Business Persuasion as Classical Rhetoric

Persuasion by Dick Marcus

All fields of study require the ability to persuade others to the truth of their advice or the appropriateness for them of your product. We teach methods of advertising, ways of building networks, or Dale Carnegie-like ways of speaking or writing, but we do little in business schools to go to the root of persuasion, which classically has been called rhetoric.

Rhetoric has a long tradition. Probably the most cited work on rhetoric comes from Aristotle, who sometime between 335 and 322 BC wrote lectures for his Lyceum students compiled in his book On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse, or sometimes it is called A Treatise on Rhetoric.

Rhetoric really is an exploration of persuasion. Debate clubs employ arguments for and against a proposition to sway people. This tactic of contrasting opposite views, Aristotle calls dialectics. It is the first thing treated in his book. He says that exploring the opposite position and seeing its strengths and weaknesses helps to find the truth of the two views. But Aristotle changes the topic to say that rhetoric has three key methods to persuade. He first treats logos, or giving reasons for your position. This is important in judicial and academic spheres. Being deliberative in one’s reasons for a position is one way to persuade. But even if witnesses and facts all line up perfectly, we sometimes fail to persuade. If someone gave me fifteen credible reasons to believe in man-made global warming, I would likely still be a bit of a skeptic as I know that we’ve had ice ages in the 1300’s and warming periods well before any industrialization. Persuasion by logos and reason is important, but it is not always enough.

Aristotle then discusses pathos, or emotions, the second major tool in persuasion. Pathos is a communication technique used frequently in rhetoric. A photo of a starving child helps communicate the need to donate. A union organizing song motives people to unite. A story of a mistreated spouse can lead us to want to reform domestic abuse laws. These are all effective tools of persuasion using pathos or emotions.

But pathos is most effective, says Aristotle, if we can identify ways to awaken emotions in the audience so as to induce them to make the judgment desired. Aristotle focused on assessing the audience for whom, toward whom, and why of any argument. Will sadness work on them? Or will happiness and joy be a better tactic? Knowing your audience is important in using emotional arguments.

And the third major tool of rhetoric is ethos, which I prefer to call character. Ethos is the least stressed in business classes except perhaps in Business Ethics.   Aristotle posits that, alongside pathos, the speaker must also deploy good character in order to establish credibility. When we hear of something said by Mother Theresa or by a Medal of Honor winner, we put greater stock in their words and their argument. But, if a thief or rapist argues a point, we dismiss it.

With rhetoric, we find we can persuade. We can use dialectical tools to see both sides of an issue. And we can improve in persuasion, not just by powerful arguments, facts, and logos, but also through the effective use of pathos. Ultimately, we seek to be ethical people so that our ethos, our very character, persuades others.

Reference: Aristotle – On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse. George A. Kennedy translation. Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition, 2007.