The Greek philosopher Aristotle had the art of persuasion all figured out about 2,400 year ago. He brought about three guidelines that we still follow today. It’s really a simple process when you think about it. If you can learn to apply these three guiding principles, then you will be successful in persuasion. Let’s take a quick look at these guidelines and how you can apply them.
Ethos – Aristotle believed that in order to be persuasive, you must first have credibility. Does that mean that you have to be considered the subject-matter expert in order to have any influence? Of course not. But you will have a hard time trying to convince an audience to agree with you if you haven’t established some credibility on the topic. Ask yourself, “Why should the audience believe me?” If you can’t answer that question, then you've already lost the battle. Remember, credibility is all about perception. The audience must have the perception that you are credible. So how can you establish some credibility? Assuming that you’re not the subject-matter expert, you should focus on these two areas: competence and character.
Now, you might not be the expert on the topic, but surely you've done some research right? I mean, who in their right mind would enter into a debate or try to convince someone else to change their actions or beliefs without having done some research beforehand? This is called competence and the audience will be able to smell that you don’t have any from a mile away. Here’s some advice that will alleviate a lot of your problems. If you haven’t researched the topic and developed some competence regarding the topic, then keep your mouth shut. We understand that you may not be the expert, but we still do expect that you have some type of knowledge or background on the topic.
The next thing to tackle in developing your credibility is to establish your character. It’s important that you understand there’s a difference between having character and being a character. Character is that certain appeal that you have. It’s also called charisma, or charm, or like-ability. The audience needs to be able to relate to you on a personal level. This is achieved through confident nonverbal expressions like good body posture, strong eye contact, positive facial expressions, and an encouraging tone. Confidence and like-ability go a long way in persuasion.
Establishing credibility is only the first step. The next step is supporting your argument with logical, sound evidence.
Logos – This is where the logical argument comes in. Aristotle taught us that we must use sound evidence and logical judgment where it concerns persuasion. This means gathering your information from sources that are unbiased and trustworthy. This means you need to be prepared to do some digging. Don’t believe everything that you see on the Internet. Just because a friend posted a link on Facebook or Twitter doesn't mean it’s actually a true story. When you want to use research to help support your argument, you need to take a look at three things. First, who is the author of the information you’re using? Is that person credible? Is that person unbiased? Second, apply these same questions to the organization that is supplying the information or paying the author. Does the organization stand to gain anything by putting this information out? Might the author or organization gain anything financially or politically? If the answer is yes, then you should take whatever “evidence” they provide with a grain of salt and look for a more trustworthy, unbiased source. This takes time and effort, but will go a long way toward your success in persuasion. Think about it. Why would anyone take your argument seriously if all of your evidence is gathered from sources that are clearly biased? Lastly, take a look at the date of the information you’re providing. It’s going to be hard to convince you’re audience that crime rates are out of control in your neighborhood if you’re using information that is not current. I see the regurgitation of bad information happen way too often on social media. If you take a moment to review the story with an objective viewpoint, many times you will find there are stories that re-surface as urban myths every couple of years or so. This is not reliable evidence.
For Aristotle, ethos and logos are the foundation of a strong argument. You should work to establish both of these first before moving on to the third guideline of persuasion.
Pathos – This is where you can add the element of emotional appeal. To create emotional appeal, you must be able to connect with your audience. Strive to connect through the major senses by appealing to the audience’s sense of sight, of sound, of taste. For example, think about how advertisers might use the color black or silver to make a product seem to be of superior quality, like the Lexus or Apple logos; or how movies will use music to create feelings of excitement or sadness; or how restaurant commercials will use descriptive words like blackened or caramelized or glazed to make you hungry.
It’s important to understand that you should first strive to establish your credibility and also base your argument on sound evidence before introducing the final element of emotional appeal. To do otherwise is simply unethical. Trying to persuade an audience based solely on emotional appeal is manipulation, not persuasion. And your attempt at manipulation will surely backfire. You know what that’s like to feel that someone is trying to manipulate you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the audience doesn't have the same ability.
Jennifer Furlong has 25 years’ experience in the communication field and teaches communication and public speaking courses in the Savannah area. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in Communication from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She currently resides in Richmond Hill, Ga. with her family of canines, felines, and humans. Let's be social! Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. Just look for Professor SpeechLady. See you in cyberspace.
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