Learn Technique from a Greek: Where Modes of Persuasion Meet Content Creation

By Melody Boggs | Articles | Reading Time: 12 minutes

Mar 02
persuasion

If you live in the midst of Western civilization, some English or History teacher probably told you that the ideas of Ancient Greece form the roots of our modern society. Everything from our structures of government to our philosophy, architecture, science, and arts resonate with Greek thought and ideals. And, if you’ve seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you “know” for a “fact” that any word—any word—can be traced back to Greece.

Would you also believe, then, that the Ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about content creation before we did? We’re talking them having thousands of years of experience over us—so much for content creation being a “new way” of doing things.

The Greeks had different purposes than we do now, though. They weren’t focused on selling a product or service to an audience. Rather, they were in the market of ideas, of sharing them, of persuading others to share them, and having them spread.

They built whole professions on this concept. Orators, or speech-makers, would stand in front of a crowded amphitheater, using their words, voice, body language, professional backgrounds, and logic to get their audience on board with their ideas. Famous rhetoricians throughout history have followed in these Greek orators’ footsteps: W.E.B. Du Bois, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few. (I had to give you some good examples; no doubt the word “rhetoric” makes you think of corrupt politicians, and that’s enough to ruin anyone’s day.)

So who was the self-proclaimed father of rhetoric in Ancient Greece? My man, Aristotle.

But content creators aren’t rhetoricians or speech-makers, so how can Aristotle’s rhetorical technique help them connect to their audiences? How can you be as effective as Reverend King? Isn’t that a bit of a stretch?

Maybe. It depends on what your goals are and how much you believe in your message, product, or mission statement.

It just so happens that Aristotle developed three proofs—pathos, logos, and ethos—for making greatness happen, and any content creator can employ them, either separately or all together. They’re called his Modes of Persuasion.

Pathos and Your Audience

First, there are two ways to look at each of these proofs: the literal meaning and the popularly translated meaning. I believe that both are necessary to obtain a full understanding of the proofs and how you can use them in your content creation quest.

In Greek, pathos means “suffering” or “experience.” Nowadays, people typically translate it to “emotional appeal,” but this meaning can limit our understanding of what pathos does and how you can use it. Too many people believe that by using pathos, you’re just using your own emotions to affect your audience. For example, if you want to make your audience angry, you must then present yourself as being angry. But that couldn’t be further from the truth of what you actually need to be doing to use pathos effectively.

Rather, the goal behind using pathos is to make an appeal to the audience’s emotions by focusing on their values, beliefs, interests, sympathies, and imaginations. In order to do that, you must know your audience. You must know the right metaphors to use and the right stories to tell so that your audience will identify with you and will “suffer” whatever emotion you’re pulling from them to “experience.” On the subject of emotions, Aristotle writes:

The Emotions are all those feelings that so change men as to affect their judgements, and that are also attended by pain or pleasure. Such are anger, pity, fear and the like, with their opposites. We must arrange what we have to say about each of them under three heads. Take, for instance, the emotion of anger: here we must discover (1) what the state of mind of angry people is, (2) who the people are with whom they usually get angry, and (3) on what grounds they get angry with them. It is not enough to know one or even two of these points; unless we know all three, we shall be unable to arouse anger in any one. The same is true of the other emotions. (Rhetoric, Book II, Ch. 1)

So let’s say you’re trying to sell your audience a product, a product you truly believe will solve a specific problem for them. You know that:

  • Your audience has tried and tried to find a solution to no avail.
  • You may be their last resort.
  • They’ve been burned so many times that they’re probably not open to trying your solution.

So, by using Aristotle’s rhetoric, how do you get the audience to try your product?

First, target a specific emotion, like their frustration or their desperation to find something that works. Pick a story—I’m sure as a content creator you have at least one—about how you’ve been in a similar situation. Maybe before you came up with your product, you tried other people’s and found them lacking.

You know how the audience feels because you’ve experienced those same emotions firsthand. You know that they’re frustrated with the people who led them on with promises that didn’t come through because you also became frustrated. And you know, specifically, on what grounds they’re frustrated: they lost money and time trying things that didn’t do anything for them.

Then, you can turn your argument’s tone around and give them hope. After all, it’s because of all your past experiences that you decided to create a product that actually works, not just for yourself but also for other people from all walks of life, too.

Pathos in the Information Age

What kind of content can you produce that uses pathos most effectively? Technically, you can do it through the written word if you’re talented enough at prose, but the best content to use would be anything that employs your voice or face. Through podcasts, your audience can hear the emotion behind your voice, your earnestness to help them, and can be led to experience the emotions of the subject you once experienced.

Videos add another component to that because they allow your audience to see your face, your eyes, and your body language, which can each convey much more than speech can. It can add a level of trust between you and your audience that you’ll no doubt need in order to make specific headway with those who are most resistant to your message.

So you’ve got your audience to suffer with you, but what if that’s not enough to get them to try your product? Let’s see how the next proof can help you and your message.

Logos and Your Message

Logos is Greek for “word” and traditionally adheres to the message of your speech or argument and how it is structured and organized. Today, people mainly think logos means “logic” or “reason,” and while you must have both of these things to craft your argument, you can’t just throw facts and reasons out willy-nilly. You have to be smart about it. There’s the right time and place for everything, after all.

So, let’s recap. You’ve got your audience emotionally fired up about your product, but many are still skeptical. How do they really know it’s going to work? Haven’t other entrepreneurs and content creators successfully swindled them before? What makes you so different?

You can prove that you’re different by providing them with proof that your claims about your product make sense and that they are true. This isn’t something you can do on the fly; you must have carefully prepared and crafted your argument beforehand. Your audience will know if you haven’t. They won’t be able to follow the structure of your argument because you didn’t establish one beforehand, and then you will lose them.

How do you know if your structure is good enough to persuade the audience to buy your product? First, there has to be a logical, consistent progression from point to point and your argument must be clear. Second, with each point, you will need to offer evidence supporting your claims.

Your Logos Weapon of Choice

There are two types of evidence you can provide: natural and artificial/technical.

Natural evidence consists of data, graphs, case studies, testimonials, and the like. For content creators, natural evidence can be used almost anywhere: through articles with pictures of graphs or sourced data; through webinars, PowerPoints, or other video presentations; and even through face-to-face interviews with your case studies.

It may also be possible to do these things with podcasts, but without your audience being able to physically see the evidence you’re giving them, you’re counting on them to trust your word alone. Unless you want to risk it, I would make sure you have an online location your audience can visit to actually view the evidence you’re talking about, giving you the opportunity to repurpose older content.

Artificial and technical evidence are more subtle, relying on a combination of any hints or examples you’ve used to claim your product works and the art of logic to lead the audience to their own logical conclusions that, yes, your product works and they should buy it.

For instance, you could use logic to argue the differences between your product and those of your competitors. Show them some accurate data that compares and contrasts the effectiveness behind both products (natural evidence), and then argue that your product works better logically because it works in a different way and people approach it differently than any previous products they’ve tried (artificial evidence). Discuss a few successful case studies where each case study isn’t too similar (natural evidence), and surmise that if it worked for them, it can work for your audience (technical evidence).

If you do logos well enough, you can also stir your audience’s pathos again. Yes, these proofs can and often do overlap! People can get super emotional about facts and logical arguments, who knew?

But you will need to be careful that your data and logic aren’t deliberately—or even accidentally—misleading. Falsified data can make people logically believe you and can certainly foster an intense effect of pathos, but once you’re found out to be a liar, guess what? There goes your credibility, which leads us to our third and final proof.

Ethos and Your Credibility

Greek for “character,” ethos does not pertain to the audience but rather to the speaker (or content creator) and their particular character. Many translate this to mean just a speaker’s credibility or trustworthiness, but Aristotle urges us to go deeper than that: “There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character—the three, namely, that induce us to believe a thing apart from any proof of it: good sense, good moral character, and goodwill” (Rhetoric).

In other words, you can’t just have credibility. It has to come from somewhere, such as your good sense, or competence; your good moral character, or good intentions; and your goodwill, or empathy towards others.

So if you’re trying to swindle your audience into buying your product—or even if you’re not confident in your product but are trying to pretend you are—you will already have failed the test of ethos. You can’t fake ethos. You either have it or you don’t, and the audience will definitely notice.

A Credible Performance

They notice through your delivery, your performance. If you’re using the written word, they will note the vocabulary you use, the diction and tone of the writing, and even what sort of background you have to be writing what you’re writing.

If your audience can see or hear you, then, like with pathos, they’ll watch your body language, facial expressions, and movements for both confidence in yourself or any untruths. They’ll note the kind of clothes you wear, any slang you use, down to the inflections and pitches of your voice.

And if you’re supposed to be an established expert in your field, they’ll be watching to see if your credibility is true or deserved.

But what if you’re not an expert? What if you’re starting out right now with content creation, trying to sell your first product? Does that mean you don’t have a chance at establishing ethos?

Not necessarily. It just means you have to approach it differently than the experts do. Where experts come in with ethos already attributed to them, you will have to establish yours from the get-go during your performance, aka through your content. Before you start, ask yourself: Am I a competent person? Do I have good intentions? Do I want to help others? If the answer is yes to all three, then all that’s left is to convince your audience.

First, you can present competing products and explain to your audience what they do well. Then, end your argument by explaining why your product is still the better choice. This shows that you have done your research into other products before making your own and that you’re not afraid to present an opposing side or competitor. That’s how confident you are in your own product.

Second, even if you are not an expert, you can appeal to the audience by using the ethos of those who are experts. Maybe one of your case studies comes from an already acclaimed expert, well-regarded in their field, who can vouch for you.

Barring that stroke of luck, maybe your product has drawn from other experts’ methods, ideas, and data, which you can then source to build up you and your product’s credibility. After all, if people can trust Expert A and Expert B about Subject C, then they can extend some trust to you who used said experts’ research, ideas, methods, and/or insights to create your product, which also pertains to Subject C.

Offering up a free trial of your product can also go a long way in establishing ethos; it proves that you believe in your product, that you’re not trying to trick others out of their money, and that you want to help others succeed.

At the end of the day, ethos is all about how you choose to present yourself. Are you going to mumble and speak to the ground or speak clearly and confidently, meeting the eyes of your audience? Are you going to bound relentlessly around and fidget, or will every movement and facial tick be deliberate yet genuine?

With practice and success, you’ll create your own style of presentation. Your ethos will not only be credible but also distinct, as long as you remember to do it with good sense, good moral character, and goodwill.

Creating Your Own Persuasion Technique

Now that you know about Aristotle’s rhetoric and his three proofs, you’re ready to persuade your audience to try your product. How are you going to do it?

Are you going to half-ass write your article or film a video of yourself with no prior practice, without a thoughtfully outlined script, just making it up as you go? Or are you going to do your research about your audience, appeal to the right emotions, prove you empathize with them, and back your content up with facts?

Do you want to help or hurt others? Do you want to establish a name for yourself in your field or niche, one that people can trust and that newer content creators can one day call upon for help or inspiration?

The answers should be obvious. Your next steps are to work on your persuasive technique and figure out which modes of content creation you do best.

There will be much trial and error with this. For instance, you may find you’re better at logos than pathos, being a more naturally data-oriented person than an emotional one. You may speak better than you write or be more engaging over video than via podcast. At some point, you may even rely on others to repurpose your content for you while you stick with whatever you do best.

At the start of your journey, though, what’s most important is that you keep at it and learn from others who are already in the game.

Be Inspired, But Be Original

I bet you have idols to call upon, people whose content you have read or watched so many times you have it memorized. How do they present themselves? Do they often try to make you feel “some typa way,” or do they walk you through loads of research they’ve collected? Do they tell stories to make themselves more relatable to you, and if so, what kind of stories are they? Funny, sad, inspirational? Are they stories about themselves or about others?

While you can learn a lot from your idols, don’t let your learning stop with them. You can’t always emulate them, and in fact you shouldn’t. You should draw inspiration, certainly, but also find a way to stand out. To do that, you’ll need to explore how different people present themselves.

So if you read a lot, read widely. You’ll absorb the writing styles and structure of whatever you read (brains are cool that way), and this will help you find the style in which you like to write.

If you like talking in front of others, then watch all kinds of videos and presentations to see how others do it. You’ll quickly learn what you like to watch, what you don’t like to watch, and what you want to try for yourself. TED Talks are a good place to start in that regard. In fact, my final piece of advice comes from a TED Talk: Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”

In the video, Robinson states, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” As a content creator, being original is one of the most important things you need to be. After all, it’s a booming business with lots of competitors. If you want to be successful and help others with your product, you’ll need to be heard over the clamor of all these other voices trying to do the same.

So how do you do that? How do you persuade others to subscribe to your content? First, you have to try. Then, you have to fail and fail often.

Even by using these three proofs, you will not—I repeat—you will not be able to persuade everybody; it’s impossible. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for all his skill, could not and has not persuaded all racists everywhere to stop being racists. Not even Aristotle, the father of rhetoric, could persuade everybody to his side of an argument. But did that fact stop either of these men from doing what they thought was right and, indeed, necessary?

No. Instead, they kept going, kept employing these rhetorical proofs to appeal to as many people as possible, establishing themselves as credible experts that others could believe in and who we still look to in the present. In order to be original, you will have to do the same. In trying anything new, you will have to prepare to be wrong, to fail, and to learn from your mistakes.

Our best moments of creativity often strike out from moments of failure, and creativity is the only way to reach originality. So even though it’s scary and it goes against everything school and society teaches us, do not be afraid to fail. It’s how you get better and how you learn what works, what’s persuasive, and what isn’t. Look forward to it.

You’ll have new stories to tell.

Photo credit: pajche

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About the Author

A Georgia native, Melody would actually like to get out of her state as soon as possible. Until she can do so physically, escaping to fictional worlds from Gotham to Wizarding Britain will have to do. Balancing a reader’s free-spirited mindset with an editor’s critical eye can be tough, but the combination is a quality she tries to bring to her own writing as well as to help emulate in others. You can find her online if you’re clever enough. Just be forewarned that she’s probably busy laughing at stupid internet memes, screaming about Batman characters, or admiring men that can wear the hell out of a suit (bonus points if they’re Italian).