Advertisers and politicians understand how to push our buttons and make their products irresistible. While the techniques of rhetoric are sometimes used unscrupulously or for questionable purposes, there are times when we are called upon to persuade. And that writing will be better if we understand how to use persuasive techniques appropriately and effectively, eschewing the cheap trick in favor of the sound argument.
Persuasive writing includes any attempt to convince the reader beyond the bald presentation of facts, data, or opinions Any time we take a position and defend it to the best of our ability, we are persuading. And we can choose to do that through our organization, our sentence structure (syntax), our choice of examples, the extent and quality of our explanations, and our diction (word choice).
Classically, there are three tools of persuasion, called the artistic proofs. They are artistic because they are a matter of craft. They have to be learned, practiced, passed on from mentor to apprentice, and honed to suit each individual situation. They are proofs because like a geometrical series, when properly built, they can lead their user to a sound, structural principle upon which to base foundational decisions.
The Greek names for the proofs provide us some clue about their definition, although two of the meanings have changed pretty substantially over the two and a half millennia since Aristotle first outlined their use. They are logos, ethos, and pathos; and if you guessed logic, ethics, and pathological you wouldn’t be too far off.
Logos refers to logical analysis. This is more than just the providing of data. It’s the application, analysis, and demonstration of the data’s relevance. Connect the dots, as your editors like to say.
Ethos does mean ethics, in part. The term refers to the writer’s credibility, and good character, the writer’s upstanding moral position in the community, is one part of that equation. For most writers, this means things like fact checking, giving credit to your sources, avoiding errors, and if you’re in a politically or morally sensitive position—like you’re the editor of a conservation blog—being politically or morally sensitive to conservation issues.
The other two parts of ethos are good sense and good will. Good sense goes back to logos. Do you have your facts straight and can you demonstrate their relevance to the situation at hand? Good will depends on the relationship you develop with your readers. Show them that you care by bringing them relevant, timely information. Answer their questions. And do it in a way that makes them feel like they matter.
Your readers are more than a customer or a follower or a name in a database. They’re the reason you write. Without them, you have no audience. So treat them with the respect they deserve. Your existence depends on it.
Finally, we come to pathos, which in today’s era calls to mind words like pathological or pathetic more so than the images of deep emotional vaults it summoned for the ancient Greeks. In all fairness, too many unscrupulous rhetoricians have overused and cheapened pathos, leaving us all suspicious when someone starts tugging on our heart strings. But telling stories and using evocative, emotional language will definitely touch your reader’s heart and will rarely leave you susceptible to charges of charlatanism.
When should you use these tools? Any time you want your reader to agree with you, which pretty much means any time you write. And how do you know you’ve got it right? Practice, practice, practice. And don’t be afraid to get feedback. (For more help on that, see my earlier post, The Power of Collaboration)
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