The Persuasive Secrets of Aristotle

By Donna St. Jean Conti

“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible,” Aristotle.

Persuasion is the name of the game when it comes to public relations (PR) and marketing. The very nature of the field is to convince someone to want and consume a product or service. But just how old is the art of persuasion and how different is it today? As it turns out, very little has changed in over two millennia.

Persuasion in the Modern World

As mentioned before, being able to persuade consumers is the name of the game in the modern world. As this article by Harvard Business Review points out, “some economists attribute about a quarter of America’s total national income to persuasion.”[1] This would make sense as the economy has become less about the concrete production of agriculture to that of “knowledge-based ideas such as startups, political campaigns, and customer reviews.”[2] But where does this skill come from? While many prominent people can be credited with developing the art of persuasion, Aristotle, with works such as Rhetoric, is easily one of the most significant men who shaped the way we influence people.

Rhetoric and Its Tenets

In Aristotle’s view, a man could not persuade someone unless they could back their words with action, make a logical appeal to reason, as well as appeal to their emotions. This is broken down into sections titled Ethos, Logos, and Pathos respectively. Regarding Ethos, the example used in the same article by Harvard Business Review is that of Humans Rights Attorney, Bryan Stevenson, who spends most of his days in jails, prison, and death row to build a sense of credibility. Although the article does not continue the example for the other two tenets, Logos would be established if he then appealed to people’s sense of reason by saying that voting for the reduction of sentencing for non-violent offenses would help the economy. Lastly, Pathos could follow if he were to emphasize the pain and suffering caused by long sentences for these non-violent crimes. However, Aristotle further explains other skills that one could develop to round out their persuasive abilities.

Metaphor and Brevity

Although one could build a solid foundation by mastering Ethos, Logos, and Pathos, Aristotle mentions the use of metaphors and brevity as necessary skills. In the case of metaphors, the Harvard Business Review article says it best when it states, “using a metaphor to compare a new or abstract idea to something that is already familiar to your audience clarifies and makes the idea more concrete.”[3] As for brevity, less is always more. The more succinct you can be in delivering a message, the more likely your audience will retain information. Such ideas were profoundly ahead of Aristotle’s time, but they nonetheless date back to over 2300 years ago and have changed very little if at all since.

In a modern global economy of abstract ideas that can potentially reshape the way we do things, being able to persuade consumers, investors, and electorates alike is more important now than ever. However, the way in which this can be accomplished is anything but new. In essence, being able to establish credibility, appeal to people’s sense of reason and emotions, compare the abstract to the familiar, and keep the message succinct are all necessary skills for doing so. Fortunately, Aristotle believed that these skills can be taught, and he demonstrated this by freely giving the power of rhetoric to the masses of Classical Greece.

 

[1] Harvard Business Review, “The Art of Persuasion Hasn’t Changed in 2,000 Years,” https://hbr.org/2019/07/the-art-of-persuasion-hasnt-changed-in-2000-years?utm_source=linkedin&utm_campaign=hbr&utm_medium=social.
[2] Harvard Business Review, “The Art of Persuasion Hasn’t Changed in 2,000 Years,” https://hbr.org/2019/07/the-art-of-persuasion-hasnt-changed-in-2000-years?utm_source=linkedin&utm_campaign=hbr&utm_medium=social.
[3] Harvard Business Review, “The Art of Persuasion Hasn’t Changed in 2,000 Years,” https://hbr.org/2019/07/the-art-of-persuasion-hasnt-changed-in-2000-years?utm_source=linkedin&utm_campaign=hbr&utm_medium=social.

 

Donna St. Jean Conti is president of St. Conti Communications, an award-winning, full-service, marketing communications agency specializing in public relations, social media, and writing support. For more information about our agency and how we can help you promote your products or services, contact Donna St. Jean Conti, APR, at dconti (at) stconticommunications.com.

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