On Being Persuasive

According to Carmine Gallo, Instructor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s Executive Education Department and author Five Stars: Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great (2018), the ability to persuade, to change hearts and minds, is perhaps the one skill that can be depended on to confer a competitive edge in the knowledge economy. Successful people in nearly every profession are typically those capable of convincing others to take action on plans and ideas. If you want to achieve anything of substance in life, learn to be persuasive.

Aspiring entrepreneurs persuade venture capitalists to provide financial backing for their new ventures.  Salespeople persuade customers to buy products. Freelance consultants persuade clients to hire them to provide professional services. In short, persuasion is no longer considered merely a “soft skill,” but rather a leadership skill, that enables those who’ve mastered it to attract investors, sell products, build brands, inspire teams and activate social or political movements.

More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle outlined a formula on how to master the art of persuasion in his work Rhetoric.  Throughout history, statesmen and salesmen have used Aristotle’s guidelines when preparing speeches or talking points that brought history-shaping ideas and ground-breaking products to the world.

Your words and ideas have the potential to make you a star in your field, if you can persuade others to join you and act on them. To become a master of persuasion and successfully sell your ideas, use these five rhetorical devices (as interpreted by Mr. Gallo) that Aristotle identified in your next client meeting or sales presentation:

ETHOS (Character)

Gallo feels that ethos represents that part of a speech or presentation where listeners take the measure of the speaker’s credibility. Aristotle believed that if a speaker’s actions don’t reflect his/her words, that speaker would lose credibility and ultimately weaken the argument.  As humans, we are hardwired to search for reasons to trust another person. A simple statement that you are committed to the welfare of others before you introduce your argument or selling points will enhance your credibility.  Show your prospect that you understand and appreciate his/her situation.

LOGOS (Reason)

Once ethos is established, it’s time to make a logical appeal to reason. Why should your listener care about your product or idea? If it will save the listener money, for example, s/he will 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 your idea help the listener earn a profit? What steps must s/he take next?  These are all logical appeals that will help you gain support. Use data, evidence and facts to form a rational argument.

PATHOS (Emotion)

According to Aristotle, persuasion cannot occur in the absence of emotion. People are moved to action by how a speaker makes them feel. Aristotle believed the best way to transfer emotion from one person to another is through the rhetorical device of storytelling. More than 2,000 years later, neuroscientists have found his thesis to be accurate. Research has demonstrated that narratives trigger a rush of neurochemicals in the brain, notably oxytocin, called the “the moral molecule” that connects people on a deeper, emotional level.

In his analysis of the top 500 TED Talks of all time, Gallo found that stories made up 65% of the average speaker’s talk, whereas 25% went to logos and 10% went to ethos. In other words, the winning formula for a popular TED Talk is to wrap the big idea in a story.

What kind of story? TED Talks curator Chris Anderson explained, “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, hasten deep engagement.” The most personal content is the most relatable, in other words.

METAPHOR (Comparison)

Gallo reminds us that Aristotle believed that metaphor gives language its beauty. “To be a master of metaphor is the greatest thing by far,” Aristotle wrote. Gallo follows-up, “When you use a metaphor or analogy to compare a new idea to something that is familiar to your audience, it clarifies your idea by turning the abstract into something concrete.” Those who master the metaphor have the ability to turn words into images that help others gain a clearer understanding of  their ideas and more importantly, remember and share them. It is a powerful tool to have.

BREVITY

Brevity is a crucial element in making a persuasive speech. An argument, Aristotle said, should be expressed “as compactly and in as few words as possible.” He also observed that the opening of a person’s speech is the most important since “attention slackens everywhere else rather than at the beginning.” The lesson here is: start with your strongest point.

The good news for communicators is that Aristotle believed that persuasion can be learned.  According to Edith Hall, author of Aristotle’s Way, the political class in ancient Greece wanted Aristotle to keep his tactics for persuasion a closely held secret.  But Aristotle disagreed and wanted everyone to have access to it. Hall’s research showed that he instead championed the idea that a person’s ability to speak and write well, and to use rhetorical devices to change another’s perspective, could unleash human potential and maximize happiness.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Emmy Award-winning actor Danny DeVito (Taxi, 1978-1883 ABC-TV)  in Matilda (1996)

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