How Aristotle’s rhetoric helps you get what you want.
When was the last time you tried to persuade someone? Whether you’re pitching your business, convincing your kid to do their homework, or negotiating a better deal — persuasion is all around us.
And while most people assume that their either naturally bad or good at it, winning arguments is a skill you can learn. What follows are the most valuable principles I learned in my first year of philosophy studies.
Around 2300 years ago, Aristotle wrote about the three drivers of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos. Most rhetoricians regard his work as “the most important single work on persuasion ever written.”
Here’s what these three appeals mean and how you can use them to master the art of persuasion.
“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 [ethos]; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind [pathos]; the third on the proof, provided by the words of the speech itself [logos].” — Aristotle
Ethos: Your Attributes and Credibility
Let’s assume two non-menstruating men want to sell you a menstruation product. As a menstruating person, would you trust them?
If your audience doesn’t find you trustworthy, likable, or knowledgeable, your words don’t matter. When trying to change someone’s opinion, you have to be credible.
Ethos, a Greek word meaning character, is the verbal equivalent of all your degrees and years of working experience.
As a speaker, your character should reflect your credibility. According to Aristotle, this can happen through phronesis (useful skills & practical wisdom), erete (virtue & goodwill), and eunoia (goodwill towards the audience)
How you can do it:
Give examples of why listeners should trust you. Do you have relevant credentials or experience? If so, talk about it early on.
Your appearance can also improve your ethos. Dress professionally and use your clearest and most confident voice.
Lastly, listen to the other side. Show empathy and really try to understand. When you do, stress your common ground before you get into the next part.
Pathos: Your Words’ Emotional Dimension
Humans connect with emotions, not facts. That’s why emotions have the power to change opinions. Your audience is likelier to believe what you say when they care.
Pathos means a speaker should deliver their message in the right emotional environment. In Aristotle’s words, speakers should be “putting the hearer into a certain frame of mind.”
But doing it is easier said than done. According to the philosopher, understanding the goals of your listeners is essential for deciding which emotion you want to evoke.
How you can do it:
First, learn as much as you can about your audience. What do they care about? What triggers them? What are their hopes, their fears?
Logos: Your Message’s Logic and Presentation
If your argument doesn’t make sense, has no supportive evidence, or a coherent structure, persuasion is out of reach.
A good argument follows the rules of composition. Logos appeals to the argument’s sense and rationality.
“If ethos is the ground on which your argument stands, logos is what drives it forward: it is the stuff of your arguments, the way one point proceeds to another as if to show that the conclusion to which you are aiming is not only the right one but so necessary and reasonable as to be more or less the only one.”
How you can do it:
Whenever possible, substantiate your arguments with logic or evidence. Do your homework before you’re trying to convince someone.
Aristotle had an extra tip for using logos effectively. Your reveal will be even more convincing by encouraging your listeners to reach their own conclusion (moments before you come to the same one).
One of the best ways to get better at winning arguments is by borrowing this concept that stood the test of time.
Good arguments rely on one or two of these appeals, but the most effective ones use all three.
Knowing ethos, logos, and pathos is one of the most useful ways to change your listeners’ opinion. But there’s more: knowing them will also help you identify weak or manipulative arguments.
If you really want to become a better persuaded, these are the three steps you want to remember:
- Ethos — establishing your authority to make an argument.
- Logos — making a logical point.
- Pathos — connect with your audience emotionally.
These principles are powerful. Use them wisely. The most brilliant people I know keep an open mind, listen and change their opinions when proved wrong.
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