Narrative Control

Last week, I found myself listening to a live press briefing related to the Ukrainian situation. It was led by Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor to POTUS (video here).


Mr. Sullivan’s rhetoric was masterful. He controlled his narrative in an exemplary fashion, with messages delivered with surgical precision. He brought the audience’s questions back to his strict agenda. He avoided the traps set by the journalists, preventing them from putting a single word in his mouth. It was admirable.


In a 4th century BCE treatise, Aristotle defined ‘rhetoric’ as ‘the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever.’ He identified three variables influencing a speech’s delivery: ‘The first depends upon the moral character of the speaker, the second upon putting the hearer into a certain frame of mind, the third upon the speech itself, in so far as it proves or seems to prove.’


These variables are referred to as rhetorical appeals: ethos, an appeal to credibility (Sullivan: ‘So I think when you take all of that together, we put forward a credible case’); pathos, an appeal to emotion (‘It is an urgent message because we are in an urgent situation’); and logos, an appeal to logic (‘We have to think about the range of scenarios that we confront, and it’s our job to be ready for all of them.’)


More tactically, there are many rhetorical devices that can be used to hammer home a message. Some noteworthy examples used by Mr. Sullivan include a schesis onomaton, a series of words or sentences of similar meaning: ‘We are trying to stop a war, to prevent a war, to avert a war;’ an antanaclasis, where the same word is used in a sentence with a different meaning: ‘Everything I have just said is well-grounded in [what we] are seeing on the ground;’ and the anaphora, when a sequence of words is repeated at the beginnings of neighboring clauses: ’The reason I’m up here talking in the way I am […], the reason we are taking the various actions we’re taking, the reason the President convened our closest Allies […] is because we believe [President Putin] very well may give the final go order.’


Mr. Sullivan also regularly uses a tricolon, defined as a group of three similar words or sentences (two examples above). It conveys a specific point through repeated punches.


Finally, he shows a fondness for negative-positive restatements: ‘We are not saying that a decision has been taken […]. What we are saying is that […].’ Or ‘I’m not going to get into the specifics of intelligence information. What I am going to say […].’ This contrast draws attention to the right messages while preventing listeners from taking away the wrong ones.


Aristotle presented rhetoric as an art. Last Friday, Mr. Sullivan showed its virtue. Credibility, emotions, logic: a 2,400-years-old technique to control narratives. Infallibly.


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