no matter their nationality, religion, or political views, are those who wish to do something to positively change the world.  They recognize there are problems, but they also recognize there is hope.  Additionally, they appreciate that there is always something to laugh about, even if it is at oneself.  With this audience in mind, Acuff uses several rhetorical devices to successfully reach them.
Two of the most frequently used rhetorical devices, and both used by Acuff, are those of metaphor and parenthesis.  A metaphor is referring to something as if it were something else, making an implicit comparison.  In Acuff’s blog he writes, “Fear is a powerful poison but it’s not the most dangerous toxin when it comes to dreaming.”  Acuff makes a comparison between fear and a poison or a toxin.  While many might agree with this metaphor, it is clearly not literal and makes good use of the rhetorical device. 
Acuff uses metaphor with purpose and intention.  He hopes to enliven the imagination of his readers and keep things interesting.  He may be a blogger, but he is also an entertainer.  It is his job to write interesting and entertaining blog posts.  To accomplish this objective he must use metaphors, and similar rhetorical devices, to keep the post exciting and compelling.  Metaphors also help people relate to the writing, and look at the concept from a different perspective, perhaps not associating the two items being compared before.
Parenthesis is the inserting of an aside into the middle of a sentence or string of sentences.  It is a very natural conversational thing to do.  When people are talking they often - at least it seems often - insert an aside into a sentence.  It makes the writing feel much more informal and spoken, instead of stoic and non-relatable.  Acuff uses parenthesis in the following section: “If we said, ‘I will never chase my dream’ the finality of that would shame us into action.  But we don’t, instead we believe the lie of someday. (Steven Pressfield writes brilliantly about this very thing in The War of Art.).”
            Acuff brilliantly combines metaphor with auxesis simultaneously.  He calls the word he keeps referring to a “dragon” and a “demon lurking just outside your door.”  In addition to being metaphor, the use of this language can also be termed auxesis.  Auxesis is when the importance of something is magnified by referring to it with a disproportionate name.  In this case it is referring to the word “someday” as a dragon and demon.  By exaggerating the comparison Acuff draws significant attention to the word, which helps the reader focus.  This tactic is in line with Acuff’s mission of making the reader remember the blog post as much as possible, as well as his other task of keeping the reader entertained and interesting.
            When Acuff asks the questions, “What dragon is this?  What demon lurking just outside your door?” he accomplishes several things.  First, he maintains the curiosity and interest of the reader.  The demographics of the particular reader matter little.  When questions like this are raised most people are thinking to themselves, “Well, what is it?  What IS the dragon?  What IS the demon?  Just tell me already!”  The use of questions stimulates the reader.  It is doubtful that any reader of the blog was wondering what the demon was after Acuff started talking about a special word, but they were most likely curious as to what the word itself was.  In a fashion that is natural and comfortable, Acuff proceeds to immediately answer.  The sentence following the two questions reads, “It’s the word ‘someday.’”
            Asking questions and then proceeding to answer them is the rhetorical device known as hypophora.  As already explained, this device brings about a more conversational flavor while stimulating curiosity and keeping the reader interested.  You may already be noticing a few patterns amongst the rhetorical devices Acuff used.  Most of them directly relate to keeping the audience captivated, entertained, and/or making the writing memorable.
            Repeating the last word or words of a sentence at or near the beginning of the next sentence can help the reader focus by calling attention to that specific word.  By calling attention to a specific word, it is easy for the reader to acknowledge the word as being an important idea - something they should pay attention to and remember.  The reader’s continuity of thought is maintained with the similar words being reused, and the concept is reinforced by this rhetorical tool known as anadiplosis.  Like the previously mentioned devices, Acuff uses anadiplosis to keep his readers focused and following along with the blog.  It is his intention to have his entire blog post read and remembered, and to do that he must help the readers along so they remember the main idea and do not fall off the track.  During his post, his use of anadiplosis can be seen in the following: “It’s the word ‘someday.’ Someday is where most of us store our dreams.”  Clearly, Acuff is emphasizing “someday,” which makes sense since the entire blog post is about “someday.”  After all, it is a demonic dragon or something of similar comparison.
            While Acuff continues to use several other rhetorical devices, the final one that will be analyzed for this critique will be his use of anaphora.  Anaphora is repeating a word or words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses or sentences.  Acuff drives home the idea of “someday” by repeating it over and over: “It’s the word ‘someday.’ Someday is where most of us store our dreams.  Someday I will write a book.  Someday I will start a business.  Someday I will ask her out.  Someday I will let him know how I really feel.  Someday I will go on that trip.”
            While anaphora can be an aggressive device, it certainly grabs the reader’s attention by creating a hammering effect.  Grabbing the reader’s attention is precisely what Acuff is striving for in this blog post.
            Although Acuff uses a wide variety of rhetorical devices during the blog post, once analyzed a few patterns start to appear.  Almost all of the devices he uses help to capture the attention of whoever is reading the blog, and drive home the main idea.  Repetition is key, as is making the post sound like a casual and natural conversation the reader is having with a friend.  This natural and repetitive nature is used for the purpose of making the blog post memorable.  Acuff wants readers to remember his post about “someday.”  To make that happen he must make the post easy to follow along with (conversational) and memorable (repetitive, reinforcing).
            The other obvious pattern that arises through analysis is Acuff’s attempts to make his writing entertaining.  By asking questions and then immediately answering them, exaggerating words and their importance (referring to a word as a dragon/demon), and making eyebrow-raising metaphors Acuff creates a piece of writing that is driven by interest and entertainment.  Acuff may be a blogger who is simply trying to do his part to add good in the world, but in order to remain popular he must write pieces that keep readers’ interest.  He is, in effect, an entertainer.
One may wonder how a blogger is able to so expertly interweave his text with classic rhetoric.  The answer is simple: Acuff is an orator.  Just as the classic rhetoricians honed their skills through oral presentation, Acuff has traveled the country giving speeches to a wide variety of audiences.  To be a successful speaker he has to constantly adapt and change for those he is speaking to, and can easily tell whether he is successful or not since the faces of those he is speaking to say it all.
The devices Acuff has learned while speaking, whether unconscious or not, are used to keep the piece entertaining and informal.  Acuff’s writing would certainly be less entertaining if the devices were not used, and if the creative elements were removed.  Contemplating the use of so many devices in so short a blog causes one to wonder whether these types of devices are necessary for the success of a blog.
In this age of the Internet, social media, and instant gratification it is absolutely necessary to keep the attention of one’s audience.  There are a limitless amount of potential distractions for every reader, so how can Acuff keep them reading his blog instead of others?  He is a story teller.
The way Acuff writes could easily be understood as a transcription of a conversation.  While one reads his words it is easy to imagine sitting across from him at a coffee table or listening to him in an auditorium.  This relaxing, conversational style creates an element of humanness that is often so lacking in the current digital world.
Perhaps the excitement of the digital age is starting to wear off.  Perhaps people are starting to realize there is a deep longing for personal interaction.  Reading Acuff’s blog does not meet these needs.  But his style of conversational writing paired with the ability to feel like a part of the conversation by being able to post comments and share with friends creates an illusion that a dialogue is actually taking place.
            The success of a blog does not depend solely on the use of rhetorical devices or making it sound informal.  The success of a blog is dependent on the ability of making the reader feel human, to make the reader feel connected with other readers and with the world around them.  One way to achieve this humanness is through a heavy use of rhetorical devices that lend themselves to conversational flow.  This type of rhetorical usage comes naturally to trained and gifted orators, and it just so happens that Jon Acuff is a trained and gifted orator.

-M.C. Reynolds

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