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Aristotle’s Influence on Communications

Lots of people know of the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, but if my workshop participants are any guide, what’s less well known is his profound influence on communications.

Nearly 2,400 years ago (that’s not a typo), Aristotle outlined for the first time how a presenter would persuade an audience of its point-of-view. More impressive, it’s still 100% relevant to this day.

The Beginnings of Public Speaking

In 4th Century BC, an era when democracy was in its infancy, the citizens of Athens had their first taste of civic duty, either being able to attend public assemblies where people had to convince their audience of a recommendation or argument, to vote for public officials who were articulate and eloquent in their appeals, or to represent themselves in legal matters before the city-state.

Not unlike modern consultants who help clients present their case in front of key audiences, Aristotle published a manuscript entitled Rhetoric (or Art of Rhetoric). As a word, rhetoric – then and now – means to speak or write in a way intended to persuade. He even stated the purpose of this manuscript was ‘the faculty (power) of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion,’ known now as Aristotle’s Appeals.

Three of the five Appeals are well-known:  EthosLogos and Pathos, and are colloquially known as the Rhetorical Triangle.  Many people even suggest they are in threes to connect to The Rule of 3s. So many people think Less well-known are the other two: Telos and Kairos.

Let’s explore the Appeals in roughly their “proper” order.

Telos:  Appeal to the Purpose

Aristotle believed everything in life had a purpose or function. In communications, this translated to the goal or purpose, or Telos in Ancient Greek, as the appeal to purpose of the speaker or writer.

Telos explains why you were speaking, which is important for the intended audience to understand before you start and to give context throughout your communications.

The modern lesson here:  always begin with a clear, precise goal or purpose so the audience has the focus and context before you convey your messages.

Ethos:  Appeal to (Moral) Credibility

Ethos gave us the English word ethics, which means the moral principles that comprise a person’s behaviour. In Ancient Greece, ethos referred to the speaker’s character, credibility, reliability, and expertise. In other words, if the speaker isn’t credible or lacks trust, no one would listen or respect what they said or wrote.

The modern lesson here:  establish in a relevant way why you know what you’re talking about. This is especially important if the other party has never met you. At the same time – given that we’re talking about moral principles – make sure your ethics are on display:  trustworthiness, respectful, considered, reasonable and fair.

Side Note:  If you didn’t know this already, the best and fastest way to get instant credibility is to get third-party endorsement. In other words, find a relevant ‘expert’ to tell your audience how or why you deserve to be listened to. As one of my first mentors in business told me: always have someone around you who can act as that genuine third-party endorsement when it’s needed.

As for the next two (Logos and Pathos), they go together, if not complement each other.

Logos:  Appeal to Logic, or ‘Reasonable-ness’

Logos gave us the English word logic, so the appeal here is provide your intended party with relevant cold-hard facts:  evidence, proof and support of your purpose, recommendations or plans.

The modern lesson here:  ensure whatever recommendation you are putting forth has the necessary evidence to prove you know what you say, you know what you’re doing, and you know how to implement your plan. More so, given the current times we’re living in where there are now “alternative facts,” make sure you’re using the right facts to support your hypothesis. (In other words, you may need to ask the audience beforehand what types of evidence they’re prefer. (If you don’t know the three types of evidence, proof and support, the article on The Rule of 3s lists each at the end.)

Pathos:  Appeal to the Emotions, Being Sensitive to the Audience

Realising people rely upon their emotions to help make decisions. Aristotle identified pathos as a way of evoking certain emotions in the other party that are already there. By aligning emotions between speaker and receiver, the speaker could persuade toward agreement if not endorsement.

The modern lesson here:  tap into the audience’s emotional core. If logos is talking to the head, then pathos speaks to the heart. Choose your words and language carefully to inspire emotions. Use stories and metaphors to align your messages to your audience’s values and emotions.

It also means being passionate about your messages. (It’s a cardinal rule of communications. Your audience will never be more excited about your topic than you are.)

If you work in advertising or marketing, you’ll be familar with an Aristotelian slogan:  Facts persuade, emotions motivate. 

Kairos:  Appeal to Timeliness

In Ancient Greece, kairos translated to “the right time” or “good timing.” Even today, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, kairos is “a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action; the opportune and decisive moment.” 

This Appeal can be applied in several ways.

  • Are you approaching your audience at the right time for them?
  • Have you brought up a specific issue at the right time?  (Or, are you too late? Too early?)
  • Are there issues or opporunities which need addressing now, or is ignoring them too high a price?
  • If you didn’t do something ‘right now,’ what’s the consequence of not doing something?
  • If we don’t do something ‘right now,’ here too is a Plan B.

On a Related Note: Trust

Obviously, much of this article relates to trust. If you’re interested, there’s a separate article about a clever tool – The Trust Equation – to help people understand the critical aspects of building trust in business relationships. You’ll see Aristotle’s principles at work in a different way.

Finally, I’ve attached here a PowerPoint slide of all five Appeals. Use in good health.

Have you used the Rhetorical Triangle, and how? Or even the individual Appeals? As always, please add your thoughts and comments below.

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Aristotle’s Influence on Communications