Whether you’re a preacher, a politician, an entrepreneur, or simply a haggard employee in hopes of getting a promotion, you need to understand the fine art of persuasion. We can learn a lot about this from the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), who prescribed three fundamental components for effective communication and persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos.
Aristotle’s analysis will give us insights into why many sermons fall on deaf ears, many political campaigns end in disappointment, many business proposals are rejected, and many people never land the new job they’re after. And we’ll even understand why the 2012 Presidential election turned out the way it did.
Ethos is the root of our modern English words “ethics” and “ethical,” so it is closely associated with matters of character and conduct. But Aristotle also used this term to describe the image of a person who seeks to persuade others. Do they seem credible? Are they the kind of person we would want to be like? Are they truly an expert on the subject they are promoting?
This means that if you’re a preacher, the impact of your sermons will be undercut if people don’t believe your life is a good example of what you teach. In order to embrace your message, they first must embrace you.
This is also why many political campaigns are based largely on ad hominem (“against the man”) arguments. Instead of a providing a true response to the other candidate’s positions on the issues, an attempt is made to discredit them as a person.
In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney was painted as a rich, insensitive “fat cat,” who had absolutely no understanding or concern for how 98% of the country lived. Instead of discussing inconvenient issues like the nation’s budget deficits, the Obama campaign constantly voiced the mantra that Romney just wanted to further the excessive lifestyle of his extremely wealthy friends. And the strategy worked, persuading enough people to vote for Obama or simply stay home and not vote at all.
Logos, of course, is the root of our modern words “logic” and “logical.” Although Aristotle was a big fan of using logic as a basis for persuasion, he also understood its limitations.
Logic only provides the right conclusion if the right assumptions are made. For example, if we assume the federal government has an unlimited pot of money, it may be logical to propose ever-expanding programs to care for people from cradle to grave. However, if we assume it is unsustainable to continue borrowing 40 cents of every dollar the government spends, we will arrive at an entirely different conclusion.
The other problem with logos is simply that many people don’t really care about logic. They may not admit this, but their underlying approach to decisions is “Don’t confuse me with the facts!”
This observation has profound implications:
- If you are a preacher… you shouldn’t be surprised when many people remain unconvinced by the well-reasoned case you make for your theological positions.
- If you are a politician…don’t assume that simple logic will convince a majority of voters to support your candidacy.
- If you are an entrepreneur…you need to learn from Steve Jobs’ marketing technique—not just selling your product’s features, but also its “coolness” and “sex appeal.”
If you’ve always depended on logic to persuade people, it’s crucial to add Aristotle’s third vital key: pathos. This indispensable ingredient focuses on the emotions of the person you are trying to persuade. Whether in preaching, politics, or marketing, this element must not be overlooked.
Successful influencers speak to a person’s heart as well as to their head. So the next time you hear a sermon, a political speech, or a TV ad, ask yourself this: How did the message make you FEEL? Even though the “logic” of the message may be entirely deceptive or convoluted, if it successfully engenders an emotional response, it’s likely to influence your behavior.
Pathos is often manipulative. Although marketers may appeal to altruism and self-sacrifice, they more frequently target our lower nature, seeking to influence us through fear, anger, greed, or pride. As communicators, we may not like this fact, but we can’t ignore it. Emotion is an important part of effective persuasion.
People almost never make their decisions based solely on logic. They are influenced much more by the likeability of the messenger and by the emotional reaction the message sparks. In 2008 the prevailing emotions were “hope and change” (positive feelings), but by 2012 the emotions primarily had become fear and anger (negative emotions).
So why did the 2012 Presidential campaign turn out the way it did? I would argue that logic was on Romney’s side regarding the economy and many other issues. But the Obama campaign did a masterful job in shaping Romney’s public image (ethos) and stirring the emotions (pathos) of the Democratic base.
Republicans may bemoan the fact that emotion seems to have won over logic, yet they shouldn’t be too surprised. That’s how things ordinarily work.
What about you today? How do Aristotle’s principles of persuasion apply to the kinds of issues you face? Take some time to ponder how you can use them to influence the people you are seeking to lead.