/I tried this free online Harvard course on how to be persuasive, and every writer should take it

I tried this free online Harvard course on how to be persuasive, and every writer should take it


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Settling into pandemic lockdown over a year ago, I looked up online classes to help pass the time. Rhetoric: The Art of Persuasive Writing and Public Speaking, a Harvard-led online edX course, seemed like a free, entertaining way to sharpen my writing skills.

What I didn’t expect was for it to fundamentally change how I structure arguments, communicate with people I fervently disagree with, and even consume the news.

Using a combination of pre-taped live Harvard lecture videos, quizzes, hands-on annotation exercises, and short US history lessons, this course walks you through the art of rhetoric, contextualizing why well-crafted arguments can drive huge political change. On a smaller scale, these skills can help you calmly defend your point at the dinner table or advocate for a cause you believe in.

The course is completely free to audit for about a month — otherwise, it costs $169 to add a verified certificate of completion to your LinkedIn profile and get unlimited access to the class.

5 things I loved about the course:

It clearly breaks down different tools you can use to build a persuasive argument.

The course begins by providing thorough definitions and examples of rhetorical devices used in famous speeches and works of literature. You learn the main differences between logical, ethical, and emotional arguments before diving into tools that can make your arguments flow better, pick up momentum, or add emphasis on key points.

harvard edx rhetoric course



edX/Harvard


You also get quizzed on what you just learned, which helps you practice actually identifying these devices at work (on top of just getting quick, digestible examples of effective rhetoric).

harvard edx rhetoric course



edX/Harvard


It’s a great way to boost your appreciation for writing as an art form — and realize the lasting power of a well-stated point.

It helps you write a short opinion piece along the way.

The one big assignment of the course is identifying a topic you feel strongly about and channeling it into an op-ed. (This assignment is completely optional if you’re taking the free version and worth 45% of your grade if you’re doing the paid-certificate route.)

harvard edx rhetoric course



edX/Harvard


For one, it’s a great exercise in sitting down and pinpointing an issue you care about — perhaps one you didn’t even realize mattered to you that much. Mine was advocating for job applications to stop requiring cover letters, which take a long time, are often left unread, and can demoralize already burned out job seekers, all the while not necessarily being the most effective way to evaluate a great candidate.

As you continue learning, you can update your piece with new information and rhetorical devices to make it stronger.

It gives you hands-on practice in dissecting some of the most impactful political speeches in history.

harvard edx rhetoric course

A Harvard instructor’s comments on MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

edX/Harvard


One of the coolest parts of the course is getting to annotate famous orations, from former presidents like JFK and Ronald Reagan to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. You can highlight parts of the speech to write which rhetorical device you think is being used and what it accomplishes in doing. You can also see notes from your peers as well as the instructor.

harvard edx rhetoric course



edX/Harvard


Additionally, you can watch recorded classroom lectures led by James Engell, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard. The videos further break down the impact of various parts of the speeches as well as their broader historical contexts.

It directly reveals the dangers of emotionally charged, slippery slope arguments.

A theme the course keeps stressing is that “rhetoric has inspired people to do great things, and terrible things” — that logical fallacies, ad hominem attacks, straw man arguments, and leading questions can be used to manipulate audiences in malicious ways.

harvard edx rhetoric course



edX/Harvard


One direct example is Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist screed, which preyed on fear and baseless accusations. The danger being that, if one was already prone to agreeing with McCarthy and couldn’t identify the holes in his argument, they could easily be swayed to side with him — which is what happened during the Red Scare. 

harvard edx rhetoric course



edX/Harvard


But, you learn that just as rhetoric can be used to do “terrible things,” it can also help reverse those dangerous effects. The course tells the story of Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican senator who made an impassioned stance in favor of free speech and freedom to one’s own political views. The move predictably earned her the nickname “Moscow Maggie” from McCarthy – but ultimately helped undo some of the damage of McCarthyism.

It normalizes good-faith disagreement.

According to the course’s introduction, it “offers a space in which to engage in civil discourse” and “encourage[s] you to be passionate about your opinions, while at the same time respecting those whose beliefs may differ from yours.”

harvard edx rhetoric course



edX/Harvard


As someone who can’t resist the pernicious siren call of my Twitter feed every morning, I feel constantly disheartened by the way I see users defend issues — whether I personally agree with them or not. I’ve seen name-calling and sweeping generalizations rapidly snowball into targeted harassment across the political spectrum — and remember times years ago when I would participate in pile-ons, too. This style of “argument” isn’t limited to social media platforms — it’s bled into and dominates everything from cable news to interpersonal relationships

Which is why this felt like a groundbreaking course to me: It’s not suggesting that you duck out of tough conversations à la bothsidesism. Instead, it equips you with the tools to build your case — while also honestly questioning dubious or biased spots in your own thinking. Doing so helps you strengthen your own talking points, identify fallacies in others, and diplomatically draw people to your point of view. In a time of unprecedented polarization, thoughtful, well-researched arguments couldn’t be more radical.

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