How Aristotle's ancient advice can help you get what you want

Let the art of rhetoric give weight to all your IMO’s.

Let the art of rhetoric give weight to all your IMO’s.

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Rhetoric, the art of speaking and writing persuasively, hasn't got a great reputation. Since Plato, people have associated rhetoric with manipulation and deception. Even today, we tend to associate rhetoric with unscrupulous politicians and salespeople. Why not just tell people the plain truth and let them decide on whatever it is?

Aristotle, who was so smart that he was nicknamed "The Philosopher" for most of history, thought differently. We need rhetoric because it's impossible for everyone to be informed about everything. The "plain truth" is often just too complex for everyone to understand. Plus, even when we know the facts, we still need to be motivated to act on them. Good rhetoric not only provides information, it moves people to act on it. Aristotle's On Rhetoric is the book that Cicero studied; it's the book that shaped the Renaissance art of rhetoric; and it's the book that can help you become a more persuasive person in every walk of life. Here's how.

Aristotle reckoned that there were three means of persuasion: ethos (character); pathos (the emotions); logos (argument), which can be applied in any persuasive situation from election speeches to picking a restaurant with your friends.

Ethos/character (it's not what you say, it's who you are):

According to Aristotle, it doesn't matter how good your arguments are if you can't convince your audience that you are the kind of person they should listen to. You need to show them that you know what you are doing, that you are virtuous and capable, and that you have their best interests at heart. It's important to pay attention to all three of these aspects of character because even if people think you're smart and fair-minded, they won't trust you if they don't think you're on their side. Trying to win that promotion at work? Don't just point to your expertise, show your employer that you share their values and mission, and draw on past experiences to show them that you are a good person. This will lend more credibility to whatever else you say.

Pathos/emotion (it's not what you say, it's how you make them feel):  

Our emotions – whether we are feeling fearful, hopeful, or angry – influence our decisions. Therefore, it's important to know how to put your audience in the right mood for making the decision you want them to make. It's also important to know which particular heartstrings to pull given your audience. For example, Aristotle says that young people care most about looking good in front of others, and their friends. The old, on the other hand, care more about security and the necessities of life (read: "money") than about their reputation. Not one to mince words, Aristotle calls them "stingy" and "shameless", but we can think of them as prudent and as giving virtually no effs what anyone thinks of them. The lesson? If you want young people to come to your restaurant, make your food super instagrammable. If you are catering to an older crowd, offer a killer early-bird discount.

Logos/logic (actually, it's what you say):  

Aristotle knew the importance of having strong arguments (he also founded the science of logic). However, Aristotle knew that you have to tailor your arguments to the level of understanding of your audience. This is why we don't get a lot of professors as prime ministers: they explain TOO much. Aristotle's key message here is that you need to keep it brief and keep it within your audience's grasp. If you are trying to convince children to eat vegetables, Aristotle does not recommend beginning with the principles of nutrition. Tell them broccoli is a little tree and they are a dinosaur, and that dinosaurs only get strong by eating trees.  

There is no doubt that the techniques of rhetoric can be used for good and evil. However, because we are social beings, there is no avoiding persuasion, we can only do it well or poorly. So whether you are trying to win over new clients or old friends, remember to show that you are a trustworthy speaker; to put them in the right mood to hear your message; and to provide solid arguments that resonate with them. And remember, Aristotle also thought that even if you are employing all the tricks of the trade, the truth still has an edge. After all, people with good character are more trustworthy, and good arguments are more convincing than bad ones.