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The Philosophy of Persuasion

Excellence is not an act, but a habit. If that sounds like the kind of glib phrase you’d read on the back of a 90s self-help book – firstly, you’re right, but secondly, it’s much older than that. 2300-odd years older. Aristotle - the Greek philosopher, in case you know more than one Aristotle - said it and he was right, which is why we’re still hearing about it now. He was right about a lot of things, and not just captions for inspirational posters. One thing he was really on the money about was influence and persuasiveness.

How to Win Friends and Borrow From Aristotle

Aristotle was interested in the techniques of rhetoric: how to speak persuasively and convincingly. He felt it would be an advantage to every person to learn these skills and optimise their ability to effectively communicate. We’ve really followed his lead in the two thousand years since. It’s lit, fam.

Pillars of Persuasion

Aristotle believed that spoken influence could be better understood by splitting it into three categories. He called them pillars, because they hold up the argument, and because not much else had been invented back then. If he had been around when scaffolding or cranes or forklifts were invented, he might have had a wider frame of reference to draw from. But he wasn’t, so instead of the Three Forklifts, here are the Three Pillars of Persuasion.

  1. Ethos:

    Your credibility. Your reputation that either precedes you or is established by you early on, supported by your appearance and body language. This is a pretty bold assertion from a guy in a toga, but it pans out. An air of quiet authority or relaxed confidence enhances your status; nervous fluttering will subvert it. In a presentation you can manage your ethos in your introduction, lightly letting the audience know why you’re an authority on the subject. A surprisingly big chunk of your impact comes from your ethos: if you’re perceived as an expert then people tend to accept your information at face value. If you’re seen as a rookie or in any way unreliable, you could know your stuff and still fail to convince.
  2. Pathos:

    Appeals to emotion. Aristotle believed that if you wanted to influence and motivate people, you had to stir their emotions. We may understand facts, but we act on our feelings. Ways to move people can include humour, a poignant anecdote, a shock or surprise, metaphors, an appeal to loyalty – whatever you can leverage to make people feel aligned with you and your message. For more on story and how to incorporate emotional appeals into your encounters see our articles on the importance of stories here and here.
  3. Logos:

    Your rational argument. This is where your facts and figures are organised into an argument that flows and convinces. You use hard evidence to demonstrate why your message should be persuasive..

Including all three elements should give you the best shot at being influential which is, of course, your main task. If you’re not wanting your audience to do, think or feel something different as a result of your encounter, then you’d have to ask why you’re doing it at all.

Close but No Hectocotylus

Aristotle himself didn’t always manage to persuade. He discovered the hectocotylus, the reproductive tentacle of the octopus, but no one believed him about it until the 19th Century. He should have written something moving or funny about it to be more persuasive, although he may have felt that kind of joke writes itself. Facts therefore, don’t necessarily convince. Business encounters are frequently high in Logos, because businesses deal in facts and figures. But relying totally on Logos can be boring and unengaging, meaning that people zone out and miss crucial messages, or, worst case, actively start avoiding you. And presentations that rely on Logos aren’t persuasive, meaning that proposals and pitches fail to inspire action. What can we do about it?

Pathos 101

Let’s look at some simple elements of Pathos and how you can incorporate them into your communications without it feeling like you’ve staged an ancient Greek tragedy in the middle of Last Quarter’s reports.

Analogies and Metaphor: these illustrate a point by creating a visual image. A Pillar of Persuasion is a metaphor: without really being conscious of it we immediately get the idea that the pillars are supporting the persuasion. Aristotle was already manipulating us in the title of his own idea.

Anecdotes, stories and quotes: well-chosen anecdotes, particularly if they’re personal, make you more likeable, and you’re far more likely to be persuasive if your audience likes you. Relevant and poignant stories are often the most memorable parts of an encounter, a sure-fire way to make an emotional connection with the audience. Quotes align you with the admired or revered figure who originally said them, which is why this article starts with a quote.

Emotive visual aids: Well-chosen images can reinforce your message and provoke a powerful emotional reaction. Brain science unavailable to Aristotle tells us that people are amazing at remembering images, long after words have been forgotten. If only he’d been a painter.

These are just a few of the rhetorical techniques you can use without imposing on your audience. You’ll enhance their enjoyment of the encounter and increase your chance at influencing the outcome. You don’t even have to wear a toga.

A Final Word

So that was the Three Pillars of Persuasion and some of the many ways to incorporate them into your communications. We can assure you of one thing: the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. Guess how we know? Right. Aristotle said so. The Pickering Group can show you how to step into the warm, persuasive glow of your spotlight. Enhance your public speaking with our courses and 1-2-1 coaching, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn for practical, inspiring content, or read more of our tips and tricks here.

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