The art of persuasion

persuasionOne thing’s for certain: Aristotle knew his stuff. Although the Greek philosopher lived and died more than 2000 years ago, examples of his theories of persuasion can be found in today’s biggest ad campaigns. Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion include: ethos (establishing credibility), logos (instituting logic through data and statistics), and pathos (appealing to emotion). Powerful TV commercials, print ads, and Internet marketing campaigns reap the rewards of Aristotle’s framework and you too can use this structure to improve the persuasiveness of your company’s messaging.


Ethos refers to establishing credibility and convincing an audience that they can believe what’s being said. Often the brand name of a given product, publication, author, or speaker is what lends credibility to the message. This, for example, is why most presentations begin with an introduction of the speaker (including information about relevant experiences and accolades), in order to make the message that follows more persuasive.


Logos appeals to an audience’s sense of logic through data, statistics, facts, and figures. Sound reasoning and providing logical proof to support an argument is a critical component of persuading anyone of anything. Incorporating numerical values or rationale supported by research will help make an argument less speculative and based on fact instead, thereby dramatically increasing an argument’s persuasive qualities.


Pathos refers to appealing to an audience’s emotion, namely using anecdotes, personal insights, and storytelling. “Storytelling” is one of the hottest buzz words in marketing and you’d be hard-pressed to find a prominent marketing blogger or author who’s not touting the benefits of using story to evoke audience emotion, and therefore action. Author Brene Brown says it best: “stories are just data with a soul.”

Humans have told stories for over 100,000 years. In comparison, written communication has existed for about 5,000 years and mass reading and writing for only a few hundred years. Stories are the oldest means of communicating information for a variety of reasons including the fact that information presented in narrative form makes it more memorable or “sticky”. Stories also have the unique ability of helping an audience empathize with the message. Well-told stories help humanize a brand and make companies feel warmer, more personal, and more real. An audience has to care before they take action, which is why pathos is such an important component of persuasion.

Persuasion in Action

Ace Metrix is a company that measures the impact of video content and provides insights to improve the success of video ads. In early 2015, they tested 1,700 video ads from the first quarter of the year, sampling over 150,000 consumers. Participants scored the ads between 1-950 points based on a total of 96 different measures, including attention, likeability, and persuasion.

A Kindle Fire HD Tablet ad called “Twice Durable” was the top scorer in the mobile devices category ( The commercial features the tablet being dropped in both controlled lab tests, as well as in the “real world” with a busy mom forgetting to remove the tablet from the top of her car. What happens next is both predictable, as well as surprising. The tablet falls from the moving vehicle, but to the mom’s relief, there is no harm done. The commercial’s writers and producers used Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion with expert skill level. Credibility (ethos) is established through the use of the Amazon brand name, as well as the opening shot of controlled drop tests with no damage to the product. Facts and figures (logos) are used throughout the ad to lend proof to the product, including the fact that “Amazon engineers the Fire HD tablet to withstand drops with 1000 g’s of force” and it’s “twice as durable as iPad”. Emotion (pathos) is demonstrated in the “real world” scenario of the busy mom, where the target audience can relate to both the shock and relief felt by the character. The result is a very persuasive ad that received top marks from the audience.

So the next time you’re trying to figure out how to more effectively persuade your target audience, think carefully about how you can incorporate Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion into your organization’s messaging. As much as society tries to reinvent marketing, branding, and communication in today’s high tech world, all that’s being reinvented is the platform on which to use Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion – not the framework itself.


Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.