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“How to Have a Conversation” by John McDermott


“How to Have a Conversation” is a masterpiece article by John McDermott, and it appeared in “Financial Times” on March 10, 2012. The author explores how the art of having a good conversation has evolved with time especially in modern times where people prefer to interact through social media as opposed to having face-to-face talks. People are increasingly looking for ways to improve their conversation skills, and thus they join classes and groups in the quest to gain that elusive skill of becoming accomplished schmoozers. However, McDermott (2012) laments that even learning institutions do not understand the process of becoming an excellent conversationalist. He gives an example where he enrolled in The School of Life, which is a self-help academy co-founded by Alain de Botton. The author specifically signed for a session titled, “How to have a conversation”, because he wanted to better his skills in this area and perhaps match the eloquence and mastery of poet Samuel Coleridge.

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At the end of the session, the author realized that he is “wrong to think of conversation primarily as a performance art, mastered by the likes of Coleridge and Hitchens. Indeed, conversation needn’t be anything. It needn’t have a purpose” (McDermott, 2012, para. 24). The conversation is about human connection – the very act of learning, listening and talking. It is about strong and meaningful relationships. It does not require to be dressed in intellectual costumes neither does it demand mastery of literature. This paper discusses how McDermott uses ethos, pathos, and logos as rhetorical devices when writing this compelling article.


Ethos is a rhetorical device used by speakers to establish their credibility and authority in the subject matter of their speech or writings (Wróbel, 2015). In the article, McDermott employs ethos to appeal to the audience by choosing an appropriate language, sounding unbiased, and using the right grammar and syntax. Additionally, the author introduces his personal experiences in the quest to understand what it takes to become an outstanding conversationalist.

Throughout the paper, the author highlights his personal experiences, and thus some parts of the article are written in the first person as a way of using ethos. McDermott waits until the fourth paragraph to introduce his experience, he does so masterfully, which is one of the captivating aspects of this story. He says, “And so I found myself one cold Tuesday evening in February talking to complete strangers, nibbling on vegetable quiche and sipping blackcurrant cordial” (McDermott, 2012, para. 4). He chooses his words carefully, which leaves the audience curious to know what happens thereafter. He immediately asserts his credibility and authority on the matter by stating that he joined a class to study how to have a conversation. The author proceeds to describe his interaction with other classmates and the tutor in detail by deliberately picking on items peripheral to the conversation, such as shelves on the wall, which is a technique for using ethos.

McDermott inserts personal anecdotes throughout the article to show that he identifies with the contemporary challenges of having a fruitful conversation, hence asserting his credibility on the topic. Similarly, he does not simply mention the name of the characters involved. Instead, he describes what they were wearing. He does not only repeat what they said, but he also indicates how they said it. He is also quick to admit that his understanding of being an outstanding schmoozer is twisted. He says, “My idea of a good conversationalist was an erudite entertainer. I had ambitions of learning how to host a good table. I had imagined finding out how to emulate Christopher Hitchens, quoting Yeats and quaffing scotch” (McDermott, 2012, para. 10). This aspect shows that he is unbiased, and thus he could be trusted to give an objective opinion about the topic. Ultimately, this careful application of ethos compels the reader to continue interacting with the contents of the article.


Pathos is a technique used to appeal to the audiences’ feelings and arouse their emotions towards the desired end. It involves the use of motivational or vivid language by employing literary stylistic devices, such as metaphors and similes among other related techniques (Wróbel, 2015). McDermott uses metaphors throughout the paper to conceptualize his ideas, which makes the article captivating. To describe an excellent conventionalist, he says, “None of my new friends said they wanted to be a raconteur in the Coleridge or the Hitchens mold” (McDermott, 2012, para. 10). In order to clarify what he meant in that sentence, he uses “the Hitchens mold” because the audience can understand it better. When describing the classroom, he says, “They faced a white wall that had been attacked by black paint, which had left behind a monochromatic mural” (McDermott, 2012, para. 11). This augmentation of metaphorical language in his writing creates interest, and the audience is enthralled. In this case, metaphors highlight the speaker’s experiences by first capturing the readers’ attention before elucidating the quality and nature of underlying emotions.


Logos is the logic behind a claim and facts, statistics, or citing of different authorities on the subject matter could be used as part of this rhetorical device. The use of historical and literal analogies is also part of logos. McDermott uses logos by citing prominent figures on the subject of having conversations. For instance, he quotes George Orwell by highlighting his fears concerning how technology would affect personal communication. The author also references Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, who are the protagonists in the famous Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. He continues to talk about Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. To assert his knowledge on the topic, he says, “I happen to have a copy of Reader’s Digest’s How to Write and Speak Better from 1991” (McDermott, 2012, para. 14). The extensive referencing of authoritative historical figures, such as George Orwell, Dale Carnegie, and Jane Austen, convinces the audience of what the speaker is talking about through logic and reason.

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McDermott wrote the article “How to Have a Conversation” to highlight the challenges that people encounter when trying to master this skill. The use of rhetorical devices in this article is not just for aesthetic purposes. He applies ethos to create credibility about his authority to talk about the topic. He also uses metaphors extensively throughout the paper as part of pathos to break the monotony and make the work rich and relatable to the audience. The concept of logos is applied by quoting respectable historical figures, whose works continue to be used as reference points when talking about the topic of conversation. The use of these rhetorical devices establishes McDermott as a versatile writer.


McDermott, J. (2012). How to have a conversation. Financial Times. Web.

Wróbel, S. (2015). Logos, ethos, pathos: Classical rhetoric revisited. Polish Sociological Review, 191, 401-421.

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