The 3 "Modes" of Persuasion

What type of persuasion will be most appealing to your audience?

1/31/20244 min read

person sitting in a chair in front of a man
person sitting in a chair in front of a man

Think about the people you know and what it takes to convince them. (I’ll give you a moment…)

You probably know a guy who needs an argument spelled out step-by-step. And you definitely have a “tug-at-their-heartstrings” acquaintance. And you likely have a friend who will “take your word for it” because she trusts you.

You naturally approach these folks differently because you’re familiar with them. But if you take a moment to think about it (I’ll give you a moment …) I bet you can identify patterns. Aristotle did. He realized there are three primary appeals when you’re trying to persuade: Appeal to logic, appeal to emotion, and appeal to character—logos, pathos, and ethos respectively.

We use every appeal in every argument, but knowing when to shift the emphasis of your argument appropriately—from emotion to logic or from logic to character—can be the difference between convincing or repulsing your audience.

Sometimes it also means knowing where your argument will thrive and where it won’t. Here’s some advice for using each appeal and a platform to hone your skills:

1. Logos: It’s just logical. (Quora)

Appeals to logic are the foundation of all good arguments. (I hope this isn’t controversial.) Logos refers first to the structure of your argument. Does your conclusion follow from your premises? Will your audience be able to follow the progression? Does your argument provide sufficient evidence for your audience to be convinced? Is your argument sound? (Check back soon for a more robust introduction to argumentation.)

But appealing to logic doesn’t mean you must mechanically recite syllogisms. Please don’t. Any appeal to facts, figures, or statistics adds to your argument’s logos. Visual representations are especially effective when dealing with large amounts of data. The more interesting your logos is, the more likely an audience is to accept it.

Why Quora?

Quora is “a question-and-answer website created, edited and organized by its community of users.” Users vote on the best answers to questions and people can become experts in a given subject based on how many of their answers are voted up by the public. Quora is a great network to build your logos chops. Even a novice user can quickly move up the Quora ranks by providing well-reasoned answers in the subject they know best. Try it out and let me know what you think.

2. Pathos: How pathetic… (Pinterest)

Appeals to emotion are necessary to motivate people to action. But effective pathos doesn’t mean simply including emotion in your argument. (Though passion is certainly important.) It means evoking the correct emotion in your audience. And that can be a lot more difficult than you expect. You must consider the action you want your audience to take and construct your appeal to emotion accordingly.

If you’re speaking at an anti-war rally and you want your audience to march on Congress, is it more effective to tell a story about killed soldiers, focusing on the ruined lives of the families? Or is it better to incite anger, focusing on the lies of politicians that falsely embroiled us in X War? It depends on your audience and the context, of course, but the point is that you must be willing to consider your argument’s pathos and adjust accordingly.

Why Pinterest?

Pictures, while not arguments in themselves, are persuasive and rhetorically powerful. Enter Pinterest! It’s Twitter for pictures and a place where emotions rule. Pinterest allows you to create and share collections of pictures you find around the InterTubes. The pictures are usually organized around themes like “Cats” or “Amazing Art” or “Awesome Tattoos.” People successfully use Pinterest for all sorts of persuasive endeavors—to support political causes, to buy cute pillows, to donate to various charities, etc. The rhetoric is primarily emotive. There are lots of pictures of kids, beautiful people, dazzling scenery—things that evoke strong emotions. If you’re trying to persuade an audience that will be moved by an appeal to emotion, try creating a Pinterest board.

3. Ethos: What an ethical character! (LinkedIn)

Appeals to ethos (or personal character) are the most important appeals. This seems counter-intuitive having just discussed both logic and emotion(!). But think about it. Your argument could be sound. It could even be emotionally compelling. But if your audience doesn’t trust you, if they don’t think you have their interest at heart, it won’t matter. Your audience won’t be convinced. Ethos deals with the perceived credibility of the speaker. Do you seem trustworthy? Knowledgeable? Do you appear to serve the audience’s self-interest? Great ethos is best achieved by being a great person—not by faking it. There is no substitute for being genuinely benevolent and knowledgeable.

So much can be said about ethos that I couldn’t possibly fit it all in one post. It’ll take several. Be prepared. For now, simply remember that it’s incredibly important how you’re perceived by the audience, so do everything in your power to cultivate an ethos that your audience will admire.

Why LinkedIn?

LinkedIn is the professional version of Facebook, a place for all the serious folk to engage in social network shenanigans without all the embarrassing photos and endless stream of invites to Bubble Tower Defense. It’s an excellent community to build your ethos not by the logical arguments you make, like Quora, but by your professional accomplishments in your field. Build a strong portfolio of accomplishments and your digital ethos increases.

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It’s important to remember that the appeals, while distinct, aren’t separate or independent. A strong logical appeal can add to your credibility and an overblown emotional appeal can hurt it. Don’t assume that your argument should be just one of the appeals. Instead, figure out which will work best for your audience and emphasize it—but don’t neglect the rest. That will make you a better rhetor.

Happy persuading!