The Power of Aristotle's Persuasion Triangle

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The persuasion principles in Aristotle’s “Art of Rhetoric” are just as relevant for entrepreneurs today as they were for leaders in ancient Greece nearly 2,400 years ago. Here are my study notes...

TAKEAWAYS

1. There is a science—and art—to persuasion that consists of three universal principles that, when we apply them to our communications, will improve our odds of winning the hearts and minds of our audience.

2. A coherent and logically sound argument is only one-third of what we need to win people over to our point-of-view—we also need to establish our credibility as the messenger and appeal to the emotional state (disposition) of the audience.

3. Therefore, we should apply all three principles of, what I call, the “Persuasion Triangle” to maximize the persuasiveness of each speech (or sales presentation, book, op-ed, etc.), so that we can have greater confidence that our work will produce more consistent—and predictable—results.

THE ARISTOTLE PERSUASION TRIANGLE (APT)

Universal Principle #1. Ethos (Character): "Character of the speaker."

“Proofs from character are produced, whenever the speech is given in such a way as to render the speaker worthy of credence—we more readily and sooner believe reasonable men on all matters in general and absolutely on questions where precision is impossible and two views can be maintained. … character contains almost the strongest proof of all, so to speak."

Ethos refers to the speaker’s or writer’s:

  • Character (or virtue): Is this a person of integrity, someone I can believe is doing their best to tell the truth?

  • Credibility: Does this person know what they’re talking about?

  • Authority: Does this person possess credentials that impress me—and make me more inclined to listen to their argument?

Another important point Aristotle makes here is that the speaker must not only establish credibility prior to the speech but also maintain it while delivering it.

“But this [credibility] effect too must come about in the course of the speech, not through the speaker’s being believed in advance to be of a certain character.”

Universal Principle #2. Pathos (Emotion): "Disposition of the audience"

“Proofs from the disposition of the audience are produced whenever they are induced by the speech into an emotional state. We do not give judgment in the same way when aggrieved and when pleased, in sympathy and in revulsion."

Aristotle reminds us that how our audience perceives—and acts upon—our message is largely determined by the emotional state they are in.

So, when it comes to the emotions (or disposition) of our audience, Aristotle says our communications should account for these two considerations:

  • The current emotional state: What is the audience feeling right now? This way you can “meet them” where they are.

  • The target emotional state: Where do you want to take the audience? What do you want the audience to feel at the end of your talk?

For example, if your audience is frustrated about an issue, you’ll want to tap into that frustration at the beginning. Then, perhaps, over the course of your talk, lead them to a feeling of empowerment, where they’re ready to take action. The idea here is this: Identify the current state and target state and then map out how your talk can bridge that gap for the audience.

Universal Principle #3. Logos (Logic): "The speech itself."

“Finally, proof is achieved by the speech (itself), when we demonstrate either a real or an apparent persuasive aspect of each particular matter."

A few ideas here:

  • Remove anything from your talk (or article or presentation) that is inconsistent or does not support your main thesis.

  • Ensure that your content passes the “reasonableness test.” Even if some in the audience might disagree with your conclusion, is your argument at least reasonable?

  • Make your message and call-to-action as clear and understandable as possible.

TYING IT ALTOGETHER

“Since proofs are produced by these means [ethos, pathos and logos], it is clear that the grasp of them belongs to whoever has mastered the syllogism [logic], can scientifically consider character and the virtues [ethos] and, thirdly, knows what, and of what kind, each of the emotions [pathos] is and also from what how they are engendered.”

In other words, for maximum persuasion, you must put all three principles to work. Otherwise, for example, you can be a credible, authoritative source who is presenting a strong, logically sound argument, but if you fail to connect with your audience on an emotional level, you’ll lose the audience and be unable to move them to respond the way you intend.

The bottom line: If you want to change minds, you must first move their hearts.  

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, a Strategy and Storytelling consultancy that helps entrepreneurs tell their story in a way that grabs attention, garners trust, and grows their business. 

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