The art of persuasion 1: Rhetoric

illustration of speaker with masks
Rhetoric: The art of persuasion

George Orwell once wrote that a classical education would be impossible without corporal punishment. Maybe that’s why it isn’t taught in school today.  A classical education was demanding. It included rhetoric: the art of effective speaking and writing.

Rhetoric’s goal is to persuade. Effective communication will always be a vital business skill, because business is essentially a conversation among producers, buyers and sellers. Without persuasion nothing would get done.

Rhetoric can seem overly technical with its highly forgettable Latin and Greek names. You know what the word oxymoron means. You can probably give some humorous examples. But chiasmus[i] and zeugma[ii] just don’t come up in conversation that much. Yet all of us unknowingly use rhetorical devices (figures of speech) all the time. We may just not know their names.

Twenty-four centuries ago, Aristotle formulated his study of rhetoric. During the medieval period, rhetoric was taught as one of the seven liberal arts. The seven were divided into two sections: the Trivium and Quadrivium. The Trivium is concerned with communication; grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The Quadrivium is an advanced study of number, geometry, music, and cosmology.

Three pillars of rhetoric

Persuasion (excluding brute force) operates through a combination of three foundational pillars which the Greeks called ethos, logos, and pathos. Each of these has a more technical meaning, but I’ll call them character, support, and feeling.

Character (ethos)

Of the three pillars, character is by far the most important. A person of good character has credibility and behaves ethically. Personal characteristics persuade us to either trust, or not to trust them. Marshall McLuhan, in his seminal book, Understanding Media, wrote, the medium is the message. The messenger is also the message. When you share beliefs and principles with another person, you’re far more likely to be open to what they have to say.

In much of life—and especially in business—complexity remains a major headache. Despite technological advantages, no single individual can comprehend vast amounts of information. In the face of complexity we are forced to rely on experts.

But can we trust them?

Assessing character

Personality, shared experience, affiliation, achievement, status, body posture, voice, and many other characteristics influence how we judge other people. We’re more easily persuaded by someone we know, like, and trust. But we also judge people by what we see them doing: how they behave.

In Blake Snyder’s book on screenwriting, Save the Cat, he shows how this works. One of his examples is from the 1989 thriller, Sea of Love, starring Al Pacino. Pacino’s character is a cop and part of a sting operation. In the movie, the police are waiting to lure parole violators with the promise of meeting the New York Yankees. Al arrives late and spots another man bringing his son to the meeting. Instead of busting him, Al flashes his badge. The man and his son exit. Al says, “Catch you later.”

Al’s a good guy.


Toastmasters International is a worldwide organization that helps people become better communicators. Speakers start by the greeting, “Fellow Toastmasters and welcome guests.” This five-word sentence establishes identity and connection.

Support (logos)

Logos means word. This is where you support your position by using evidence to build an effective argument. Effective support doesn’t necessarily mean rational support. Logos shouldn’t be confused with logic because rhetoric is an art and not a science. Science demands a hypothesis stands until it’s disproved. Rhetoric operates by suggesting probabilities and making generalizations.

Logos appears to be rational. You may support your argument through citing studies or using data in an attempt to influence. It looks like logic. But it isn’t. Think about truthiness. Logos is persuasion by plausibility; what might be, or what could possibly happen, or even hearsay.

For example, in the early days of motoring, an executive reasoned that cars would never become widespread because there were not enough chauffeurs. Support for his position was simple, plausible, and wrong.

Picture of early car
Public Domain Image

A wise communicator understands the audience’s assumptions (what the audience believes to be true). Lack of chauffeurs will doom the auto industry. Better the devil you know than the one you don’t. Hope springs eternal. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. These seem reasonable assumptions, but are they?

Social norms depend upon the spirit of the community. Belching at the dinner table is rude in one culture, and obligatory in another. A man asking after the health of another man’s wife in one culture is polite. In another it will cause offence.

Rhetoric can be subtle. Aristotle wrote that an audience should be led to believe it has drawn its own conclusions. Generations of shrewd prosecuting attorneys and successful salespeople have understood this idea. Logos supplies the “why.”

Feeling (pathos)

Comedy and tragedy make us laugh and cry. Pathos is the domain of every motivational speaker. Who hasn’t been affected by a moving speech, book, play, or movie? We remember events because of their emotional content. Pathos is feeling.

Emotional life has little to do with logic and rationality. We don’t rationally fall in love. We can’t explain why we’re attracted to people and ideas.  Skilled communicators are in touch with the audience’s emotional temperature. They speak for their audience, reflecting anger, sorrow, joy, frustrations, or triumph felt by the group.

Save your emotional appeal for the peroration, the concluding part of a speech. This is where you can use pathos to great effect. A classic example comes from Pericles’s funeral oration in ancient Athens. What made Pericles’s speech remarkable was its emotive and bonding appeal to the greatness of ancient Athens and the Greek people. Martin Luther King’s, I Have a Dream speech is pure pathos.

Four-and-a-half questions

  • Who are you? Why should your audience/readers listen to you?
  • Is what you’re saying relevant to your audience/readers?
  • Is what you’re saying plausible?
  • How will your audience feel?

The art of persuasion 2: How to argue

[i] Chiasmus is a reversal, a figure of speech in the shape of an X.”Foul is fair and fair is foul.” —Shakespeare’s MacBeth

[ii] Zeugma is a figure of speech that yokes two or more ideas together. “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” —John F. Kennedy