Character and the Art of Persuasion


Two of my sons recently finished doing summer sales in California. They were both successful and pleased to have made enough money to pay for their college tuition in the fall. But cold-calling people on their doorstep was a tremendous challenge, especially in a crowded market where several other companies were scrambling for their business. They typically knocked on at least 100 doors before closing a single sale.

Most of us have mixed feelings about facing a salesperson on our doorstep. If they come across as obnoxious and overly aggressive, it’s easy to turn them down. We resent manipulative sales tactics, even if we might need what they’re selling. But when they appear knowledgeable, trustworthy, and respectful, we’re much more open to persuasion. The sight of a lonely sales rep working diligently in the heat of the day might also trigger an emotional response, evoking our sympathy and compassion.

Regardless of how we feel about solicitors, It’s clear that the art of persuasion plays an important part in each of our lives. When we’re in the market for products and services, we pay attention to advertising campaigns and sales pitches before making a purchase. In a democratic society, we listen carefully to political candidates who want to represent us. We sort through the rhetoric of political parties, hoping to discern between truth and error.

As parents and coaches, teachers and community leaders, we accept our own roles as persuaders and rhetoricians. Ideally, we serve others with gentle encouragement, teaching by example and avoiding coercive, authoritarian techniques. But we all fall short at times, especially when children or other adults refuse to listen to reason. Our frustration leads us to employ the same sort of scare tactics and beguiling arguments that we despise in dishonest salesmen.

Aristotle himself had mixed feelings about the art of persuasion, or the techniques used in rhetorical discourse. The sophists gave rhetoric a bad name, training their students to persuade others through questionable methods that disregarded truth. But Aristotle believed it was still important for his students to understand rhetorical methods. Not only did they need to recognize when they were being deceived by others, but they also had the civic responsibility to promote truth through logical and honest means.

Aristotle identified and expounded on three forms of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos refers to power of persuasion that flows from the character and trustworthiness of the speaker. Pathos describes the emotional aspects of an argument. And logos is the use of reason or logic to convince others. Thousands of years after Aristotle, today’s high school English teachers and debate coaches continue to promote his understanding of the three primary means of persuasion.

One of Aristotle’s lesser-known but essential rhetorical concepts is the tense of an argument. Tense has to do with how our argumentative goals relate to the past, present, and future. The purpose of judicial rhetoric is to establish guilt or innocence based on past events. This type of persuasion is used in the court of law.

The purpose of epideictic rhetoric is to convince an audience to more fully embrace the values of the community. This type of persuasion operates in the present tense, used most often at funerals to praise those who embody certain values. The third type of persuasion is called deliberative rhetoric, which commits people to doing something in the future.

So judicial rhetoric dwells on the past, epideictic rhetoric illuminates the present, and deliberative rhetoric empowers us for the future. In mastering the art of persuasion in our personal lives, we need a clear understanding of our rhetorical goals. Do we want to prove someone’s guilt or innocence? Do we want to promote values? Or do we want others to act? Unless we work in the law profession, we’re typically better off arguing about the present or the future. For example, successful parents don’t waste much time blaming their children for past mistakes. Instead, they focus on helping them act with confidence and hope in the future.

Once we’ve established our primary goals in persuading others, we’re in a much better position to choose a suitable means toward those ends. This brings us back to ethos, pathos, and logos. We draw upon our character strengths and experience to give our words greater credibility. We share stories, express empathy, and use humor to make our audience more emotionally receptive to our logic. And finally, we make our case using a series of rational arguments.

As straightforward as Aristotle’s rhetorical analysis sounds, we all know it’s easy to disregard the art of persuasion and turn to force and other improper means. In these moments, perhaps we need to pause, calm our emotions, and try a little harder to imitate the qualities of a good-natured, deliberate, and trustworthy salesperson.