Logos, Pathos, Ethos… Oh My!

For years I’ve known the three key tests of a great (i.e., “persuasive”) message were:
1 – It appeals to the emotion of the audience
2 – It creates differentiation from other options
3 – It has credibility

You can imagine my surprise the other day when I was studying the life of Aristotle, yes, the 300 BC Greek philosopher, student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. In his work Rhetoric, he puts forth that persuasion comes from three combined appeals:
1 – Logos, the appeal to reason
2 – Pathos, the appeal to emotion
3 – Ethos, the appeal of one’s character or credibility

These appeals, as Aristotle terms them, are not independent, but rather woven together. Although there are some we may know that make decisions based predominantly on emotion, or logic or credentials, it is more common to see them working together like three legs of a stool.

Aristotle doesn’t define whether Logos comes first because it happens first, or is most important, that’s just how he listed the three appeals. From my experience, people make decisions in this order:
1 – Pathos: Emotion, “what’s in it for me?”
2 – Logos: Reason, “is this the best way for me to get what I want?”
3 – Ethos: Logic, “will this really work, can I trust them?”

I often use the phrase with my clients, “People buy on emotion and justify with facts.” Think of the last big purchase you made and ask yourself if there was any emotion involved. Once we see something we want, we look for reasons of how to justify it to ourselves. The smart buyer is one that can bridle their emotion and channel it to take action, then use their logic to differentiate the best options, and discern for credibility. We should never neuter emotion from our decisions, it is the fuel that fires change.

If you still don’t believe the maxim that people buy on emotion and justify with facts, do you know any middle-aged man that bought a sports car or motorcycle, or a woman that buys jewelry or clothing? I rest my case.

It’s always nice when you find material that is 2,300 years old that supports a principle you’ve been using most of your professional life. Incidentally, the title of Aristotle’s work, Rhetoric, as defined by Webster is “the art of using language persuasively.”

Kevan Kjar

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