I’m spending four months with the global brand team at eBay. I was joking the first time I called myself the "rhetorician in residence." Now it feels less like a joke and more like a title.
False Starts, Fast Moves
My Experience Institute year got off to a rocky start. A promising apprenticeship opportunity fell through just as the details were getting settled. A series of rejections left me feeling exhausted and discouraged. I was having some great conversations, but they weren’t going anywhere. The weeks went by as I watched other members of my cohort land exciting gigs, I became convinced that my own professional background was just too weird to be appealing to a potential host company. A PhD in the obscure field of rhetorical studies, years of teaching in an unusual interdisciplinary college program, no significant work experience outside of academia.
In conversations with potential employers, I found myself increasingly downplaying my specific area of expertise, positioning myself instead as a capable generalist who happens to have some writing and research skills. One senior executive I spoke with told me flat out: if your academic research doesn’t involve ethnographic field research or quantitative analysis of great big data sets, and it doesn’t create predictive models, no one in business wants to hear about it. I guess it wasn’t immediately obvious to him how the ability to analyze television shows from the 90s using theories influenced by Aristotle, Marx, and Freud would help the bottom line.
Things changed very quickly when I started talking with Karl. Karl Isaac leads the global brand team at eBay. He knew a little about Ei, and was interested in having a fellow join his team. I was skeptical that such a big corporation like eBay would just let me swoop in for a few months. And even if we got through the corporate red tape, there was the small matter of relocating from Chicago to San Francisco. But Karl and I clicked, and things started moving fast. I ignored my inner skeptic and booked a one-way plane ticket even though I was still pretty sure the whole thing would fall apart.
But it came together. And fast. Final paperwork got signed on a Friday, while I was in Chicago watching the Cubs parade through town celebrating their historic World Series win. Monday I flew across the country, set to stay with friends while I looked for an apartment. Tuesday was my first day of work, and also happened to be election day. Thursday was my birthday. By Friday I’d found an apartment. And by Saturday I was truly beat. But I was living in San Francisco, working on one of the most well known tech brands in the world.
“So, about that degree in Rhetoric…?”
What most surprised me about that first call with Karl was that he brought up the whole “PhD in rhetoric” thing, that obscure and highly theoretical academic specialization I’d been trying to cover over. It was exactly the thing he wanted to talk about. He knew a little about the subject and some key concepts in the field, and was interested in learning more. He had a sense that a rhetorician might have some tools that could help his team.
When I got to eBay, I found out he wasn’t kidding. I spent most of that first week in day-long work sessions, helping develop a strategy presentation that Karl would be sharing with eBay’s CEO. There were four of us working on the project, two of us holding PhDs in rhetoric — me, and a consulting strategist who, using ideas borrowed from Aristotle, has built a career for himself advising tech companies on their branding and communications.
I was surprised how easy it was for me to jump right in. But we were doing some of the very same exercises I’d done with my students. We were breaking down messages, mapping out ways to turn messages into arguments, and actually using some terms straight from classical rhetorical theory. I can talk about ethos, pathos, and logos all day, and that’s exactly what we did.
What Have I been Doing?
- Contributing to brand strategy discussions.
- Writing & research for brand thought leadership.
- Mining consumer insights data for rhetorical resources to use in brand messaging.
- Providing feedback on creative work developed in house & by agencies.
- Helping translate strategy into brand activations and ad spots.
- Developing original ad concepts as 'proof of concept' for new strategy.
- Learning a ton.
If there’s one thing I wanted to learn from this first term, it’s whether I can “fit” in a context like this. Branding. Corporate. Tech. Has my ivory tower training prepared me to contribute? The answer has been a clear yes.
Of course there’s plenty to learn — about business, about branding. More than anything, it’s corporate culture as such that feels foreign to me. But I’m starting to make sense of the tools, the pace, and all the unspoken rules. I’m learning to express my ideas using shared slide decks rather than essays or erudite emails. I’m learning to frame a conversation with bullet points that can be covered in 30-minute meeting that begins 12 minutes late, rather than lead with thought provoking questions designed to fuel a 90-minute seminar discussion. I’m getting used to the open office space, where the VPs and the interning rhetoricians alike all sit at identical desks pushed together in rows, filling several whole floors of an office tower. (I appreciate the democratizing vibe, but I miss the cozy nooks of the university, built for careful reading and deep conversation. I still believe good ideas require a good bit of solitude.) I can even kinda sorta use Outlook to schedule a meeting now — though I’m still not clear why every conversation has to be a scheduled meeting, given that we all work in the same bullpen.
But much of what feels like the core work resonates strongly with skills I feel confident in and ideas I love talking about. As a rhetorician, I was trained in the study of publicly circulating language and communication. Traditionally, that meant studying speeches, the great orators. But now we study all kinds of popular culture and media. Films, tv shows, graffiti, fashion. I’ve never taken or taught a class on how to do marketing or advertising, but I’ve spent years thinking critically about ads as a part of our culture. I feel comfortable jumping into high level conversations with the brand team, and I know I'm contributing meaningfully.
I know how to talk about public communication — not from the narrow sense of “this is how to be persuasive,” but with a more humanistic lens, asking questions like “what’s going on with this word here,” or “why say this when we could say this,” or “what will this mean to someone who doesn’t think like we think and know what we know?” Those are the same conversations I’m having at eBay when we talk about brand strategy.
My skills as a writer have come in handy — I’ve been asked to ghostwrite quick blog posts on behalf of executives, I’ve jumped in to proofread presentations. I caught a typo in eBay’s new chat-based shopping assistant. I even wrote a few ad scripts. When we’re meeting with creatives, I draw on my teaching experience. Giving feedback to students on all kinds of work, from essays and poems to photo projects and films, has been great preparation for working with the agencies who develop work for the company.
I’ve got a few weeks left with eBay and now the big question is: what’s next? I may stay in the world of branding and tech, or take another big leap. My time with the team here has been really eye opening, not just in terms of learning about the business of running a global brand, but in discovering how adaptable my own skills can be to this context. I’m incredibly grateful to the team here who has welcomed me on board, forgiven my false steps, and given me space to prove — to them, and to myself — what I can contribute.