What you see—carrots? Or do you see bacon?” This is the question Tabitha Brown poses at the beginning of her video in which she instructs her followers in alchemy, or turning carrots into bacon. It seems like a nonsense question. Do you see a pencil or a zebra? Clothespins or the moon? A concrete truck or a bouquet of flowers? And yet, within two minutes, the charming chef managed to inextricably link the orange root vegetable with the finest cut of pork known to man. Seems preposterous, right? But Tabitha Brown’s message is so effective that she convinced my husband—a committed carnivore—to carve up carrots, apply recommended seasoning, and roast them, all in the name of vegetable wraps. And how did she accomplish such a wonder? By engaging in the lost art of rhetoric.
The art of rhetoric, or persuasion, is difficult to master. Ancient philosophers made rhetoric their life’s work, studying communication, behavior, and response to learn how to convince others that their ideas were right and worth adopting. They made rules and canons, guidelines and categories. They analyzed emotional appeals, sorted out different kinds of data, and attempted to systematize how people determine trustworthiness, listen, and make choices. Their work became the foundation for the modern study of rhetoric. Since then, various leaders have made themselves students in the art of persuasion.There is little joy in many of our arguments, and yet, joy is the most compelling tool we have when we need to persuade.
Thanks to social media, we tend to think of rhetoric as a shady practice, something politicians wield to fool us into cooperating with their selfish schemes. Or maybe we think of rhetoric as a shouting match, a contest of loud hyperbole where speakers thump their chest and yell increasingly extreme catchphrases, then turn those slogans into clickbait headlines, badly punctuated. And it’s true that there are people who abuse the art and use it to take advantage of others. But almost everyone finds themselves in need of this skill at some point, from teenagers who want to borrow the car, to politicians attempting to galvanize votes. Master this art, and you find yourself in possession of a golden key that can open any door.
Tabitha Brown has the golden key. Her warmth, friendliness, and general charm is certainly genuine, but it doesn’t fully account for her persuasiveness. She does not strictly follow the guidelines that ancient philosophers laid out. What really sells the audience on Tabitha is that she isn’t directly selling anything. She began posting videos just for fun, but her quick wit, her delightful taglines, and her obvious passion for delicious food has earned her over three million followers—and the fitting title of vegan influencer.
Real rhetoric—the academic discipline—actually follows a formal structure. The end goal is persuasion, not manipulation, and its hallmark is assuming respect for a dignified, diverse audience. Most people don’t like salesmen, and they’ll quickly dismiss a rhetor who seems manipulative, or even just too eager.
Without the traditional tools of rhetoric, how is Tabitha so persuasive? How does she draw people to the vegan life without slick sales jargon and high-pressure techniques?
Tabitha just really, really enjoys food. She makes the vegan lifestyle seem easy, and—remarkably—fun. She speaks quietly, but confidently, demonstrating an assurance that her methods will produce good food without an exorbitant amount of effort. What she is interested in is sharing the joy of eating and connecting through a shared recipe or meal. She is, quite simply, delightful.
And that is what is largely missing from our current rhetorical discourse. We tend to veer toward combative emotions—outrage, offense, vindictiveness, gloating. There is little joy in many of our arguments, and yet, joy is the most compelling tool we have when we need to persuade. It is disarming and enticing, a way to connect instead of defeat. It is what we need to not only persuade others, but also to invite them to join us.
When we find ourselves in need of the art of persuasion, it is a fine thing to adopt certain strategies. Appealing to reason, offering compelling evidence, and presenting a united front of trusted experts will probably persuade others. But the most compelling form of rhetoric is sheer joy—sharing what we love for the sake of pure delight.
And that is how I found myself pleasantly surprised by the smoky taste of a carrot, oddly reminiscent of bacon. I wasn’t convinced by health data or shame. Rather the art of persuasion is shared joy—like so, like that.