Classical Rhetoric 101: The Three Means of Persuasion

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Welcome back
to our ongoing series on classical rhetoric. Today we’ll cover
the three means of persuasion as set forth by Aristotle in The
Art of Rhetoric
. According to Aristotle, a speaker or writer
has three ways to persuade his audience:

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 on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words
of the speech itself.

Below we cover
the basics of the three means of persuasion and offer a few suggestions
on how to implement them into your rhetorical arsenal. And because
this aspect of rhetoric is so meaty, I’ve also included suggestions
for further reading for those who wish to learn more about each
element (I’ll provide a reading list for exploring the subject
of rhetoric as a whole in the last post of the series).

Ready to get
started? Let’s go!

Ethos: The
Appeal to the Speaker’s or Writer’s Character or Reputation

If you wish
to persuade, you need to establish credibility and authority with
your audience. A man may have the most logical and well-thought-out
argument, but if his audience doesn’t think he’s trustworthy
or even worth listening to, all his reasoning will be for naught.

For Aristotle,
a speaker’s ethos consists of appearing knowledgeable
about the topic he’s speaking about and being a man of good
character. Aristotle and Cicero thought that a speaker could only
appeal to his ethos within the speech itself and that an orator
should spend the first part of his speech establishing his credibility.
The classical rhetorician Isocrates believed that developing one’s
ethos and credibility with the audience began even before the speaker
opened his mouth. Audiences naturally approach speakers and writers
with some suspicion, so they’ll look to his past for evidence
that he is trustworthy and knowledgeable about what he’s speaking
or writing about.

A speaker or
writer can use ethos in several ways. First, you can simply begin
your speech or text by referring to your expertise on the subject.
Share how long you’ve studied the subject, mention how many
articles you’ve published and where you published them, and
refer to awards or recognition you’ve received in relation
to the subject at hand.

A nuanced way
to establish credibility and rapport with your audience is to downplay
your accomplishments. People don’t like a braggart or one-upper.
In some cases, having a highfalutin resume might hinder people from
trusting you. A bit of modesty can go a long way to getting the
audience to trust and like you, and consequently, be persuaded by
what you have to say.

Another powerful
way to establish ethos with your audience is to find common ground
with them. Human beings are social animals. We have a tendency to
trust others that are like us (or at least appear like us). You
can establish common ground by acknowledging shared values or beliefs.
You can establish common ground by simply recognizing a shared history.
You see this all the time with presidential candidates. They’ll
visit a state they have no immediate connection to, but they’ll
find some story from their distant past that connects them to the
state. Maybe their great-great-grandfather passed through the area
in a covered wagon. That commonality, however slight or silly it
may be, helps the audience feel connected to the speaker, and, consequently,
makes him more trustworthy.

Living a life
of virtue
is perhaps the best way to develop ethos. The very
hint of hypocrisy will doom even the most eloquent speech. Conversely,
when you are virtuous, honest, and earnestly committed to that which
you speak of, this inner-commitment will tinge each word you utter
with sincerity. The audience will feel the depth of your commitment
and will listen far more intently then when they know it is mere

Reading on Ethos

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
(available free
!) Read Franklin’s autobiography for insights on
how to live a life of virtue. Also, scattered throughout his life’s
story, Franklin gives short lessons in ethos building by sharing
insights on how he developed credibility and influence with those
around him.

the Crowd: Unlock the Secrets of Influence, Charisma, and Showmanship

A professional magician lays out the secrets of building instant
rapport and connection with an audience or individual. Who better
to explain how to gain credibility than a man who has to convince
people to suspend belief and believe the incredible?

in a Room
In order to succeed in Hollywood, writers, directors,
and producers often have just a few minutes to convince a studio
executive to finance their project. In this small window of time,
they have to build instant credibility, or ethos. In Good in
a Room, a former MGM Director shares the most successful techniques
on how to establish your authority and credibility in any situation.

The Appeal to Emotion

Men have a
tendency to dismiss the power of emotion. I know a lot of guys who
think you should only persuade through pure reason and logic. But
in a battle between emotion and rationality, emotion usually wins,
hands down. This isn’t cynicism, it’s just an acknowledgment
of the reality of human nature.

Jonathan Haidt created a powerful metaphor that depicts the tension
between our emotional and rational side: The Elephant and the Rider.

The Heath brothers
summarize it nicely in their book Switch:

Haidt says
our emotional side is the Elephant and our rational side is the
Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and
seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious
because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime
the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction
to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.

The battle
between the Rational Rider and the Emotional Elephant is why we
see doctors who smoke and are overweight. They know their behavior
isn’t rational and that they should change. They’re doctors
for Pete’s sake! But it doesn’t matter. Unless they have
a powerful emotional motivation to change, they’ll keep puffing
and eating away.

understand emotion’s power. Turn on your TV and watch some
commercials. How many of them use hard facts and figures to convince
you to buy their product? I bet it’s a big fat zilch. Advertisers
want you to feel a certain way when you think about their product.
Take this commercial for Chivas scotch:

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