Persuasion by Aristotle

Our generation knows Aristotle to be a man who understood the psyche and developed stories that would change the hearts of the audience. He not only studied the components that took an audience member down a path to enlightenment or wisdom, but also charted out the steps he used to prove his theories.

Aristotle suggested that there were three elements needed to persuade people to grasp and support an idea: the ethos, pathos and logos. Each element prepared the person to take in the information in a way that would compel their support to the point of owning the idea – Complete buy in.

I remember back to my days at Lucent Technologies. I was given the task of selling the Digital Deployment Network to Ameritech, AT&T and SBC. To close the $750MM deal I had to get buy-ins from about 200 people and found it took 3 years to accomplish.

Every time I got close to getting the CEO of one company to sign on the dotted line a merger happened that delayed the project. During that time Ameritech merged with AT&T, which later merged with SBC. The changes were significant and included a change in personnel. The only thing in my favor was that I already knew all the new decision makers from each of the original companies.

I was told that it was my experience with each of the previously merged companies, the story I told about developing continuity between disparate systems, and my perseverance that placed the final signature on the contract. I was amazed at how Aristotle’s three key persuasion factors played an important role in my success.

Here are the three elements explained in more detail.


The ethos or the ethical appeal is about connecting with people by sharing values and experiences. The ethical appeal builds credibility and helps balance the emotional and logical portions of the persuasive message. It also causes the audience to respect the idea, regardless of their final decision to embrace it or not. In other words, it gives the presenter credibility.


The logos or logical appeal is about structuring the message in a way that makes sense and is easy to follow. With every statement made, there is supporting information that demonstrates or proves each point by appealing to the cerebral side of man. This appeal forces its originator to think through all aspects of the issue or story in order to present its rational in a logical progression.


The pathos or the emotional appeal is about entertaining and addressing the emotional side of man through feelings of pain and pleasure. When done properly, the emotional argument will cause audiences to throw reason out the window and embrace the idea. Intuition and spontaneity play a large role in an emotional appeal and supply the risk factor to the individual’s decision. However, the pay off when the right outcome hits is far greater than decisions made without an emotional attachment, thereby justifying the risk.

Presenting both the logical and the emotional appeal seems almost contradicting or at least causes the audience to wonder if the two viewpoints might polarize the other. Henry M. Bottenger said, “Ignore emotion and reason slumbers; trigger emotion, and reason comes rushing to help.”

Our society has little value for reason in of itself, but when it’s coupled with the right emotion-based social message, reason gets a front seat.

Consideration is rarely given to topics that, while important, might bore its audience. However, coupled with a person’s experience and an emotional appeal, the message will get plenty of reflection.

An example of this is pro-life versus pro-choice. When the arguments started it was about pro-life versus abortion. The arguments were about killing or not killing babies. Then someone took Aristotle’s persuasive information and changed the argument to be about the mother’s body and therefore it being her right to choose.

The new argument presented a woman’s right to decide about having or not having a surgical procedure done on her body. Since all women should have a say in what happens to their body, there was no longer an argument about the unborn child – Making the pro-life message irrelevant.

The same thing happened to marriage versus gay marriage. It happened again with illegal drugs versus medical marijuana. And so on.

In every case one side used the Aristotle model of persuasion and the other side didn’t. Also, the key point of each argument was changed from the core important element to a side issue that most people would agree on – Like women having a say in what happens to their bodies (instead of their babies).

I study numerous motion pictures every year and find it amazing how many successful films use Aristotle’s model and how many unsuccessful films do not. When I take my studies a step further I find that the successful films impact our culture and the unsuccessful ones don’t.

With the surge of Christian, faith-based, and redemptive movies on the rise, its been fascinating to see that most redemptive films use the model and most Christian films do not. The faith-based films have a mixture of use, but most do not employ Aristotle’s model.

Many lying politicians use the model, while most truth-telling pastors that I’ve met do not. Teachers and sales people are split in terms of its use, which might explain the divide between successful and unsuccessful leaders. But as for me, I’ve seen the value of the model and understand why it works well for audiences of every kind.

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