How to be really persuasive?

When I teach public speaking I often refer to the teachings of Aristotle, the philosopher and universal genius. Aristotle is by all means and literally speaking an ancient figure but many of his insights do not gather dust but prove to be practical again and again.

The best known idea that Aristotle had about rhetoric is to divide the means of persuasion into three parts, called ethos, pathos, and logos.

Ethos means credibility and trustworthiness of the speaker (or, to be precise, how credible and trustworthy the speaker is deemed by the audience).

Pathos means the emotional impact the speech has on the audience.

Logos means logical reasoning in the speech: arguments, rationales, subject matter, examples, stories, structure.

You can use this three-fold division, the so-called Aristotelian triangle, to analyse speeches you hear and craft speeches of your own. 

In Aristotle’s opinion, these three factors ought to be always in balance. However, one of them was his favourite – ethos.

Aristotle had an insightful point: even if the speaker argued rigorously or skillfully stimulated our emotion centre we would not be willing to receive his or her message if trust is missing.

Therefore, trustworthiness and credibility are the best guarantee for successful persuasion.

Undoubtedly, this is comforting to many speakers. More important than being silver-tongued is that the audience relates to you positively and trustfully. (And even better if you are also silver-tongued.)

But where does sturdy ethos originate from?

Aristotle had an answer to this question too (unsurprisingly). And following his typical habit, he offered another three points. The next set of Greek magic words are arete, eunoia, and phronesis.

Arete means virtue, virtuous way of life. To translate the meaning to this day, the question is whether the speaker advances right goals in the view of the audience, whether he or she promotes a good cause.

Eunoia means caring. If you can show (and this showing is important!) that you care for the people who listen to you, their concerns, interests, and desires, your eunoia is in good shape.

Phronesis translates as practical wisdom. The present day meaning is know-how and expertise.

Thus, your ethos is pure steel when you show to your audience that you want to promote their cause (not your own), you care for their concerns, you want to serve them and, at the end of the day, you are an indisputable authority in your own field of expertise. 

When this happens, you have master keys of persuasion in your hands. People want to hear you and listen to you. Your words will fall on fruitful soil and they can bring about the change you desire.

To conclude, be interested – genuinely interested – in your audience and think hard about how you can serve them exclusively.


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