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Classical Rhetoric 101: The Three Means of Persuasion

Welcome back to our ongoing series on classical rhetoric. Today we’ll cover the three means of persuasion as set forth by Aristotle in The Art of Rhetoric. According to Aristotle, a speaker or writer has three ways to persuade his audience:

Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself.

Below we cover the basics of the three means of persuasion and offer a few suggestions on how to implement them into your rhetorical arsenal. And because this aspect of rhetoric is so meaty, I’ve also included suggestions for further reading for those who wish to learn more about each element (I’ll provide a reading list for exploring the subject of rhetoric as a whole in the last post of the series).

Ready to get started? Let’s go!

Ethos: The Appeal to the Speaker’s or Writer’s Character or Reputation

If you wish to persuade, you need to establish credibility and authority with your audience. A man may have the most logical and well-thought-out argument, but if his audience doesn’t think he’s trustworthy or even worth listening to, all his reasoning will be for naught.

For Aristotle, a speaker’s ethos consists of appearing knowledgeable about the topic he’s speaking about and being a man of good character. Aristotle and Cicero thought that a speaker could only appeal to his ethos within the speech itself and that an orator should spend the first part of his speech establishing his credibility. The classical rhetorician Isocrates believed that developing one’s ethos and credibility with the audience began even before the speaker opened his mouth. Audiences naturally approach speakers and writers with some suspicion, so they’ll look to his past for evidence that he is trustworthy and knowledgeable about what he’s speaking or writing about.

A speaker or writer can use ethos in several ways.  First, you can simply begin your speech or text by referring to your expertise on the subject. Share how long you’ve studied the subject, mention how many articles you’ve published and where you published them, and refer to awards or recognition you’ve received in relation to the subject at hand.

A nuanced way to establish credibility and rapport with your audience is to downplay your accomplishments. People don’t like a braggart or one-upper. In some cases, having a highfalutin resume might hinder people from trusting you. A bit of modesty can go a long way to getting the audience to trust and like you, and consequently, be persuaded by what you have to say.

Another powerful way to establish ethos with your audience is to find common ground with them. Human beings are social animals. We have a tendency to trust others that are like us (or at least appear like us). You can establish common ground by acknowledging shared values or beliefs. You can establish common ground by simply recognizing a shared history. You see this all the time with presidential candidates. They’ll visit a state they have no immediate connection to, but they’ll find some story from their distant past that connects them to the state. Maybe their great-great-grandfather passed through the area in a covered wagon. That commonality, however slight or silly it may be, helps the audience feel connected to the speaker, and, consequently, makes him more trustworthy.

Living a life of virtue is perhaps the best way to develop ethos. The very hint of hypocrisy will doom even the most eloquent speech. Conversely, when you are virtuous, honest, and earnestly committed to that which you speak of, this inner-commitment will tinge each word you utter with sincerity. The audience will feel the depth of your commitment and will listen far more intently then when they know it is mere claptrap.

Further Reading on Ethos

  • The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (available free online!) Read Franklin’s autobiography for insights on how to live a life of virtue. Also, scattered throughout his life’s story, Franklin gives short lessons in ethos building by sharing insights on how he developed credibility and influence with those around him.
  • Win the Crowd: Unlock the Secrets of Influence, Charisma, and Showmanship A professional magician lays out the secrets of building instant rapport and connection with an audience or individual. Who better to explain how to gain credibility than a man who has to convince people to suspend belief and believe the incredible?
  • Good in a Room In order to succeed in Hollywood, writers, directors, and producers often have just a few minutes to convince a studio executive to finance their project. In this small window of time, they have to build instant credibility, or ethos. In Good in a Room, a former MGM Director shares the most successful techniques on how to establish your authority and credibility in any situation.

Pathos: The Appeal to Emotion

Men have a tendency to dismiss the power of emotion. I know a lot of guys who think you should only persuade through pure reason and logic. But in a battle between emotion and rationality, emotion usually wins, hands down. This isn’t cynicism, it’s just an acknowledgment of the reality of human nature.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt created a powerful metaphor that depicts the tension between our emotional and rational side: The Elephant and the Rider.

The Heath brothers summarize it nicely in their book Switch:

Haidt says our emotional side is the Elephant and our rational side is the Rider.  Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.

The battle between the Rational Rider  and the Emotional Elephant is why we see doctors who smoke and are overweight. They know their behavior isn’t rational and that they should change. They’re doctors for Pete’s sake! But it doesn’t matter. Unless they have a powerful emotional motivation to change, they’ll keep puffing and eating away.

Advertisers understand emotion’s power. Turn on your TV and watch some commercials. How many of them use hard facts and figures to convince you to buy their product? I bet it’s a big fat zilch. Advertisers want you to feel a certain way when you think about their product. Take this commercial for Chivas scotch:

Not once does this commercial mention how Chivas tastes or how it is made or even what Chivas is. But even though I don’t even drink, this commercial made me want to go out and buy a bottle of Chivas! Why? Because it roused a bunch of emotions in me. In tapped into the way I feel about being a man who tries to live a good life. And the music makes your heart swell. It’s a perfect example of pathos at work.

What specific things can you do to inject some more emotion into your arguments? Metaphors and storytelling are powerful tools of persuasion. People are more likely to remember stories than facts because stories tap into our emotions. Next time you give a presentation to a client at work, instead of just slapping up some bar charts and bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation, make the extra effort to weave those facts and figures into an engaging story with conflicts and a cast of characters.

You can also call upon several figures of speech that are designed to provoke an emotional response. Here is a sampling of the dozens you can use:

  • antithesis-Figure of balance in which two contrasting ideas are intentionally juxtaposed, usually through parallel structure (“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”-MLK)
  • aposiopesis- Breaking off suddenly in the middle of speaking, usually to portray being overcome with emotion. (Glenn Beck does this a lot.)
  • assonance-Figure of repetition in which different words with the same or similar vowel sounds occur successively in words with different consonants. (“I feel the need, the need for speed.” -Maverick in Top Gun)
  • conduplicatio- The repetition of a word or words in adjacent phrases or clauses, either to amplify the thought or to express emotion. (“So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.” -Robert Kennedy)
  • enargia- Enargia, or vivid description, can be inherently moving, especially when depicting things graphic in nature.
  • energia- Energia, the vigor with which one expresses oneself, can obviously be emotionally affecting.
  • epistrophe-Figure of repetition that occurs when the last word or set of words in one sentence, clause, or phrase is repeated one or more times at the end of successive sentences, clauses, or phrases. (“…and that government of the peopleby the peoplefor the people, shall not perish from the earth.” -A. Lincoln)

Further Reading on Pathos

  • Made to StickBest book I’ve ever read on conveying information in a memorable way. The authors devote an entire section on the persuasive power of storytelling and give concrete tips and examples on how to develop compelling stories that persuade with emotion.
  • SwitchSwitch covers how to use emotions to create change in yourself or an organization. If you want specific tactics on how to appeal to a person’s emotions, read this book.
  • Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of ScreenwritingWritten by a one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters, Story lays out in methodical detail how to structure memorable stories. The book is geared towards movie screenwriters, but the principles in the book are applicable to the lawyer writing a brief or a salesman giving a pitch.

Logos: The Appeal to Reason

Finally, we come to logos, or the appeal to reason. Aristotle believed logos to be the superior persuasive appeal and that all arguments should be won or lost on reason alone. However, he recognized that at times an audience would not be sophisticated enough to follow arguments based solely on scientific and logical principles and so the other appeals needed to be used as well.

In The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle states that appealing to reason means allowing “the words of the speech itself” to do the persuading. This was accomplished through making inferences using deductive reasoning, usually in the form of a formal syllogism. You’ve seen these before. You start with two premises and end with a conclusion that naturally follows the premises. For example:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Easy, huh? When forming syllogistic arguments, one should ensure that they’re sound. An argument is sound if:

  1. the argument is valid, and;
  2. all of its premises are true.

Alright, for an argument to be sound, it needs to be valid. What’s a valid argument? A valid argument is one that has a conclusion that necessarily follows the premises.  If we switched things up in our above argument, we can make it invalid. Check it:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is mortal.
Therefore, Socrates is a man.

At first blush, it looks like a decent argument. But read it carefully. Just because Socrates is mortal, doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a man. He could be a squirrel for all we know. Thus, the argument is invalid.

Determining whether premises are true will depend on observation and your knowledge.

Syllogisms are a powerful rhetorical tool. It’s hard to manipulate and argue against a formally laid out, sound syllogism.

We could go into even more detail about formal logic (it’s one of my favorite subjects), but it would be a series unto itself. So, I’ll stop here and let you do some more reading on your own.

In addition to formal logic, a rhetorician should be adept in informal logic. What’s informal logic? Well, there’s no clear cut answer. Philosophers still debate what exactly makes up informal logic, but a rough answer would be that informal logic encompasses several disciplines from formal logic to psychology to help individuals think more critically about the input they receive every day.

A big component of informal logic are fallacies. A “fallacy is a pattern of poor reasoning which appears to be (and in this sense mimics) a pattern of good reasoning.” There’s a whole slew of logical fallacies and chances are you’re familiar with a few of them: ad hominems, slippery slopes, red herrings. It’s important to be familiar with as many fallacies as possible so a) you don’t use them and thus lose credibility (ethos!) with your audience, and b) you don’t get sucked into arguments with scalawags who use them. We’ll cover fallacies a bit more in depth in a later post. Stay tuned!

Further reading on Logos

Alrighty. That does it for this class. As I said at the beginning, this was a very basic intro to the three means of persuasion. I definitely encourage you to check out some of the books I listed for a more in-depth treatment.

Anything you’d like to add? We’d love to read your insights on the three means of persuasion. Share them with us in the comments!

Classical Rhetoric 101 Series 
An Introduction
A Brief History
The Three Means of Persuasion
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Invention
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Arrangement
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Style
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Memory
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Delivery
Logical Fallacies
Bonus! 35 Greatest Speeches in History 


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