Learn how to persuade — Ancient Greek style

The art of persuasion is one of the most important skills we can harness in our professional careers. But not only confined to our work, we are also constantly trying to persuade our friends and family members to see it our way. Chinese or Thai takeaway for dinner tonight? The Bachelor or Married At First Sight?

Aristotle believed that persuasion (rhetoric) is made up of three elements, or ‘appeals’. Each persuasive message that you craft should contain each of these three appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos. Let’s dive into each in more detail.

Ethos

Ethos refers to your character — who you are and what you stand for. Your audience will often already have a picture of this before you even open your mouth, either through past meetings or by the way you’re dressed and combed your hair.

You can also influence this character perception by the way you speak and by using a few not-so-subtle promotion techniques. For example, have you been to a presentation where the first slide talks about the speaker, their work experience, what clients they’ve worked with etc.? This ‘credentials’ slide is there to boost their ethos. It’s important that ethos is addressed upfront, because how we perceive a person’s character will affect the way we interpret the rest of the speaker’s message.

Aristotle specified three sub-qualities of ethos: intelligence, a virtuous nature and goodwill to the audience. A practical example of creating goodwill is that you could build an early rapport with your audience by greeting them individually as they enter the room.

Logos

Logos is an appeal to your audience’s sense of logic and the facts supporting your message. One of my favourite sayings is that ‘without data you’re just another person with an opinion’. One of the best ways to persuade people is to put the hard data in front of them. If you can build up an impenetrable case with facts, it will be difficult for anyone to disagree with you.

For example, compare the two phrases:

  1. “Many people die from smoking each year.”
  2. “Every year 200,000 people die from smoking related deaths.”

Which of them holds more weight?

Pathos

Pathos is the fun part, where your storytelling can really come into its own. Pathos is the appeal to the emotions of your audience. You want your listeners to feel connected and empathetic to what you are saying. If you can make people connect emotionally to your story, then they will more likely be persuaded by your message.

For example, an average presenter might say that 200,000 people die from smoking every year. A better presenter would describe a loving, dedicated father who was taken too soon from his family after an excruciating, relentless battle with a wicked lung cancer.

Being able to tell good stories is a whole topic on its own. A basic story framework should have a beginning, middle and end. The beginning sets the scene, the middle builds a conflict to a climax, and then in the end this conflict is resolved.

A word of caution — depending on your audience, pathos will only go so far in helping you to persuade. Even if you can spin a fantastic yarn, if you don’t have the facts (logos) or credibility (ethos) to back it up, your message may be perceived as hollow. You may only succeed in coming across as a good entertainer rather than someone to be taken seriously.

Two millennia later, Aristotle is still teaching us public speaking

Even though this model was developed over 2,000 years ago, it is still widely relevant in today’s business context.

Next time you need to prepare an address to persuade your audience, take heed of Aristotle’s framework. When reviewing your presentation, cross-check your slides and talking points against the appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos. To help familiarise yourself with persuasion techniques, look for Aristotle’s appeals in other people’s presentations also. How did they use ethos to build credibility or logos to support their arguments?

My final tip is to go out and practise using these three appeals to persuade people. As Aristotle said: “Quality is not an act, it is a habit.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store