Apr 082011

Who would have thought that the Greek philospher Aristotle could help you be a better business person? Well, if you want to be more persuasive, and by extension better at sales, marketing and negotiating, it’s worth thinking a bit about three categories that Aristotle used to describe means of persuasion. Those categories are Ethos, Pathos and Logos.

Ethos refers to the character or credibility of the speaker – or writer – the person trying to get their message or argument across. The listener or reader is going to have an impression of the level of credibility of the person trying to persuade them. This impression will be based on past interactions, reputation, and the manner of communication, among other factors.

Pathos relates to emotion. It is an attempt to persuade by appealing to the emotions of the person(s) you are trying to persuade. This appeal can be based on analogies, metaphors or stories that evoke the emotions of your reader or listener. It is well known that humans are accustomed to learning and passing on knowledge and wisdom through stories, so being able to weave a good story that touches someone emotionally is an excellent way to win them over.

Logos refers to logic. In this case, you are trying to persuade someone by using a well-reasoned, logical argument. You are persuading based on the belief that your audience will respond to an appeal that is structured in a logical, left-brain manner. Using this form of persuasion is seductive, as it gives you the (usuallly false) sense of comfort that if you can just make your argument tight enough, then your audience will have to be persuaded. Unfortunately, it’s not usually that simple.

As you’ve undoubtedly realized by now, these three categories usually do not work independently. In other words, it’s unlikely that by just using one of these forms of persuasion you are likely to persuade your audience, or at least not as consistently or to the extent you would like to. Why is that? Let’s consider an example to understand why these three almost always work together.

Let’s consider the example of someone that comes to you on the street, trying to persuade you to give them a few dollars because their car has run out of gas. For all of us who have lived in a big city at some point in our lives, this has likely happened at least once or twice. So what happens in this scenario? Well first, presumably you do not now this person at all, so they start out with very little credibility (Ethos). Strike one. Next, they have a very short time to get your attention and to use much logic (Logos). Strike two. Finally, they may stir up a bit of emotion in you, as you may have run out of gas at some point and had to look for help. Or you may just feel bad for them for being in an unfortunate circumstance.

So would you give this person money? What are some of the factors that may affect the degree to which they can persuade you? To begin with, if they’re dressed like you or dressed very well, you’re likely to give them a bit more credit (Ethos). Next, if they tell you a story that is more likely to relate to an experience you’ve had, or to your current situation, they may have more credibility and may at the same time touch you a bit more emotionally (Ethos, Pathos). Finally, if they tell you up front “this may sound a bit crazy,” you’re not likely to expect much logic or reasoning (Logos), so you’ll likely hold them to a lower standard on this category and the short time they have to give you a logical story won’t necessarily count against them as much.

What are some of the things that could work against them? How about if they’re dressed very shabbily, perhaps to the extent that you may even doubt that they have a car at all? How about if you’ve heard this story many, many times before, at least one or two of which were found to be complete fabrications? And what if in the short time they have to give you any semblance of logic for their plea, they give you a story that makes no sense to you at all, either based on the vocabulary the’re using or the numerous faults in their reasoning? All of these could cause you to say “no” (at least in your head) before they even start talking.

In this example, we’re talking about someone who walks up to you on the street looking for money. What does that have to do with business? With sales and marketing? With negotiation? Well how different is this scenario in reality than the many times people try to persuade you each day, whether it be in-person, by telephone, television, radio, or internet? In all of those cases, just as with the person who approached you on the street, each of the persons or organizations trying to persuade you is going to have varying levels of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos in your mind. An unknown person or organization that comes to you, regardless of how they come to you, is likely to have very little credibility (Ethos) in your mind at the beginning. True, they may be able to make an emotional appeal (Pathos) and you may be moved, even though you don’t know them well. They may also be able to put together a solid, logical argument that you see as having merit (Logos). But even so, are you likely to buy from them, or be persuaded by them?

What can you do to increase the likelihood that when you are making appeals to individuals, they are going to be persuaded by you? The answer is in the combination of Ethos, Pathos and Logos. Any one of these approaches used in isolation is not nearly as powerful as when it is used in combination with the others. What you need to do is use Ethos, Pathos and Logos either all at once, or better yet, in a sequence that makes sense.

What is the right sequence in which to use Ethos, Pathos and Logos when you are trying to persuade others? There are many approaches that can work. One that is tried and true is to first use Ethos, then Pathos, then Logos. The idea goes like this: first you must be a credible source before the audience will even open their ears and begin to listen to your emotional and logical appeals. You can build your presentations, marketing and sales pitches in such a way that they follow this sequence. You may also get away with, and in some situations even be better off with, first appealing to their emotions, then letting them know that the appeal is coming from a credible source, and then finally giving them your logic for why they should take a particular action. One thing that is clear though, is that if you try to give them logic before you’ve even touched on emotion or credibility, you’re not likely to get too far in persuading them.

There are myriad ways that you can work toward establishing Ethos, evoking Pathos, and delivering sound Logos, but regardless of how you decide to approach it, hopefully this article has given you a solid grounding in the concept Aristotle put forth over 2,000 years ago. Hopefully too, you will not try to use just one of these categories of persuasion, but rather use them together to maximize your persuasive potential.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and questions on the concept of Ethos, Pathos and Logos. Please leave a comment below or by clicking on the top right corner of this post.

Paul Morin
Twitter: @PaulAlanMorin

Twitter: @CompanyFounder.com

Email: paul@CompanyFounder.com.

  • mackenzie riley

    I think that part of the reason Aristotle is still just as important today as he was several thousand years ago is that he has had his worth proven so thus, his ethos is high. He was a scholar, so we can believe his teachings thus his logos is high as well. We can relate to him on some level because the other two are so high, so it may not matter that he’s been passed away for so long. I think it’s good that we realize that we need to be seen as relateable when we try to sell something to someone. We need to appeal to their logical side; show them that their life would be so much better with our product. Show them that time is saved and everything is so much easier. This gets them so they can’t imagine their lives without your product. So then you make a sale because they are now emotionally attached to the product and have rationalized it in their mind that they need it.

  • Aristotle and most of the other great thinkers of history do continue do enjoy tremendous credibility (ethos) with certain segments of the population. Their teachings don’t resonate with everyone, of course, but your point is well taken that their “ethos is high”. The great scholars also tend to be able to paint their teachings in words and imagery that evoke emotions, so that helps them connect with us on an emotional level as well. Once they’ve jumped those two hurdles, given that their ideas are almost always presenting using compelling logic, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that their commentary will have some impact on us. Agreed that following this same sequence of ethos, pathos, logos can be an effective way to persuade those we’d like to convince to work with us or use our products and services.

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  • Hi Jeff, happy you’ve found it helpful. We do our best! 🙂 Paul