Notice how I kindly provided a big clue to get you started, since you’ve had so much to think about already. When you wrote the eulogy I did not call attention to the fact that your audience was friends and family, for whom you wrote nonetheless, but here I do remind you that you were to address the jury. This is your signal not to soften the blow of the loss of Mark Smith for your audience, as you did in the eulogy, but to write it big, to write it bold . . . perhaps to the point where you could be accused of exaggeration (in writing aka hyperbole). You must play upon your audience’s heartstrings here, too, of course, but you must balance it with cold, hard, irrefutable facts as per the genre’s demands. How did you begin?
Despite my clue, only some of your peers start their closing arguments as Christopher Traina and Ricardo Ataide did with the requisite and respectful “ladies and gentlemen of the jury” (Traina did admit that both of his parents are attorneys, but it is unlikely he attends any of the closing arguments they might make!). What effect does this address have? It alerts the members of the jury that what follows is directed specifically to them, reminds them of their important role, and helps to establish a rapport between them and the attorney. The closing argument is a good example of how the different rhetorical tools available carry different weight given the rhetorical situation. Although awareness of audience is always hugely important when one goes to write anything, a direct address is not, which we see with the lack thereof in the detective’s and coroner’s reports. They write for an implied audience (as you do in your academic writing), which is more often than not comprised of attorneys and, funnily enough, eventually of judges and juries (which is why their work is ultimately forensic). Furthermore, when it comes time to communicate to the jury how Mark Smith was murdered, the attorney would do best to translate the medical jargon of the coroner’s report into layperson’s terms, or language for people who are not experts; plain, simple diction would prevail over sophisticated jargon in this context. And while the detective’s and the coroner’s reports should be devoid of emotion, just as the eulogy should be saturated with it, the attorney aims to persuade the jury with both objective facts, what Aristotle calls logos, and simmering emotion, what he calls pathos; and lastly, depending on the lawyer, the jury will also likely be persuaded by his/her ethos, or credible character.
Appealing to his jury in first person, Traina states for “what reasons” the “accused” committed the “heinous murder . . . you and I will never know. But I do ask you to do what is right. That is when you go to deliberate, you remember the grieving family. Remember the horrendous photos. Remember the lack of emotion on the accused’s face. You must remember all of these facts, find the defendant guilty, and put him in jail where he will not be a danger to society. I thank you for your time and hope for your diligence in [reaching] your verdict.” Traina charges the jury with the moral duty to do what is right based on the evidence provided while he also beseeches them—in short sentences of parallel form that one can imagine him articulating very slowly and deliberately—to dwell not only on the family’s agony but on the defendant’s lack of remorse. This appeal to emotion (aka pathos) doesn’t alter the facts per se, but it provides a less than neutral lens, a bias, through which the attorney hopes the jury will view them (although in academic writing one is often encouraged to avoid such bias). The tone Traina establishes is one full of urgency and gravity for the case and also of reverence for the jury, whom he thanks at the end and so maintains the rapport he initially established.
You might find that your closing argument reads so much like Traina’s that they can be considered “generic” closing arguments. Or maybe you went the route that Ataide did, which is to highlight the significant points of the investigation as you constructed a summary—a conclusion. Ataide looked a bit at the criminal mind of the defendant who “harbored feelings of despair and hatred for quite some time” before murdering his former professor, all of which are documented “in his emails and Twitter updates.” Ataide concludes his argument by directly reminding the jury that while the professor “will never again teach a class, you have the opportunity to teach the accused, Lucas Brown, a lesson here today. A conviction should be your only choice.” This clever twist on teaching a lesson provides eloquent closure to his argument.
Or perhaps you, like Chelsea Vick, felt mounting drama to be the most persuasive approach. She tells the jury that “the defendant has not only physically stabbed my client Mark Smith; he has stabbed the judicial system. Every entrance wound on my victim’s body is another blow to the system our government runs on.” She, like Traina, conjures up fear with the prospect of returning such a person to the streets, and she, too, “leaves you [the jury] to deliberate whether to send a murderer to jail or to another parking garage.” By making reference to the “system our government runs on,” Vick plays with the sometimes subtle line between the connotation and denotation of words. What a word denotes is its literal definition or what you would find should you look it up in the dictionary, but words have connotations, too, which are the emotional associations, positive or negative, we bring to them. While an apple pie denotes a dessert made of sliced apples and sugar baked in a single or double flour crust, in the United States it can also conjure up positive emotions about home and/or patriotism about country. We imagine apple pies to be lovingly-baked by apron-clad moms who raise citizens who are, well, as the saying goes, “as American as apple pie.” Vick’s comment that the defendant has metaphorically “stabbed the judicial system” in addition to Mark Smith is meant to produce negative connotations beyond the actual murder; she conjures up the looming threat that our entire way of life would be at stake should the jury do anything other than convict the defendant.
If we envision in our minds the passionate delivery of these closing arguments, we might imagine that we have finally come close to the first definition of “rhetoric” that the American Heritage Dictionary online offers us, which is “the art or study of using language effectively and persuasively,” rather than that one-word definition my brave student once proffered. Yes, our attorneys all did perform admirably in their endeavors to persuade the jury with their words, but we find examples of effective rhetoric in all of the writing scenarios we have considered.
Here I offer my definition: rhetoric is what allows you to write (and speak) appropriately for a given situation, one that is determined by the expectations of your audience, implied or acknowledged, whether you are texting, writing a love letter, or bleeding a term paper. When you go to write, you might not always be actively aware of your audience as an audience. You may not even consciously realize that you are enacting certain rhetorical strategies while rejecting others. But each time you write you will find yourself in a rhetorical situation, in other words within a context or genre, that nudges you to choose the right diction or even jargon and to strike the right tone. In this essay,
I put you in three rhetorical situations for which you have no formal training—writing hypothetically as if you were a detective, a coroner, and a lawyer—and you knew what to do, as you did with the eulogy. This shows the extent to which we absorb and internalize our rhetorical tools by watching media, reading books, and participating in our culture. More importantly, you can now see that when I told you at the beginning that you are already in possession of the rhetorical skills necessary for mastering the genre of academic writing and that you need only apply them, I wasn’t just feeding you a bunch of bull.