Like Aristotle or a Team Owner? The Use of Rhetoric As An HR Core Competency

by Michael Haberman on March 11, 2011 · 1 comment


This morning I saw the following headline: Rhetoric Rises, clock ticks down on NFL talks. Many of you may have seen a similar story. Don’t worry I am not going to talk about football or even union tactics (though their use of decertification as a negotiating tactic might be interesting). I actually want to talk about rhetoric. (Click, there just went half of my readers.)

Ok, for those of you that stayed around here is the story. I looked at that headline and asked myself “What really does rhetoric mean?” My previous definition of rhetoric was a “bunch of empty words”, which actually fits with the headline. However, I have recently read a book that talked about rhetoric in a different manner. So I went to the dictionary and discovered that rhetoric really has several definitions.

    1. The art or study of using language effectively and persuasively.
    2. A treatise or book discussing this art.
  1. Skill in using language effectively and persuasively.
    1. A style of speaking or writing, especially the language of a particular subject: fiery political rhetoric.
    2. Language that is elaborate, pretentious, insincere, or intellectually vacuous: His offers of compromise were mere rhetoric.
  2. Verbal communication; discourse

It is the 3b meaning that describes the headline about the NFL talks. But it is the first definition  that I think is most important to HR, “the art or study of using language effectively and persuasively.” According to Wikipedia on Rhetoric it was included in the course of study for everyone that went to a university up through the 19th century. It was considered important for everyone to be able to speak publicly and to do so persuavively. I think it is time to reestablish this practice, especially for anyone studying human resources.

The ability to address a group of employees, or a group of managers, and to do so with skill and persuasion should be considered core to the competencies of the human resources professional. Points are lost, minds go unchanged, if the speaker is a poor one. Think about it. How many times have you been at a conference to get some education and you walked away remembering only how poor the presentor was? If someone asks you for a referral on a speaker do you ever recommend someone by saying “She had great material, but poor delivery?” Nope… Of course at the same time we do not recommend someone by saying “the delivery was great, but the information was worthless.” There does have to be a balance.

Since few academic programs teach “the art and study of speaking effectively” you have to get it on your own. Early on in my career I joined a Toastmasters group. It was a great experience and has served me well. I am not saying I am a great speaker, but I do usually get very good marks for my speaking ability. If you don’t really know about Toastmasters I recommend you check them out by clicking the link above. It will serve you well. It will be a great career move for you. The ability to speak well gets you noticed and promoted.

An additional note: Another group that could use this type of training are attorneys. I have seen some horrible presentations done by attorneys.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Wally Bock March 11, 2011 at 10:46 am

If you’re a boss part of your job is communicating and you need to do it well because so many things depend on it. If you give directions effectively, your team members will have an idea of what you want them to do. If you make effective proposals, you increase your influence. The list goes on and on. When I hired management trainees for a company years ago, I favored those with degrees in subjects like sociology and anthropology. They needed to master analysis, including statistical analysis, reach conclusions and express them in writing. They’re all important; critical thinking, marshalling arguments, expressing them orally and in writing. You can add active listening, communicating in specific media and similar skills, too. The bottom line is that if you can’t communicate, you can’t lead. Period. End of discussion. Game over.

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