What CEOs Can Learn from Aristotle to Improve Pitch Performance


You spend hours preparing a sales presentation to key decision makers and stakeholders for a major prospect.

If you nail it and secure the business, that can make a huge impact on your company.

And as you give the talk, you feel like you're in the zone, covering all your points flawlessly.

But when it comes time for the close, or what you expected to be an engaging Q&A session...


No questions.

People glancing at their watches, staring down at their smartphones, scrolling through social media, clearly ready to move on.

Sure, you get the polite, “Hey, thanks for your time. We'll discuss and get back to you.”

But you know what that really means…

No deal.

When Your Pitch Falls Flat

What happened?

You were prepared and had compelling points backed up by solid data.

Why did they not get it?

The reason: Your pitch overlooked at least one of the three critical human elements of influence. And when you identify the missing elements and work them into your next presentation, you'll find that your pitch will pack a much more powerful punch.

What are the three elements of influence?

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle introduced them to us about 2400 years ago in his work, “The Art of Rhetoric.”

According to Aristotle, all three elements are interrelated.

Think of them as three spokes on what I call the “Wheel of Influence,” and that's where we're going to spend our time today.

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(To download the “Pre-Pitch Checklist,” click here.)

The Wheel of Influence

Picture, if you will, a wheel with the hub in the middle and three spokes connecting the hub to the outer rim.

Each spoke represents one of Aristotle's elements of influence.

When you think about a wheel on a car or bike, if there's a crack or any weakness in the spoke, it will cause the wheel itself to eventually bend and warp, and you're in for a very rough ride.

In a similar way, if there's any weakness in your proposal in terms of any of the elements of influence, then you can expect a very rough ride for your pitch—and your business.

So, what are these three spokes that you need to shore up—to ensure you have a smooth ride on your next pitch?

#1. Ethos

Using Aristotle's terminology, element number one, or spoke number one, is what he calls—and we’ll use the Greek word—Ethos.

What he's referring to is the character and credibility of the speaker—which is you.

Are you someone that your audience can trust is telling the truth, that you have their best interest in mind, and that you have the expertise and the credentials that demonstrate you know what you're talking about?

Here’s an example—and I'm sure you've experienced this at some point in your career.

You're sitting in a meeting where management is talking about a great new initiative that they're rolling out—and how awesome it will be for you guys as employees.

How are you receiving that message?

Well, most likely it's this. It doesn't matter what they're saying, how compelling their case might be, and how true it may actually be, chances are you're sitting there with your arms crossed and eyes rolling.


You don't believe them.

They don't have the character—the ethos.

In your mind, they don't have the character to be talking about this employee initiative in a way that you're truly going to connect with them on.

So how do you make sure that you're not having that same effect with your customers or potential investors?

You can go about this a myriad of ways, but here are a couple.

One is to have someone in that group, whether it's someone within your customer group or investor group to make the introduction for you.

This way, what they're doing is transferring their credibility onto you, where they're saying, “Hey, this is someone I've vetted, I know, and I can trust. So this is someone that you can have confidence that he or she knows what they're saying.”

Okay, so that's one way that you can shore up the first spoke on your wheel. Another way is to touch on your credentials as part of your talk where you offer just enough information to make the connection for the audience that you know what you're talking about.

For example, when I'm giving a talk to business leaders on “The Power of Storytelling in Leadership,” as part of my introduction I'll say something along these lines:

“In terms of the craft of storytelling, I am a longtime practitioner. I'm a journalist and speaker who covers the future of transportation and its impact on business and society. But over the years, I've also discovered that the same storytelling techniques that I've developed as a journalist can also help leaders like you become more effective and persuasive communicators.”

So you can see what I did there. I didn't list all my credentials. I didn't give my resume. All I did was touch on just enough of my expertise to let my audience know, “Okay, he has some experience in this field. Let's be open-minded to what he has to say.”

#2. Pathos

Spoke or element number two in Aristotle's terms is Pathos.

And what he's referring to is the emotional disposition of your audience.

So, the first spoke, Ethos, talked about you, your character and credibility.

The second spoke talks about your audience and the emotional condition that they're in.

We learn early on as children about how important it is to be in tune with the emotion of the people that we're making a request of.

As a kid, you learn, “Hey don't approach Dad asking for money when he's anxious about money or is angry about something.”

You want to make sure that he's in a good mood, right? Maybe it's payday, or you got great grades. And you learn to associate the mood of your audience with the timing of your request.

But, for whatever reason, we seem to forget that as we become adults and give presentations.

We get so focused on us—and what we're trying to communicate—that we overlook what the emotional state of our audience.

Aristotle talks about how we look at things differently based on our emotions. Whether we're aggrieved, or happy, or worried, we see things differently and accept that same message in a different way depending on what our emotional state is.

So, how can you shore up this part of your presentation?

Well, one thing I do—before I dive into the meat of the presentation—is take the temperature of the room.

I ask, “Hey, I just wanna take the temperature of the room. I'm curious. How do you guys think or feel about the current state of your equipment [or whatever it is that you're talking about]?”

And they might reply, “Well, we've been experiencing a lot of service issues right now, and it's costing us a lot more money to run and to keep it working. When there’s downtime, that can cost us a lot. You know, if one machine is down, that can cost $10,000 a day.”

So, right then and there, you have an idea of what they're feeling with their current situation. They're frustrated.

Now you can work that insight into your talk by, first, connecting with where they are feeling right now—acknowledging their frustration—and then moving them to a story about your solution which then transforms their emotional state to a feeling of hope and inspiration to take action.

In other words, you're identifying where your audience is right now on an emotional level and then using your pitch to lead them to where you want to take them—a feeling of hope and inspiration.

#3. Logos

We've talked about the character of the speaker, which is you. And we’ve talked about the emotional disposition of your audience. For the final element, Aristotle uses the Greek term Logos—which refers to the speech itself. Or, the term we might use in this context is the “content” of the speech.

You may notice with Logos, the English word “logic.” It's basically referring to this: Is there logical consistency to what you're saying?

After all, your audience may believe you. They may like you and have an emotional connection with what you're saying. But you can lose all that momentum if there's any logical inconsistency with what you're talking about.

That’s what happens when you get to the end of your  talk, and your audience is thinking, “I like this person, but I just don't get it.”

That's the point where you need to make sure that your talk, or your pitch, is constructed in a way that's clear, concise, and compelling for your audience to “get it.”

Now, how do you shore this up?

A strategy I use when I'm developing a pitch is this: begin with the end in mind.

I begin with the CTA—the call to action.

What is the call to action that I want to lead my audience to?

What is the action I want them to take when I'm done?

It may be to simply schedule another appointment to go deeper into what we're talking about, depending on the structure of this deal of what we're working on.

Or, it may be to go ahead and ask for their order—“How would you like to proceed?”

Or, it may be to get a commitment of investment, if it's an investor presentation.

Whatever your objective, be clear on what the CTA is, and then build your entire talk around that.

Let that be your plumb line. If anything does not contribute to leading to that call to action, take it out, because anything that is superfluous will be a distraction and cause your audience to think, “I don't get it.” Streamline your talk by building it around the call to action.

So we've talked about the three spokes.

Ethos, the credibility and character of the speaker—which is you.

Pathos, the emotional disposition of your audience.

And then Logos—that's the logical consistency of your content, the talk itself.

The Bottom Line

So, before your next presentation, check your “wheel.”

Look for any weaknesses that you might find in these components because if you strengthen them, you can guarantee that your next pitch will go much more smoothly.

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm that helps companies use storytelling to unlock sales growth.

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Study, SalesSean LydenComment