Around 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece, a gang of really cool kids, dressed in the hottest tunics, would go about town and country impressing onlookers with their talent for words. They called themselves Sophists. And they loved to talk. In fact, they talked everyone into learning how to debate, how to persuade and how to influence people through rhetoric.
Rhetoric (from the Greek, rhetor or orator) is the art of using language persuasively in order to leave an audience with a desired opinion or belief. Not that different from copywriting. So, while these Sophists were going about impressing the daylights out of everyone, they had trouble winning over one philosophically charged guy in a toga. Aristotle, who wasn’t exactly boy-band material, was worried that despite their huge drawing power and popularity, the Sophists weren’t really doing justice to the art of persuasion. Their methods, Aristotle bemoaned, were a little too emotional, too florid, too high-flown and far too insubstantial to be taken seriously. In latter day terms, Aristotle wanted to figure out a way to become a doctor of communication rather than a master of hype.
So he came up with his own set of rules. Specifically, ethos, logos and pathos. A troika of eurekas that can be applied every time your audience hits the stands and persuasion is in demand. And even though his rules are older than you care to know, they still work today.
Ethos – or, how to persuade with strong, moral character
Personal credibility is the reason why people will want to listen to you. So it’s not enough to be an ethical guy with high moral principles. You need to frame your character certificate. And frame it in such a way that it gets communicated loud and clear. But this is not about arrogance. It’s about revealing your character in the ways you come across.
Begin with empathy; prove you know your audiences’ struggles and aspirations.
Avoid jargon, newspeak, psychobabble; talk plainly, warmly and genuinely.
Have a heart; come across as genuinely wanting to make a difference (or your money back).
Show you have experience, expertise and knowledge by sharing your credentials and story.
Logos – or, how to persuade with reason, logic and rationale
Originally, logos meant plea, opinion, expectation, word, speech, account, reason. Later, it became a technical term in philosophy for a principle of order and knowledge. The Sophists used it to mean discourse. But Aristotle referred to it as reasoned discourse.
Logos is the etymology for logic. So, for starters, be clear; avoid ambiguity; kill superlatives.
Make an understatement. Avoid hyperbole, purple prose, inflated claims and false promises.
And substantiate everything so that your reasoned discourse is inflated with proof, not piffle.
Pathos – or, how to persuade with passion, ardour and desire
The Sophists were experts in pathos because it meant galvanising big emotion with a bullwhip. Aristotle was in favour of moving people with emotion to assist persuasion so long as it was founded on ethos and held together by logos. To this end, he asked us to:
Use stories to amplify needs and narrate the journey you want your audience to take.
Ask engaging questions that will help build trust, rapport and prove the points you make.
Write like you speak. So your voice flows naturally, builds suspense and commands attention.
Save the best for last. Like a crescendo, close with a big dosage of pathos that gets your audience to take an action, change their opinion, switch sides, or just lust after your autograph.
Aristotle would have made a great copywriter if he were alive today. He would have used his techniques for persuasion with character and integrity; not to mention, reasoned discourse stirred with enough emotion so that his audience is driven to action. In doing so, he may also have changed the opinions of a lot of people out there who think of what we do – being able to speak correctly and warmly – as a sugar-coated tentacle of manipulation.
The truth, of course, is the opposite: The need to seduce, entertain and amaze an audience so that we may rightfully earn their attention is a sign of humility, not arrogance.
And that, to me, is far from Greek.