Preaching to the Unconverted: Rhetoric and Mistrust in the Digital Age

How can we use language to persuade people? This is a question that anyone working in public communications faces on a daily basis. But implied in the word persuasion is the word trust. It is difficult to persuade people when they do not trust you. It is clear that we live in an age of mistrust. Politicians are not persuading their citizens to vote for them, or to support their cause. We are just preaching to the converted. Our rhetoric often fails accomplish its most basic task – to persuade people.

It seems obvious that the technological revolution is fundamentally changing the way we communicate. And that is because technology is changing our notions of power.  We are moving from the old hierarchical structure of nation-states where public discourse was the privilege of the few, to a networked world, where public discourse is open to all. In her article How to Succeed in a Networked World, Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter describes this networked world as being like

… a map of the world at night, with the lit-up bursts of cities and the dark swaths of wilderness. Those corridors of light mark roads, cars, houses, and offices; they mark the networks of human relationships, where families and workers and travelers come together. That is the web view. It is a map not of separation, marking off boundaries of sovereign power, but of connection.

This means that people’s relationship to power is fundamentally changing. What Professor Slaughter calls the ‘distinctive logic of networks’ is that they are participatory and transparent, and that they ‘encourage self-organization’. People no longer put their trust in the old power structures, or in the people who represent them. This is a world where power is situated in connection, rather than status. It is not that the powerful are becoming less powerful, but rather that networks are opening up different kinds of power to citizens.

This shift in power has fundamental implications for our use of rhetoric. And the truth is, even if we realise we are living in a networked world, we are failing to appreciate the implications of this shift. Citizens do not trust the rhetoric of those in power because their language does not reflect the reality of the networked world in which we live. Those in power understand that we live in a digital age. That can hardly be avoided. And they understand that public distrust is at an all-time high. But their remedies are shockingly unfit for purpose. They stick to the same old rules, or use cheap tricks such as soundbites or repeated bland sentences. ‘Strong and stable leadership’ anyone?

In this new networked power structure, we need to approach our relationship to those we are seeking to persuade in an entirely new way. This is the rhetoric of building networks, of making connections. Our language should be persuading people to work with us, not for us. Professor Slaughter calls for the integration of ‘statecraft with web craft, the art of designing, building and managing networks’. Our speeches can be a part of this new world, but we must change.

First, let’s recognise that we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Intelligent rhetoric – language used to persuade – still has its place in the networked world. When President Trump flouts every convention of public discourse and seems to get away with it, we can become disheartened. Or even worse, seek to play by his rules. But this is the wrong approach. We do not need to treat those we are seeking to persuade as the lowest common denominator. In fact, many would argue that our current rhetoric does just that. Instead, we need to hold fast to our desire for intelligent discourse and treat people with the respect they deserve. By formulating bold and sincere arguments that seek to connect with people, we can gain their trust.

How can those in power use rhetoric to show they can be trusted? A good place to start is to see what’s already worked. President Obama was the first leader to understand the implications of this new networked world. He is, of course, known for being an exceptional public speaker. At his best, his speeches used rhetorical tools to connect with people on a level rarely seen in politics. Take his famous concession speech from the 2008 New Hampshire Primary. This speech uses many of the traditional tools of rhetoric: rule-of-three, repetition, alliteration. But he also speaks in a deeply personal and specific way. Referring to Martin Luther King, ‘the King who took us to the Mountaintop’, is both deeply personal and highly rhetorical. And when he says ‘we’ve been asked to pause for a reality check’, he states his high ambitions in the simplest terms. He gains peoples’ trust not by throwing all the tools of rhetoric away, but by using them in a way that shows he is human and part of the struggle, not above it. Remember he was in a vulnerable position when he gave this speech, having just lost the New Hampshire primary. But even in defeat, he is gaining voters’ trust by showing he is part of a network, not a distant politician. It is no coincidence that he started out as a community organiser. He understands that to persuade people to your cause, to gain their trust, you have to be part of their network.


One of the fundamental features of this networked world is transparency. It is often said that people crave authenticity in their leaders, and that this is why they trust seemingly untrustworthy leaders, like President Trump. ‘He seems authentic’, goes the argument, ‘he seems like one of us’. He seems to be part of their network. I think ‘authentic’ is the wrong word. It implies that people crave emotion over intellect and truth. And also, there is more than a faint whiff of snobbery about this. ‘They’ll believe anything he says’, ‘they’re not interested in the truth’. The truth is that we have failed our citizens, because we have failed to communicate with them.

A better word, I think, is sincerity. Unlike authenticity, sincerity implies both emotion and reason. It implies wholeness, honesty and genuineness. Wholeness does not imply emotion without reason, but rather an appreciation that successful communication is a mixture of both of these things.  It is not a dumbing down of public discourse, but rather a more wholesome appreciation for our argument and its limitations.

Sincerity is powerful because it connects with people. Citizens do not want to see the “whole person”, but they do want to see a sincere and truthful leader. We need to give up the language of bland public discourse. People do not trust it. Instead of saying ‘this is a difficult situation’, say ‘this is frustrating and heartbreaking’ – but only if it is. Using emotion does not mean giving up intelligent argument; rather it is a way of showing that you are human, that you feel and care about the same things. And also, I believe, that you trust your citizens. Showing your humanity does not decrease your power; in our networked world, it enhances it. It does not mean appearing less intelligent or less powerful; it means showing that you sincerely believe in something. That’s real power. It means connecting with your citizens in new ways: being part of public discourse, not above or trying to lead from the front. You are part of a network now.

Those in power must acknowledge that they are part of the argument, not above it.  As Tom Fletcher writes in The Naked Diplomat‘it’s anarchy out there. You have to earn the credibility and the trust to keep it interesting’. Our rhetoric should reflect this. We should be persuading people to collaborate with us, rather than to follow our lead: asking for feedback, being part of the conversation. Our speeches form part of an argument that includes everyone, both on- and offline. A single speech is no longer the last word.

Accepting and acknowledging your limitations doesn’t make you look weak. People appreciate honesty more than we realise or give them credit for. Saying that you have all the answers will not gain peoples’ trust. When you accept the limitations of your argument, or of your power, it shows that you understand this new networked world. It strengthens your argument because people want to participate in the challenge. This is not the same as saying ‘this is going to be hard but I can do it’. It is saying ‘this is going to be hard and I need your help because I cannot do this alone’. It is saying that you haven’t got all the answers.

In this networked world, it is tempting to try and be all things to all people. Yes, your speech can be tweeted round the word in a second. Yes, the world is becoming a global village. But if you accept that you are only part of the argument, then you have the freedom use your rhetoric in a far more personal way. Think of Obama at the New Hampshire Primary, trying to gain the trust of millions of voters. His deeply personal language gained peoples’ trust because they were specific to him. No other candidate could have used his language. By using deeply personal rhetoric, he connected with people wholly unlike himself. In the old hierarchies, those in power felt they had to represent something bigger that themselves, that people would trust them if they seemed like them, and their rhetoric reflected that. That is no longer true. In this networked world, people trust those who sincerely want to connect with them, whether they are similar to them or not.

Professor Slaughter writes ‘the essential fault line in the digital age is … between open and closed’. If we are to regain peoples’ trust in this networked world, our rhetoric must be more open and sincere, rather than closed and cold.  These are uncomfortable ideas for many in power. Giving up the old hierarchies of power and rhetoric will not be easy. But if we fail to accept these changes, if we fail to regain peoples’ trust, there will always be those who are willing to take our place in these networks.  As Professor Slaughter writes, governments will ‘have more power than ever before, but borders and walls, whether physical or digital, cannot ultimately contain the power of a connected citizenry’.

In writing this piece, I should of course accept and acknowledge the limitations of my argument. Hanging over all of this talk of connected and sincere rhetoric is the spectre of President Trump. The success of his rhetoric (and I believe we must call it that) does not fit neatly into this argument for sincere and connected public discourse. It troubles me, because his rhetoric is failing people even as it gains their trust. I’m not sure what the answer is, or if there even is one. I think perhaps we will only see the full implications of his use of rhetoric as his term in office goes on, or when we have distance from the events of the past eighteen months and can look back with the benefit of hindsight and distance. That isn’t an answer, but I will continue to think and write about the implications of this anomaly in the future. 

I realise this post has included a lot of background argument and little in the way of practical advice about using rhetoric in the networked world. I’m going to explore this in future posts and also continue exploring the nature of the relationship between language, networks and connection in the digital age. We’ve only just scratched the surface.



One comment

  1. […] is, therefore, an intensely diplomatic speech. In a recent post, I wrote about the need for a new rhetoric for the networked age. That modern rhetoric must balance […]


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