Rhetoric for Engineers

Today I’m going to talk about rhetoric, a.k.a. the “art of persuasion”.  If you’re an engineer/programmer, this is probably something you don’t normally think about; in fact the very idea of the subject may leave a nasty taste in your mouth.  If so, then you are exactly the kind of engineer I’m talking to.

Whether you like it or not, the art of persuasion affects you.  It affects interaction with your peers, it affects the lasting impression your work has on others, it affects your career growth (especially if you’re thinking about leadership or management at all in your future), all kinds of stuff.  So it’s worth talking about.

Now I’m not going to sit here and go into long tutorials about the Western philosophy of rhetoric, diving into logos, ethos, and pathos and all of that.  From an engineering point of view, all of those issues are “implementation details”; you can read about them at your leisure.  Instead, my goal here is to get you interested in the subject in the first place, and that starts with learning to respect the subject.

Respect for rhetoric doesn’t come lightly to many engineers.  It’s usually seen as the domain of salespeople, marketing, and lawyers, all groups that engineers usually barely tolerate and sometimes outright despise.  There is a philosophical chasm that needs to be crossed in order for these two sides to see eye to eye, but it can be crossed.

To set the stage, I’m going to bring up a little book by Neal Stephenson called “Anathem“.