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The Art of Persuasion

Posted by Marc Gabriel Amigone

Jan 27, 2014, 5:39 PM

Have you ever attempted to deliver a convincing argument? Were you passionate about the subject and 100% confident you knew you were absolutely right without a shadow of a doubt? If you have been down that road before, you might have discovered persuading someone else isn't the easiest thing to do

The art of persuasion is something that's been written about and philosophized around for centuries. People have analyzed and examined the ways in which people are compelled to act in numerous ways. The Greek philosopher Aristotle described three main forms of persuasive appeals: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos. Each are vital to persuading a skeptical party to come over to your side.  I'll describe each appeal in more detail.

Ethos

Ethos (Greek for character) or ethical appeal speaks to the character or credibility of the speaker. The first thought that generally goes through people's heads when being sold on a new idea is "Who the hell is this guy?" When speaking persuasively, it's critically important to make clear several things:

  1. Who are you? - What authority, background knowledge, and experience qualifies you to provide relevant information on a given subject? Sometimes you're in the fortunate position of having quite a bit of experience and credibility. Sometimes you're not so lucky. In either case, transparency is always your best bet.
  1. What's your motivation? - What do you stand to gain from winning this debate? If your audience gets the slightest feeling they're being scammed or improperly sold for your gain (financial or otherwise) they're going to be much more skeptical of anything you might have to offer.
  1. How badly do you want to be believed? - Selling an idea really adamantly, can have the effect of making the audience feel put-off. Take note of how badly you want to convince someone of something before you set out to do so. If you push too hard, you'll have the unintended consequence of making your audience feel wary of what you're trying to convince them to believe.

Perhaps the best case study for Ethos in persuasive speaking is Barack Obama. Agree or disagree with his politics, he convinced America he was the best candidate to be our president in 2008 largely based off his credibility and backstory. He sought to elevate the political debate as an outsider. He had a uniquely American upbringing and identity, and he maintained a cool, calm demeanor throughout his entire campaign that suggested all he wanted to do was help America be the country he believed it could.

Logos

Logos (Greek for word) refers to the logic of an argument. What are the facts, and realities that back up your claims? Are they logical? Do they hold up to scrutiny? There are generally two ways to form a logical argument: inductive and deductive reasoning.

  1. Inductive reasoning - To induce a conclusion one has to provide examples of similar situations that lead the audience to see the same pattern occurring forming a proven conclusion. The scientific method relies on inductive reasoning. One provides a hypothesis and supports their claim with proven facts. Cut and dry as long as your audience doesn't have reason to doubt the facts you're presenting as being true.
  1. Deductive reasoning - Deductive reasoning relies more on encouraging your audience to make a connection on their own. In providing several scenarios or widely held beliefs and then drawing out a truth or argument from them, you can help your audience come to a conclusion by following your logic. Depending on your credibility, deductive reasoning can be highly effective when dealing with audiences who don't want to simply be told what to think.

Bringing back up the example of political discourse, most politicians rely on deductive reasoning more than inductive reasoning to convey their point. Using belief statements and value propositions, they draw out a conclusion that we should support their candidacy and adopt their programs. When was the last time you heard a politician lay out the factual basis for their argument at length in great detail? I would guess it's pretty easy to conjure up a memory of the last time you heard a politician cite their beliefs and values as a means to persuade you.

Pathos

Pathos (Greek for suffering or experience) is often associated with an arguments' emotional appeal, but a more apt summation might be appealing to an audience's sympathies or imagination. Instead of appealing to the logic or factual basis of an argument, pathos is appealing to their sense of shared experience or emotional perspective. Often times this turns into a narrative or anecdote inviting your audience to relate to the plight of your message.

There are several ways to introduce pathos into your argument:

  1. Speak passionately - Humans have evolved to mirror the emotions with which we're presented. If you want your audience to get excited, you have to get excited. If you want them to get angry, get angry.  People are also adept at seeing through forgery, so your emotions have to be real if they're to have the desired effect.
  1. Make it personal - Make sure there's an entry point for your audience to relate. Whether you're speaking about your own experience or someone else's, give the audience someone with which to sympathize. If they're personally invested in the emotions of your story, they'll be an easier sell for the logic of what you're trying to say.
  1. Don't overdo it or rely on emotion exclusively - Emotional appeal is important, but it's only one piece of the equation. To truly make a convincing argument emotions need to be involved, but emotional appeal with no logical or ethical appeal will be just that, emotions. A strong sense of conviction will get you people's attention, but make sure you know how to put that attention to good use.

Pathos is often considered the strongest of the three appeals. One common analogy for this phenomenon is the elephant and the rider. If a person is on top of an elephant steering it in one direction or another, it can only do so much to maintain control. If the elephant is motivated to go in one direction or another, the rider is mostly along for the ride. 

All three rhetorical styles are critical to a convincing argument, but depending on your audience one may be more important than another.  Presenting a scientific paper to a room full of biologists will be different than pitching a business proposal to a potential investor. Presenting an appealing argument in all three areas is the best way to win them over, but don't hesitate to place more emphasis on one or another if necessary.

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