Aristotle's Rhetoric
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Overview

This model from Ancient Greece has helped define the art of persuasion for over 2,000 years and continues to serve as a guide for impactful speeches, communication and presentations. 

Aristotle’s Rhetoric model describes your ability to persuade an audience by combining three ‘appeals’:

  • Logos, which is an appeal to logic and reason of the message;
  • Ethos, which is an appeal to the character and credibility of the speaker;
  • and Pathos, which is an appeal to the emotions and values of the audience. 

RHETORIC IS CONTEXTUAL & PERSONAL. 

Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the ability, in a particular case, to identify the available means of persuasion.” This points to Aristotle's view that effective rhetoric must be highly contextual.

Indeed, Aristotle explicitly identified the limits of making sound rational arguments that failed to appeal to a specific audience’s beliefs, thinking and expectations — yes, apparently ‘empathy-driven customer-centricity’ is as old as Aristotle! 

THE THREE APPEALS. 

Aristotle described the three appeals at some length, explaining: “The man (sic) 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.”

Let’s look at the techniques behind each of the three appeals in more detail: 

The Appeal

Focus

Tips

Example

Logos -

Logic and reason. 

The message - 

A clearly structured argument and narrative with causal relationships and evidence that makes sense to your audience. 

  • Ensure a logical flow with supporting reasons and evidence. 

  • Address counterarguments in your audience’s minds.

  • Consider using data and statistics. 

  • Consider the style and form to best support the argument’s flow. 

  • Ensure your argument is built on an accepted premise. 

  • Support your audience to come to the conclusion for themself. 

  • Consider context, including referencing your time and place to build a compelling narrative. 

This model is important —  according to some economist, today persuasion is responsible for generating one-quarter of the USA’s total national income. This model will help you realise greater results.

Ethos -

Character and credibility

The presenter - 

Trusting that the person delivering the message has the appropriate experience, knowledge and intentions to be trusted in the area. 

  • Consider the type of character that will most influence your audience. 

  • Consider style and voice to reflect your authority, ethics and personality..

  • Cite relevant credentials and experience.

  • Leverage testimonials and case studies.

  • Be transparent about your motivation and potential conflicts, biases or assumptions. 

This model is important —  Aristotle is widely considered to be one of the most influential thinkers in history and, from all accounts,  he was committed to making the powers of persuasion accessible to more people. 

Pathos -

Emotions and values. 

The audience -

Focusing on the emotional state and beliefs of the audience, shifting them to increase how receptive they are. . 

  • Build from the current emotional disposition and beliefs of your audience. 

  • Consider what emotions would make your audience most receptive to your message _ joy, hope, fear, happiness, anger etc. 

  • Use stories about individuals to make the argument human and personal. 

This model is important —  Sam was frustrated and often ignored in her job which was destroying her confidence. Then she started to apply this model and was able to get her message heard and become a respected team member. 

 

ARISTOTLE’S TWO ADDITIONAL PERSUASION TIPS 

Aristotle had two other tips about persuasion: 

  • Less is more. He seemed to identify that more information did not actually convince people, so argued for brevity. 

  • Metaphors: Continuing his audience-centric theme, Aristotle strongly advocated the use of metaphors to leverage the existing ideas and mental models of your audience when introducing new ideas. 

The trick with these tips along with the three appeals is to consider your audience and find the right combination between them to make an impact. 

IN YOUR LATTICEWORK

As a key model in the art of persuasion, definitely combine Aristotle’s Rhetoric model with Caldini’s Six Principles of Influence. The audience-centric approach behind Aristotle's approach will also benefit from models such as Personas and Empathy Maps

In terms of communication, you might want to contrast or even combine this model with Minto Pyramid and SCQA, particularly for inpatient business audiences. 

Use models such as Divide and Conquer or Correlation vs Causation to help establish Logos, or a logical flow. In relation to an appeal of Ethos or credibility, definitely leverage the Trust Equation. In terms of an appeal to Pathos or emotion, you might want to consider the Hero's Journey for more effective and emotional storytelling. 

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Actionable takeaways
  • Deeply understand your audience. 

What are their current mental models, beliefs, pain points, needs, goals, ideas and emotional state? Ask, how can you connect with them, where they are at now, and shift them to where you need them to be?

  • Appeal to Logos - Logic and reason. 

Consider your logical flow, check your causal relationships and supporting evidence. Reference your time and place as part of the narrative and address counter-arguments that your audience will likely have. 

  • Appeal to Ethos - Character and credibility.

Consider the type of character that will resonate with your audience, then leverage your style and voice, credentials, experience and testimonials to deliver. 

  • Appeal to Pathos - Emotions and values. 

Connect with the current state of your audience and use emotional stories, and/or your own passion to be more ‘human’. 

  • Use metaphors and be brief. 

Beyond the three appeals, don’t forget Aristotle’s additional tips of leveraging existing ideas of your audience to explain something new and to keep things brief.  

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In Practice

Legal application. 

This 2014 research paper describes how Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle is a crucial tool in the courtroom. The author explains: 

“Logos, ethos, and pathos, a persuader’s logical, credibility-related, and emotional appeals, when used in concert, create a whole argument. This argument is one which takes into account the human element as well as the rational and logical needs of the law in its pursuit of justice. Classical Aristotelian rhetoric, thus, must not be dismissed by the advocate hoping to most effectively represent his client. Nor should it be dismissed by the legal community as form over substance.As I have demonstrated, the end result of an attorney utilizing Aristotle’s three modes together is the fairest result possible in a given situation, so substance is not sacrificed, and effective form is still maintained.”

“I have a dream.” 

I could have chosen an analysis of any modern speech based on Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle, I went with Martin Luthor King’s classic. 

This article breaks it down, including noting the following: 

Ethos

  • By way of establishing his intentions, “In his speech, King frequently looks back at moments in American history and refers to the leaders who laid the foundation of free America.” 

Pathos

  • Given the moment of anger and frustration he was speaking in, there’s no wonder that Pathos was a main ingredient. “His speech keeps growing more dramatic and engaging. King tries to make the frustration visible that years of neglect have caused.” 

Logos

  • King paints the future state, the ‘dream’, and lays out a path to achieve it, heavily referencing American history. 

Limitations

Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, was critical of persuasion techniques, seemingly to rally against the form and emotional element winning arguments over a logical case as an example of manipulation. Aristotle did counter this, suggesting that the art of persuasion was a necessary but neutral tool and that it should be used ethically. 

Other criticism of the model tends to be in its application, as it sets a broad framework but potentially lacks more practical application. In other words, while a useful guide, the model still takes considerable skill to apply effectively and consistently. 

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Origins & Resources

Aristotle’s Rhetoric was set out in his book On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse. I say 'book' because it has been published as such but, like his other works, seems to have been a collection of his student’s notes in response to his lectures. His body of work on persuasion did progress and shift over his life, though these three appeals remained consistent. 

Other modern sources to dive into this model include the work of Carmine Gallo, see his HBR article on the topic; and Sam Leith’s Words Like Loaded Pistols. For a more in-depth albeit slightly academic view of this model, you can also visit the entry in Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy.    

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