I’ve been thinking recently about various theories of persuasion, of which there are plenty, none of them definitive: “it’s all about reframing your buyers’ mental models,” “it’s all about storytelling,” “it’s all about showing that they are the hero,” “it’s all about aligning with their values.”… It would seem that if you use the right formula, you’ll get the right results.
So what approach does a good marketer looking to build awareness or drive leads or accelerate pipeline or nurture current customers take for their communications and content marketing programs? Go all in on one way of orchestrating suasion, or try a little bit of everything? To that question, I don’t have an answer except this: there is no one-size-fits-all formula for persuasion. No equations, no software, no AI to make it easy. Bummer.
Take heart. We find ourselves in a somewhat better position than the heroes of the classic movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure:
Bill, quoting Plato quoting Socrates: The only true wisdom consists of knowing you know nothing.
Ted: That’s us, dude!
While there are no guarantees (humans being beautifully unpredictable like that), there are approaches to persuasion that make more sense for your customers and your brand than others. What is your brand voice? What kind of relationship do your customers and potential customers want to have with you? Are your buyers deeply expert in the same industry as you, or are they seeking to gain comfort and a sense of expertise through their buying journey? Think about the experience and relationship you—and your buyers—seek to create, then define your persuasion strategy purposefully and accordingly.
Think about the experience and relationship you—and your buyers—seek to create, then define your persuasion strategy purposefully and accordingly.
Regardless of how you choose to proceed, I highly recommend you time-travel (via phone booth, hot tub or, more practically with deadlines and all that, secondary research) to ancient Greece for advice that really holds up.
Back to the Academy
Everything we know about Socrates comes through the writings of his students, most famously Plato. Plato’s most famous student was Aristotle. Aristotle was a prolific writer and teacher. Sadly, none of his writings intended for publication made it down through history. What we have, essentially, are compilations of his lecture notes. But what notes they are!
Aristotle described rhetoric as the “ability, in each case, of discovering the available means of persuasion.” Isn’t that exactly what we continue to seek today as marketers? He goes on to list the three primary appeals or “modes of persuasion” as Logos, Ethos and Pathos. These three appeals tend to be described as separate approaches, but experience tells us that the most effective arguments combine all three.
According to Aristotle, rhetoric is the ‘ability, in each case, of discovering the available means of persuasion’ with three modes of persuasion: Logos, Ethos and Pathos.
Logos: As you can guess given the word’s derivative “logic,” this mode appeals to rationality and uses data-driven proof—stats and facts, charts, competitive bake-offs and so on. B2B marketers have traditionally leaned on this appeal most heavily almost to the exclusion of others, believing that humans in business-related buying groups somehow become more rational and less, well, human. Logos certainly has a place (and can bolster the brand’s Ethos as well), but it’s not a sole actor.
Ethos: Looks like “ethics,” and unsurprisingly, Ethos refers to the apparent credibility and trustworthiness of the person or brand conveying the message. When the message-bearer seems to be expert, intent on doing right and acting in the correct manner, the audience is far more likely to listen, believe and act on their advice or recommendations. Ethos is why being polished but not too slick matters. It’s why not making typos or having an amateurish digital presence matters—unless being folksy is what you are going for. There are a lot of unspoken qualities that go into conveying Ethos, and deeply understanding your target audience is essential.
Pathos: With words like “sympathy,” “empathy” and, yes, “pathetic” coming from Pathos, it’s not hard to guess that this mode appeals to the emotions of the audience. Photos, metaphors and other figures of speech, anecdotes and appealing to an audience’s sense of justice or fairness or their hopes and dreams can all deliver huge helpings of pathos. An apathetic audience won’t act, regardless of the logic that’s brought to bear. While relying too heavily on Pathos could quickly alienate your buyer, used judiciously this appeal will foster action.
One more critical aspect to be considered in your persuasion strategy is Kairos. This concept refers to finding or capitalizing on the most opportune time and place for your message and choosing which appeals to emphasize accordingly. In the modern context, not all channels or events are created equally for all messages. Your audience may also be differentially receptive to the three modes of persuasion at different times or occasions: for example, sometimes taking an emotional stance could be seen as manipulative, while at others pure rationality comes across as cold and uncaring.
Kairos refers to finding or capitalizing on the most opportune time and place for your message and choosing which appeals to emphasize accordingly.
Ancient wisdom for modern marketers
Much of the bedrock of Western thought, mathematics, ethics and perception of reality itself (is there such a thing? Paging Mr. Orwell) finds its foundations in ancient Greece. Millenia of philosophers, literary theorists, psychoanalysts, linguists, politicians and marketers have stood on the shoulders of Athenian giants in furthering their practice. And while some of the thinking—views on slavery, the role of women, the stratification of society—deserve to be ancient history, there’s still wisdom to be had for those who seek it.
Regardless of structure or style, the most powerful persuasion strategies will combine the three primary appeals—tangible logic from a credible source, engaging the audience through their humanity—and connecting with them in the moments and situations that matter. And speaking of timeless wisdom, here’s another piece from two sages of my youth: Be excellent to each other.