The true soul of persuasion

Sep 22, 2021

They say ideas are the currency of the 21st Century.
Being able to persuade, to change hearts and minds can be the sole greatest skill that will give you a concrete boost in the so-called knowledge economy, where ideas matter more than ever. Persuasion is said to be responsible for generating one-quarter or more of America’s total national income. As our economy has evolved from an agrarian to an industrial up to a knowledge-based one, in the end, successful people are basically those who are able to convince others to take action on their ideas. That is to say, persuasion is no longer considered to be a “soft skill” at all, being that instead a highly required one to help you attract investors, selling products, building brands, inspiring teams, as well as triggering movements. Persuasion is so important to billionaire Warren Buffett that the only diploma he proudly displays in his office is a public-speaking certificate from a Dale Carnegie course. He once told business students that improving their communication skills would have boosted their professional value by 50%. He meant instantly. Words and ideas significantly built the modern world as it is today. Words and ideas have the potential to make you kind of a pro among others in your field, as long as you can persuade someone else to act on them. More than 2,000 years ago ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defined how to master the art of persuasion in his work Rhetoric. Most of the world-renowned communicators referred to it throughout the ages to deliver some of the most influential speeches, presentations, as well as to share their ideas with the world.
To become a master of persuasion yourself and successfully sell your own ideas, try using these five rhetorical devices that Aristotle identified in your next speech or presentation:

1) Ethos (or “Character”)

This means the part of a speech or presentation when your audience gains some insight into your credibility. Aristotle believed that, shouldn’t a speaker’s actions do back their words, they would lose credibility, and ultimately, weaken their argument. To try and give you an example, in a now-famous TED Talk on reforming the criminal justice system, Human Rights Attorney Bryan Stevenson begins “I spend most of my time in jails, in prisons, on death row. I spend most of my time in very low-income communities in the projects and places where there’s a great deal of hopelessness.”. As you may notice, Stevenson is not listing degrees, accomplishments, and awards he collected, as he might do on a résumé. Rather, he establishes his character for those in the audience who don’t know him. This way, he is able to generate a sense of trust between himself and his listeners. As humans, we are hardwired to seek reasons to trust another person, and we do so quickly. After all, we know our ancestors had nothing but an instant to understand whether a stranger was friend or foe. A simple reminder that your commitment to others’ welfare will build your credibility before you lay out your argument.

2) Logos (or “Reason”)

Once ethos is established, let’s make a logical appeal to reason.
Ask yourself “Why should the audience care about my idea?”. For example, should it help saving your audience money, they’ll want to know how much it will save them and how the savings will be accomplished. The same reasoning applies to making money. “How will my idea help the listeners gaining a profit? What steps do they have to take next?” These all are logical appeals that will help you gain support. But, please, remember: always use data, evidence, and facts to set up a rational and sustainable argument.

3) Pathos (or “Emotion”)

According to Aristotle, persuasion cannot show up in the lack of emotions.
People are moved to action based on how a speaker makes them feel. Aristotle thought the best way to transfer emotion from one person to another was through the rhetorical device of “storytelling”.
More than 2,000 years later, neuroscientists did confirm this thesis to be quite accurate. In fact, studies have found that narratives trigger a rush of neurochemicals in the brain, notably oxytocin, the so-called “moral molecule” that connects people on a deeper, emotional level. TED Talk curator, Chris Anderson, says “The stories that can generate the best connection are stories about you personally or about people close to you. Tales of failure, awkwardness, misfortune, danger or disaster, told authentically, hastens deep engagement.”. The most personal content is the most tellable.

4) Metaphor

Aristotle also thought that metaphor gave language its verbal beauty.
“To be a master of metaphor is the greatest thing by far,” he wrote. When you appeal to a metaphor or analogy to compare a new idea to something which can be familiar to your audience, that clarifies your idea by turning the abstract into something concrete, kind of an image they can quickly focus on. Now let’s jump back to Warren Buffett, one of the savviest practitioners of persuasion. As you may know, he rarely grants an interview without using metaphor to make his point. Have you ever heard investors say they are looking for companies surrounded by a moat? That’s a clear reference to a popular metaphor he established. In fact, as he has said multiple times, he looks for companies that are “economic castles”, that is to say, surrounded by moats that make it hard for competitors to enter the industry.
In 2017 Buffett gave a speech at the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting, stating that the growth in healthcare spending is the “tapeworm” of the American economy. Through this effective image, Warren accurately described a serious problem eating away at the foundation of our economic system. Buffett didn’t have to explain what happens when the tapeworm grows bigger. Thus, Newspapers and blogs covering the event used “tapeworm” in their headlines. It appears to be clear that those who master the rhetorical feature of metaphor do have the rare capability to turn words into images and help others gaining a clearer understanding of their ideas. Also, they will easily remember and share them around. Such a powerful tool to have, isn’t it?

5) Brevity

“Aristotle had discovered that there are fairly universal limits to the amount of information which any human can absorb and retain”, writes Kings College professor Edith Hall in Aristotle’s Way. “When it comes to persuasion, less is always more.” Brevity is such a crucial element in delivering a persuasive speech. Aristotle believed an argument needed to be expressed “as compactly and in as few words as possible”. He also observed the opening of a person’s speech to be the most important since “attention slackens everywhere else rather than at the beginning.”. Today’s lesson is: do start with your strongest point! The good news is that Aristotle strongly believed that persuasion could be learned. In fact, according to Hall, he was viewed as “quite threatening” to the political class in ancient Greece when he made rhetoric tools available to everyone. They wanted to keep the formula a closely held secret, while Aristotle wanted the masses to have access to it. He championed the idea that a person’s ability to speak and write well, together with the use of rhetorical devices to change another’s perspective, could unleash human potential and maximize happiness. In the light of the above, we can say that, while the tools we use to share ideas have changed during the past two thousand years, the human brain hasn’t. The same formula that worked then, will work now as well. Nevertheless, always keep in mind Aristotle’s principles of persuasion do provide us with nothing but a general framework, a starting point, for creating stories that are meant to persuade. Each of his principles has real value in itself.  Still, they need to be critically approached, by taking into account the real-world context you are operating in. That’s the absolute best way to keep relevant the wisdom of the ancient Greek master. 


  • Wilkins J., Aristotle and the Art of Persuasion, Hystory of Yesterday, 2020
  • Sivanathan N., The counterintuitive way to be more persuasive, TEDXLondonBusinessSchool, 2019
  • Brenner, Dean M., 5 Words to Make You More Persuasive, Toastmaster International, 2018
  • Brenner, Dean M., How to Move Beyond Clarity and Brevity to True Persuasion, The Latimer Group, 2018
  • De Andreis F. and Petruzzo S., Environment and conflict management for research and development support, in European Journal of Economics and Management Sciences, Vol. No. 2, 2017
  • Meredith Cope E. and Sandys J.E., Aristotle, Rhetoric, Vol. 1, Cambridge Library Collection, 2010
  • Raiffa H., The art and science of negotiation, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982

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