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Ethos Pathos Logos: The 3 Modes Of Persuasion

Arthur Worsley
by Arthur Worsley
M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.

There’s a war going on all around you – and it’s a war of persuasion.

In these updates, I try to persuade you to take action. I try to convince you that reading more, learning faster and being more productive are worthwhile goals; that pursuing them is the fastest and easiest way to master your health, wealth and relationships.

But I’m not the only one out there.

From politicians to charities to businesses, from your friends, family and colleagues to people you’ve never even met – everyone is constantly at it. Everyone is trying to influence your goals and your actions. Whether they know it or not, whether they choose to admit it, EVERYONE is trying to change what you think or believe to be true.

Now, there are many ways that they do this, from the noble to the downright despicable. And our knowledge of how people influence and are influenced by others gets deeper and more nuanced every day.

But in this update, I want to talk about the three modes of persuasion first laid down by Aristotle in his Rhetoric – an ancient Greek treatise on persuasion that’s ~2,500 years old.

I want to talk about ethos, pathos and logos.

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What Are Ethos, Pathos And Logos?

Ethos, pathos and logos are awesome. Think of them as a 3-step checklist you can run through whenever you’re trying to convince or resist being convinced:

  • Ethos is establishing credibility, integrity and trust;
  • Pathos is connecting with and stoking emotion; and
  • Logos is laying out evidence, logic and reasoning.

They’re the three pillars of persuasion, you’ll find them in anything from good speeches, to good emails, to good marketing and mastering them is absolutely critical.

Let’s look at some real-world examples…

Examples Of Ethos, Pathos And Logos.

To really understand ethos, pathos and logos, it’s helpful to see them at work.

For example, here’s an 8-step framework I often use when I write TAoL‘s updates…

  1. Backstory – Why should you listen to me?
  2. Desire – What did I want? How did it feel?
  3. Wall – What forced me to change?
  4. Epiphany – When did lightning strike?
  5. Plan – How exactly did I fix it?
  6. Conflict – How did I overcome resistance?
  7. Achievement – What happened in the end? and
  8. Transformation – What changed (A → B)?

If this pattern seems familiar, it’s because pretty much every good book, film or piece of marketing ever created follows this exact hero’s journey.

Fun Exercise: Next time you’re reading a book or watching a movie have a go at matching the plot to these steps. You’ll be amazed how things fit into place.

ANYWAY, what I really want to show you is that every part of this time-tested framework fits neatly into ethos or pathos or logos…

  • In step 1 (backstory) I appeal to ethos. I explain how I (or someone else) has been there and done that. I build credibility and trust that I know what I’m talking about.
  • In steps 2, 3 and 4 (desire, wall, epiphany) I appeal to pathos. I explore the emotions (often frustration, realisation and relief) that I went through as I found the solution.
  • In steps 5 and 6 (plan and conflict) I appeal to logos. I lay out the solution step-by-step then anticipate and solve complications.
  • In steps 7 and 8 (achievement, transformation) I appeal back to pathos. I stoke as much desire and excitement as I can to encourage you to take action.

(Note: For some practical examples check out the stories I tell about Sean, Erin, Chris, Brian or Nick’s journeys through TAoL’s TRACKTION Masterclass.)

Pretty cool, right?

But it’s not just limited to my updates.

Can you see how Coke uses ethos, pathos and logos in this advert?

Ethos, Pathos, Logos - Coke Example
  • Ethos: The logo and recognisable colours create trust and credibility.
  • Pathos: The model and cold drinks vs. hot location stoke desire.
  • Logos: The drinks themselves explain the obvious next steps.

Or how about Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address?

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
  • Ethos: Appealing to the past (and God) creates trust and credibility.
  • Pathos: Emphasising struggle and sacrifice appeals to honour and pride.
  • Logos: Laying out next steps (“That we here highly resolve…”) speaks to reasoning.

And it doesn’t stop there…

As you go through your day today, take a closer look at the most powerful stories you hear, marketing messages you see and requests people make of you.

Pay attention to WHAT people say AND HOW they say it.

Look out for the three modes of persuasion all around you and you’ll start seeing people and places and events in a whole different way.

Why Ethos, Pathos And Logos REALLY Matter.

Hopefully, it’s obvious why ethos, pathos and logos are so important.

The three modes of persuasion are a powerful way to help you persuade others more easily as well as discern and dissect and defuse the ways others persuade you.

But as I close out today’s update, I’d like to suggest one more use-case.

And it’s perhaps the most valuable, too.

Because here’s the thing.

While you’re constantly surrounded by storytelling, BY FAR the most pivotal stories you listen to are the stories YOU tell about YOU.

They’re the stories that convince you “I’m not…” or “I can’t…” or “I shouldn’t…

And for most people, they’re incredibly frustrating. Because no matter how hard they try to escape them; no matter how much they wish they could change, they’re constantly dragged back by the gravity of these self-proclaimed truths.

So what’s the answer?

Good question. I’m glad that you asked.

Because the answer is surprisingly simple.

The answer is to use ethos and pathos and logos to tell better stories.

It’s to get better at hunting the beliefs that aren’t serving you, understanding what makes them convincing and crafting a counterpunch that’s powerful enough to break through.

The reason ethos, pathos and logos REALLY matter is they help you to out-persuade you.

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