So, as I’m going to start writing about what I’m reading (and occasionally watching or listening to), primarily to explore a bit more about what I do for a living, I should at least start at the beginning. Even if I’m likely to jump around a lot afterwards.
The true beginnings of the art of persuasion came earlier, but Aristotle was one of the first (that we have surviving records for) to start codifying it into more of a science. As with a surprisingly large amount of Aristotle, a lot still stands.
First, what does Aristotle define rhetoric as being?
“The faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”
In other words, rhetoric is all about knowing how to select the right tactics to effectively persuade a given audience on a given topic in a given circumstance.
There are “non-technical” means of persuasion – evidence, witnesses, etc. – but these lie outside the speaker’s direct control. Instead Aristotle’s rhetoric mostly focuses on “technical” approaches, which he terms “appeals” .
These he focuses on the three key elements of the situation:
With a bit of elaboration and nuance, these become the three core elements of classical rhetoric – and remain insanely relevant today:
1) Ethos: the speaker’s character
Basically the impression you give. Your character as given through your approach – but also your past reputation. Your ethos needs to inspire confidence, and increase the perception that you are credible.
This, in other words, is pretty much your brand.
It’s built up by a combination, Aristotle reckons, of good sense, good will, and good morals. If any of these are suspect – or successfully undermined by a rival (or an annoying comment on social media pointing out a bit of hypocrisy), your attempt at persuasion is less likely to succeed.
2) Logos: the argument made about the subject
This covers both substance – what you’re arguing – and the style – how you present it.
A combination of the idea and the wording, this is what many marketers and advertisers focus on the most. It’s the concept. The copywriting. The compelling call to action.
Most important – and something I keep focusing on, frustrated with seeing far too much shallow marketing – Aristotle insists that style and substance need to work hand in hand. They need to complement each other, not compete.
Fancy words without depth are pointless sophistry, empty rhetoric – and your audience will soon find you out.
3) Pathos: the emotion conjured in the audience
Positive or negative, triggering emotional reactions in your audience makes them more likely to pay attention and remember what you’re telling them. This is now proven by science – brain scans and clinical trials have demonstrated this point pretty much conclusively. Aristotle just got in a couple of thousand years early.
The challenge, of course, is to trigger the appropriate emotional response for the argument you’re making, among the audience you’re trying to persuade, to achieve the desired response. Aristotle lists 14 emotions – fear, confidence, anger, friendship, calm, enmity, shame, shamelessness, pity, kindness, envy, indignation, emulation, and contempt – but more recent psychologists have expanded this.
Balancing the sell
To be persuasive requires a balance of all three elements. But, of course, the balance needed varies depending on subject, audience, intention, and the reputation of the speaker/brand doing the persuading.
But, let’s face it, this is pretty much the core of selling:
- Ethos: This product / brand is good / reliable
- Logos: Because it will do X in Y way
- Pathos: And make your life better / prevent it from getting worse
Of course, it’s all a lot more complicated than that. That’s why there’s so many other rhetorical devices out there to play with. Of all these, there’s one more from Aristotle it’s important to cover in an introductory piece:
4) Kairos: it’s all about timing
You can be credible, emotionally considered, and have style and substance dripping from every pore – but if you time your appeal wrong, it’s never going to work.
Take this very post…
I’m writing this on a Monday evening. That’s a decent enough time for writing – especially as I had the day off and am feeling fresh and relaxed. But is it a good time for publishing? Most advice would say no. Even if I’d clearly defined my target audience, 10:30pm UK time is just about the worst time to publish anything: European audiences are heading to bed; American audiences are finishing up work for the day; Asian audiences are still asleep. If I wanted to reach my audience immediately, publishing now would be madness.
But it’s not just about the time on the clock – it’s also about appropriateness. We’ve had plenty of examples of this in the last few months of coronavirus lockdowns – some messages simply became out of place, and various ad campaigns have had to be pulled as businesses have shut down and travel and gatherings of people stopped.
Bringing it all together – or screwing it all up
The last couple of weeks of Black Lives Matter protests has also underscored the importance of appropriateness of messaging.
While some brands were quick to put out messages of support, others dithered – making them look bad.
Of the brands that did put out supportive messages, most got the emotion (rousing, empathetic) and style right (adopting the plain black background of the main BLM movement in solidarity), but some were accused of failing on substance. Vague supportive noises were simply not seen as strong enough by many – because to be an ally is to speak up, take a stand, and act, not just stand there mumbling platitudes.
And many more brands fell down on the ethos side: They may have said the right things, in the right way, at the right time, with the right emotion – but their actions behind the scenes ensured they simply weren’t credible. How many brands were called out for their claims to want more racial equity, only to receive the (fair) response: “How many Black people are on your board?” or “What’s the racial pay gap in your company?”
Persuasion can be a technical thing, in other words. You can study the art of rhetoric to develop appropriate strategies and deploy the right tactics. But while you can fool some of the people some of the time, and persuade some people for a while, you can’t fool everyone for ever.
Still, use these four points from Aristotle as a foundation for working out your strategy, and at least you’ve got the basics in place.
Which is probably why pretty much every marketing strategy deck still includes them in some form or other, albeit in agency speak rather than ancient Greek… At my current place we do this quite directly, referring to Wisdom (a form of ethos), Wonder (a form of logos) and Delight (a form of pathos), topped off with a bit of Velocity (one approach to kairos) – as well as a few additions like Atomisation, designed to acknowledge that different audiences (and different media) require different approaches.
There’s a lot more to it than this, of course. Aristotle alone wrote enough for a whole book about it… I’m planning on following up with more on the art and science of persuasion in the coming weeks and months. Watch this space.