Interaction rhetoric

Language use

Business presentations’ strong focus on “persuading” the audience of something (to buy, to commission, to implement a strategy, etc.) means that the language employed must be persuasive in nature. Rhetoric, the oldest discipline that considers language as a means of speaking effectively, thus remains as relevant as ever as a source of linguistic devices designed to achieve a particular effect. The role of scholars in this context is dialectic. On the one hand, they pass on and disseminate the ideas underlying such devices. On the other, academics provide the basis for challenging them, one example being the Frankfurt school’s “ideal of a communication which involves all rational subjects and is entirely free of domination and error-inducing interest” (Inwood 2005: 312).

The first choice to be made by a presenter is that of style. Their decision will be guided by a number of considerations, among them: established conventions in the particular subject area or discipline (finance, human relations, marketing, etc.), even perhaps in a particular corporate culture; the talk’s primary intention (e.g., to report, to convince, to sell); and the appropriate level of formality. Presenters may decide to comply as strongly as possible with standard linguistic practice (opting in), thus signalling, for instance, a common bond or affiliation. Alternatively, they may prefer to distance themselves from such norms (opting out) in an attempt to suggest originality, the break-up of inflexible structures and innovation (cf. Assmann 1986:127).

Furthermore, certain linguistic characteristics promise better results with a view to understandability, attention, connection with the audience and the like. Recommendations common in style guides can also be found in advice manuals. They, too, plead for concision, both for individual expressions (preferring, say, “usually” to “more often than not” (Carter 2013: 71) and as regards sentence length. They also stress the antithesis between active and passive verb forms. Carter also provides a scale of verbs that express different degrees of evidential force, as well as special advice on handling figures in presentations (pp. 80-84). However, advice such as “Use verbs not nouns” or “Avoid vague expressions or highly subjective adjectives” (Wallwork 2014: 47, 48) tends towards over-generalization (see the discussion of linguistic qualification in Chapter 9, Section 3.6).

The particular requirements associated with giving presentations in a foreign language are the subject of specialist didactic literature, which aims to develop the linguistic resources necessary for “process management” (giving an overview, moving from one slide to the next, transitions between different sections, etc.) and for achieving the overall communicative goal (choosing the most appropriate style, idiomatic means of argumentation and achieving rhetorical effect, explaining visualisations, etc.: see Sections 3.5, 5 and 6). In line with demand, the range of literature is widest for English, and also displays some differentiation. While Grussendorf (2007) remains rather general, Powell (2010) and Wallwork (2014) specifically target the business world. Klarer (2003) also includes a wealth of information on US corporate culture, while Baud and Hillion (2008) focus on scientific presentations.

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