After leaving school I studied theatre and music and went on to work for several years as an opera singer in the UK and abroad. Soon after gaining a good understanding of how the theatre business works, I started producing my own shows and transitioned from performing to stage directing. It was then, when directing historical operas, that I discovered the art of rhetoric which was to become my fascination for years to come.
But what is rhetoric? And why is it relevant to the business world today?
Aristotle—for some the father of rhetoric—defined it as ‘the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever’. The foundations of this art of persuasion were first set out in ancient Greece and Rome and have been developing ever since. It is based in centuries of systematic observation of human nature and it has been distilled into a clearly defined framework of rhetorical devices aimed at exerting influence. A system extremely compatible with marketing, both in terms of principle and implementation. From the three fundamental strategies of ethos, pathos and logos—respectively appealing to the credibility of the company, the emotions of its customers, and their reasoning—to a plethora of more intricate techniques that can come into play to fine-tune a company’s pitch and brand identity.
Enthralled by the sheer power of rhetoric I decided to investigate the subject on a deeper level. Rhetorical gesture became the focus of many years of research, spanning my graduate studies at Cambridge, a fellowship at Harvard and my doctoral studies here at Oxford. During the current academic year, while writing up my doctoral thesis, I am also teaching historical stagecraft and the principles of rhetoric at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Spending my life between stage directing and uncovering techniques of visual persuasion in historical treatises, in a dialogue between research and experimentation, theory informs practice and vice versa.
The answer to ‘why is rhetoric relevant to the business world today’ did not become apparent from the start and it was revealed to me completely unexpectedly some years into my work. At first, having absorbed through my research many rhetorical techniques, I found myself making subconscious use of them when I was leading design and marketing teams to produce posters, flyers, websites and social media campaigns for my shows, creating names and logos for my theatre companies, and devising strategies to gain and retain new audiences. This tickled my interest in marketing, and when I came across an advertisement for a marketing internship at Enterprising Oxford two years ago, I decided to try my hand at it.
Very soon into the internship it became clear how relevant to marketing my past experience was. And I don’t only speak of rhetoric: performing and directing—which are all about telling stories, moving people and creating a strong emotional imprint—also came into play when devising marketing strategies. Working at Enterprising Oxford was not only at lot of fun, but also revealed to me the applicability of rhetoric in marketing today, making me want to explore this area further. I went on to do two more marketing internships, two student consultancy projects, and I then launched the Oxford Advertising and Marketing Society of which I served as the president. In order to get a more international commercial awareness I also attended a summer business programme at Shanghai Jiao Tong, one of China’s top business universities.
One of the programme’s branding professors took an interest in my research on rhetoric and invited me to speak at one of his EMBA classes. The conversation with a group of Chinese CEOs that followed my lecture was eye-opening, confirming the extent to which the power of this ancient craft is pertinent to business and its ability to transcend borders, with the potential of transforming branding and marketing strategies. One of the questions that came up regarded the possibility to harmonically unite rhetoric’s ancient powers with a rapidly changing, technology-driven business landscape. The greatest and most exciting challenge would be indeed to create a method that can join the forces of rhetoric and data analysis and harness their combined power. And this became my quest.
Not long after my return from China I spent more time reading and thinking about this, until I brought together a core team with an aim to build a marketing agency with a unique approach which integrates the latest cutting-edge technology with the compelling power of rhetoric. My two partners are Panos, an engineer and data scientist, and Marie, an artist, designer and web developer. Throughout second half of 2018 we have been working on developing a model that will attempt to solve problems facing businesses today: the latest data-analysis methods would offer an in-depth understanding of the problem at hand, while an artistic approach based on rhetorical techniques would create strong and elegant results.
We are now at the stage where we would like to work with real-life businesses to prove our concept and gain invaluable experience which will allow us to fine-tune our approach. Ideally, over the next few months, we would like to work with a small number of Oxford-based start-ups, offering them consultation on marketing strategy and branding free of charge. We hope that this will allow us to demonstrate the value of our offering, build a knowledge base and start assembling a portfolio—crucial first steps that we would like to take before launching our marketing agency. I hope some of you will join us in this exciting journey!
Have you been persuaded by rhetoric?
If you would like to be one of the companies to work with us in our pilot please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with a brief introduction of your company and the marketing or branding project that you have in mind. Our aim is to select a small but diverse set of projects to work on free of charge, so we can test our innovative approach.
Dionysios Kyropoulos is a stage director and researcher, with a professional interest in advertising and marketing. He is a Professor of Historical Stagecraft at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and a doctoral student at the University of Oxford. You can find more about him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or his website.