Years ago, Heinrichs’ mother played a prank on his father. She convinced him to go to a party dressed in a bathing suit, fins, and a snorkel. The prank wasn’t too clever, but Heinrichs’ mother played pranks so rarely that her husband trusted her. Her prank illustrates the Greek concept of kairos—the perfect instant in which to persuade. Kairos is an important concept in many professions—over the course of their careers, people learn to recognize the right time for action.
One of the most important aspects of practical wisdom, one could argue, is the ability to recognize the right time for action. Rhetoricians must learn how to read their audiences and determine exactly when they are ready to hear an important point, or when it will be most effective.
Josef Stalin was one of history’s greatest masters of kairos. As a young man, he would remain silent during meetings, and then weigh in at the very end, effectively settling whatever argument his peers had been having. He did this so skillfully and so frequently that he trained his peers to think of him as the “decider” of all disputes.
As Heinrichs has said again and again in this book, there’s no rule stating that rhetoric has to be a force for good; totalitarian dictators like Josef Stalin can also use the techniques he discusses to manipulate people.
“When an audience’s mood or beliefs are on the move,” Heinrichs argues, “you have a persuasive moment.” There are occasional moments of uncertainty or doubt during any speech, when the audience begins to question some of its assumptions. For example, say that a group of college administrators are trying to decide what foods to serve in the dining halls. Some of the professors turn the meeting into an argument about cultural sensitivity. Here, a good rhetorician might wait for the other members to argue more and more, until, exhausted, they reach a lull in the discussion. At this point, the rhetorician can say something like, “Here’s what I’m hearing,” thereby giving themselves control over the situation. Now, it’s easier for the rhetorician to sway the group, using logos, ethos, and pathos.
One common theme in this chapter is the importance of waiting. Good rhetoricians know not to make their most convincing points too early on; instead, they wait for the perfect moment, when their audience is most receptive to them. Heinrichs’s description of kairos emphasizes the idea that good, well thought-out ideas aren’t always enough for persuasion: persuasive entails a host of presentational techniques, wrapping a good argument in a form tailor-made for a specific audience and situation.
Another way to measure the kairos is to frame that moment in terms of pathos, not logos (i.e., the mood of the room, not the structure of the arguments). Imagine that Heinrichs wants an iPad. Instead of broaching the subject while his wife is doing the bills, he waits for kairos. He fixes her a nice meal and then makes his iPad “pitch.” When he makes his pitch, he’s sure to focus on the future tense, rather than focusing on the present-tense details (such as the bills).
Heinrichs waits until his wife is in the right mood to listen to a “pitch” for an iPad; in other words, the moment when she’s feeling generous, mellow, and receptive to new ideas. By waiting for the perfect moment, Heinrichs maximizes his persuasiveness.
Some of the greatest rhetoricians can turn their ethos liabilities into major assets. For instance, after being arrested and imprisoned, Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to turn jail into a sign of his martyr status. Similarly, after being elected president in 1992, Bill Clinton made a speech to Democrats in New Hampshire—a state where he’d been defeated in the primaries—and praised them for their loyalty. In both cases, Clinton and King were able to spot the perfect kairos—the time to turn a defeat into a victory.
Clinton and King’s rhetorical maneuvers could be interpreted as good examples of recognizing kairos: both King and Clinton knew that the tides had turned suddenly, and that the public was now ready to listen to an original, charismatic leader. Heinrichs’ idea here also echoes the concept of a “tipping point,” most often associated with the books of Malcolm Gladwell.