ON RHETORIC AND THE ART OF PERSUASION

Updated: Mar 13


In a world where ideas and communication matter more than ever, the ability to persuade and influence is a fundamental skill that can help you win hearts and minds, share your ideas effectively and convince people to act upon them. From building a powerful argument, balancing logic with emotion to using both verbal and non-verbal communication styles - this article, published in FOCUS MAGAZINE in March 2020, unveils some of the most iconic and compelling tools of persuasion.


2,300 years ago, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) defined rhetoric and persuasion as “the art of getting people to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do if you didn’t ask”. And by doing so laid the groundwork for successful communication. According to Edith Hall in her book Aristotle’s Way (2018),persuasive rhetoric is above all an “emotional transaction” between a communicator and their audience, intending to move them successfully from point A to point B. Of course, the success of this persuasive process depends greatly on the specific skills the communicator will use to persuade their recipients to change their minds and ultimately follow their ideas.


Rhetoric and the art of persuasion remain deeply ingrained in the Anglo-American traditions, both written and oral. From the rediscovery of Greek and Roman literature during the Renaissance, rhetoric has been shaping the education system in Britain and, from the 19th Century, the public speaking field in America. Learning rhetorical devices and figures of speech, reading poetry and famous speeches aloud, building persuasive arguments and debating, Public Speaking are still an integral part of the Anglo-American higher education system. As expatriates living and working in the UK, familiarising ourselves with the art of persuasive communication as well as a highly developed public speaking and debating culture can become a major asset for a deeper understanding of the British social and working habits.


One cannot help but notice that the art of persuasion hasn’t changed much in 2,300 years. Either in the private or the professional sphere, consciously or not, successfully or not, we use rhetorical devices and persuasion techniques all the time. Think about the role of persuasion in our daily lives: parents persuade children to eat their dreaded vegetables dish, salespeople persuade customers to buy their products, job candidates persuade potential employers to hire them, politicians persuade people to vote for them. If these communication skills are obviously part of our lives and of our way of operating in the world, when consciously learned and mastered, they become a fabulous tool to inspire teams, sell products, convince and persuade people to act upon our ideas. According to the author and communication specialist Carmine Gallo, the billionaire Warren Buffett “once told business students that improving their communication skills would boost their professional value by 50% — instantly”.

But let’s now examine which tactics we have at hand to master effective communication and put our audience in the right frame of mind to make them open to our ideas and suggestions. Aristotle outlined the formula into three major subject areas:


ETHOS or “Character”, which relates to the communicator’s character, credibility and sincerity. Aristotle believed that a speaker, in order to be perceived as credible, should build a sense of trust between themselves and their listeners by matching their words to their actions.


PATHOS or “Emotion”, which relates to the emotional appeal a speaker exerts over his audience. As stated by Aristotle himself, “Persuasion may come through the hearers when the speech stirs their emotions”. Research suggests that storytelling is one of the most powerful means to emotionally connect with an audience and trigger movement of thought and emotions.


LOGOS or “Logic” relates to the actual choice of words the speaker will use for persuading their audience. Choosing and arranging words carefully, but also using data, facts and evidence in a logical way is crucial for building a strong rational argument and bringing people along to our way of thinking.


Finally, DELIVERY relates to the speaker’s ability to master verbal and non-verbal communication styles (posture, physical poise and control, gestures and tone of voice) to ensure the most compelling and persuasive speech delivery.


The best persuasive messages strive to blend a balanced mix of all these components to achieve the goal of moving people over to a new point of view. Aristotle strongly believed that these tools can be learned and the most inspiring speakers and communicators of our times seem to prove that the Ancient Greek magic formula is as potent today as it ever was.

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© Valerie Gabail 2019.