During argumentation—i.e. when putting forward a point of view—your goal is to persuade your audience that your thesis is valid, engage them in your favor, change their opinion, and influence them to act as you’d like them to act.
The American literary theorist Kenneth Burke wrote in his Rhetoric of Motives, “Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is meaning, there is persuasion.” Learning to make effective arguments is helpful in every facet of decision-making and sharing ideas with others—not only in verbal and written discourses, but also in marketing, sales promotion, crisis-management, storytelling, courtship, social etiquette, and education.
Some 2400 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote one of the most important works on argumentation. In his treatise Rhetorica, he explained that arguments are more persuasive when applied in three distinct but inseparable dimensions: ethos (credibility,) logos (reason,) and pathos (emotion.) He wrote,
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 the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself … The modes of persuasion are the only true constituents of the art: everything else is merely accessory.
There are, then, these three means of effecting persuasion. The man who is to be in command of them must, it is clear, be able (1) to reason logically, (2) to understand human character and goodness in their various forms, and (3) to understand the emotions—that is, to name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which they are excited.
Element #1 of Persuasion: Ethos (‘Character’ in Greek)
Aristotle contended that audiences are more likely to be convinced when an argument comes from someone of standing, repute, authority, and legitimacy:
We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is generally true whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided … It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatise on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasions; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.
Your ability to persuade depends on demonstrating that you are a credible authority on a subject. Credibility comes from your academic and professional credentials, social standing, integrity of character, and trustworthiness.
Ethos is also about how you express your expertise. Enhance your ethos by projecting confidence and paying attention to your mannerisms, dress, demeanor, tone, style, posture, body language, and crispness of your message. Appeal to ethos because your audience is likely to be persuaded if they believe you’re likeable and worthy of their respect. If you lack credibility, you must determine how to produce credibility, address your lack of it, or involve somebody credible who can vouch for your ideas.
Element #2 of Persuasion: Pathos (‘Suffering’ or ‘Experience’ in Greek)
As the saying goes, when the heart pulls, the head tends to follow.
Aristotle contended that persuasion also depends on making an emotional and imaginative impact on the audience by “putting the hearer into a certain frame of mind” (“ton akroaten diatheinai poos”):
Secondly, persuasion may come through the power of the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions. Our judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile.
To appeal to emotion, you must understand and relate to the needs, values, and desires of your audience. Identify and appeal to what motivates the audience to anger and happiness, what irritates them and leads them to fear, what animates them and arouses their empathy. Defense attorneys often use this technique: they try to appeal to a jury or judge’s emotions by invoking sympathy for the accused and swaying them into thinking that the accused has done little or no wrong.
Element #3 of Persuasion: Logos (‘Word’ in Greek)
Logos refers to the argument’s clarity and integrity. Aristotle stressed logic and the appeal to reason:
Thirdly, persuasion is effected by the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.
Appeal to your audience using logical consistency, analytical reasoning, rationale, and supporting evidence. Don’t just persuade your audience from your vantage point. Instead, construct a viewpoint that can assert your audience’s own objectives and goals.
Element #4 of Persuasion: Timing
Aristotle mentioned that timing of delivery is a fourth dimension of successful argumentation. Therefore, even if ethos, pathos, and logos are in place, efforts to persuade may fail if they are deployed at the wrong time.
These three kinds of rhetoric refer to three different kinds of time. The political orator is concerned with the future: it is about things to be done hereafter that he advises, for or against. The party in a case at law is concerned with the past; one man accuses the other, and the other defends himself, with reference to things already done. The ceremonial orator is, properly speaking, concerned with the present, since all men praise or blame in view of the state of things existing at the time, though they often find it useful also to recall the past and to make guesses at the future.
To persuade your audience, know where to focus the conversation—the past, present, or future. As the Greek didactic poet Hesiod emphasized in Works and Days, “observe due measure, for right timing is in all things the most important factor.”
Use Four Vantage Points to Improve Your Abilities in Argumentation and Negotiation
You can be more persuasive if you understand what truly moves your audience. Some people are swayed by logic, others by appeals to emotion, and still others quickly defer to those who seem to possess authority and expertise.
Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos provide a clear, understandable, and easy-to-apply framework for developing argumentation. Although these three elements can be analyzed separately, they often overlap and work together. Often it may not be possible or useful to completely distinguish them.
Round up your persuasive skills by combining Aristotle’s technique with these recommended approaches.
- Robert Cialdini’s best-selling books, Influence The Psychology of Persuasion and Science and Practice, identify six ways to persuade another person. Watch this and this YouTube videos for excellent summaries of these six principles.
- reciprocity, when the other acts in expectation that his/her favors will be returned
- commitment and consistency, when the other takes actions consistent with his/her self-image
- social proof, when the other replicates the actions of others
- authority, when the other acquiesces to authority even if the request is questionable
- liking, when the other is persuaded by those whom they know, like, respect, and admire
- scarcity, when an object becomes more desirable because it is in short supply