The Greek philosopher Aristotle had the art of persuasion all figured out about 2,500 year ago. He believed in the importance of context as well as the importance of considering who the audience is. In short, every situation where there’s an opportunity for persuasion to happen, is unique. So if each situation is unique due to the audience and the context, what can we do to be better influencers? How do we persuade when there’s so much to consider?
That’s where Aristotle comes in. He came up with three guidelines to consider when practicing persuasion. He called them ethos, logos, and pathos. These guidelines made so much sense, we still follow them today, 2500 years later.
Today, I want to take a closer look at these guidelines and explain how you can apply them when you want to persuade your audience, whether that be an audience of 1 or a thousand.
First, let’s say you want to convince me to donate blood. You do a great job at letting me know there’s a shortage, why it’s important, who it can save, how many it can save. Very logical. You even throw in a story about a little kid who was able to be saved thanks to a blood transfusion. Very emotional. Played the heartstrings well. But toward the end I find out you’ve never donated blood yourself. And just like that…you lost me.
Aristotle believed that to be persuasive, you must first have credibility. He called this ethos. 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’re answer to that question is “because I’m me and I’m right”, then pack your bags and go home. Remember, credibility is all about perception. The audience must have the perception that you are a credible source on whatever topic you’re talking about. So how can you make sure the audience perceives you as being credible? If you’re the subject matter expert, then it’s pretty easy. Credentials go a long way. Experience goes a long way. But what if you’re not the subject-matter expert? What if you just care a lot and have an opinion? Just like everybody else who has an opinion. Here’s what you do. Focus on establishing your competence on the topic and also focus on being a likeable person.
First let’s talk about competence. 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 beliefs or try to convince them to do something without having done some research beforehand? Yeah I know. Lots of people. You don’t want to be those people though. Do your homework. And be thorough about it. Look at the opposition’s points of view as well. How can you create an argument against their points if you don’t even know what their points are? 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. If you’ve researched the topic solely via social media, keep your mouth shut. If you think Googling some information is just as good as spending years of dedicated study to the topic, keep your mouth shut. I’m looking at you persons who had all kinds of medical advice for me when I had cancer and not only have you not ever experienced being a cancer patient yourself, but you’re not even close to being any kind of doctor, much less an oncologist.
Look, if you’re going to try to persuade others about anything, We understand that you may not necessarily be the expert, but we still do expect that you have developed a solid understanding of the topic by gathering reliable knowledge, or having some firsthand experience or some type of background on the topic.
Now let’s talk about likeability. A big part of an audience’s perception of your credibility is how it views your character. It’s important that you understand there’s a difference between having character and being a character. Your Character is that certain appeal that you have. It’s also called charisma, or charm, or likeability. The audience needs to be able to relate to you on a personal level. Develop a sense of trust that you are trying to convince them of your argument because you have their best interest in mind. Likeability does not replace competence. It complements competence. Think about it this way. If you’re a car salesman, and you’re trying to convince me to buy a certain car, and you have all the answers. You can explain everything there is to know about this car. But for some reason you don’t make eye contact with me. You never smile. You seem nervous. You’re just not gaining my trust. Guess what? No matter how much you know about that car, I ain’t buying it. At least not from you. Don’t underestimate the power of likeability when it comes to persuasion.
Establishing credibility is only one guideline however. Another guideline has to do with being logical, which in this day and age seems to be in very short supply.
Let’s say you want to convince me that it’s true, violent video games cause violent behavior in children. The burden of proof would be on you to provide the hard facts, the data, the statistics to show that your claim is true. Aristotle called this guideline, logos.
This is where the logical argument comes in. Aristotle taught us that using sound judgement and logical reasoning can be useful where persuasion is the goal. This means your argument must one) flow logically, two) come from objective and credible sources, and three), be supported by a variety of evidence.
When I say flow logically, I’m talking about how you explain your points. If you’re focusing on cause and effect, then make it clear in your argument what the cause of the problem is and then follow up with the results, the effect. If you’re arguing for a solution, you could begin by explaining what the problem is, then explain what caused the problem, and finally, after considering the problem and its cause, propose what you believe to be the best solution. Now, concerning the sources, the most important thing is to focus on the reliability of the sources you’re using. Are they credible? Are they objective? Are they recent? And finally, be sure to support your logical argument with a variety of evidence. Going back to the earlier example, you want to convince me that violent video games in fact do cause violent behavior in children. Perhaps you can provide a couple of personal examples, kids you know or kids you read about in the newspaper. They have some serious self control problems, especially after they play video games. That’s all well and good but Logically, a couple of examples does not mean it’s a problem that’s generalizable to the larger population. So you would want to follow your examples with statistics that show the problem is a prevalent one. You want to make sure you stay clear of fallacies like false cause and hasty generalizations. We’ll talk about illogical fallacies in argument on another episode.
For Aristotle, ethos and logos (or authority and reasoning) are the foundation of a strong argument. He was committed to the search for absolute truth. This means focusing on intellect, not feelings. Not much room here for emotional appeal. Ever heard the phrase facts don’t care about your feelings? That’s pretty much what this is a perfect example of.
That’s not to say feelings have no place in persuasion. I’m pretty sure I can confidently say that every single person who is listening to this episode knows what it’s like to be made to feel a certain way about certain topics. This doesn’t happen by accident. The third guideline Aristotle introduced as a way to be successful in persuasion is called pathos.
Let’s say you’re in the market for a new car and you notice a television ad for a car that claims the best safety record and is the most reliable car on the road. It may even show a car accident, but the family is safe, thanks to the amazing engineering of this particular model. Now if you’re a parent, don’t you want to ensure the safety of your children?
Aristotle called this line of thinking Pathos. We also know it as emotional appeal. To create emotional appeal, you must be able to connect with your audience. As with the previous example, Strive to connect through the major senses by appealing to the audience’s sense of sight (you can picture the car crash), of sound (the visuals are complemented with the sound of screeching tires and the crunching of metal on metal). Advertising is chock full of emotional appeals, but so are songs, books, movies, and political speeches. Be weary of this persuasive tool. Yes, it’s useful in persuasion, but it can also be used to manipulate. The word Pathos is a Greek word that means “suffering.” That’s a strong emotion. But all is not gloom and doom. There are plenty of examples where other more positive emotions like love and happiness are used in persuasion. Just think of the emotion you want your audience to feel. Do you want them to feel angry? Irritated? Frustrated? Hopeful? Happy? Motivated? and then integrate the stories and the language that will bring about those feelings.
So those are three guidelines from 2500 years ago that are still useful today in the field of persuasion. Ethos, Logos, and Pathos. Credibility, logic, and emotion. Aristotle taught us that if you want to be influential, you need to focus on the audience and focus on the context. In doing so, you’ll better understand how to use these three guidelines and when to use them.
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