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The Golden Triangle of Persuasion

March 24

The Golden Triangle of Persuasion

At its best, speak persuasively is to communicate successfully.  The orator’s or debater’s end goal is to persuade an audience or judge that his or her viewpoints are valid and are worth believing.  Depending on the seriousness of the situation, a debater may even wish those ideas to be acted upon by the audience.

Aristotle, the father of modern rhetoric and persuasive communication stated in his seminal text Rhetoric that the purpose of argumentation is to persuade another that one’s views are valid.  This makes intuitive sense, but how does one do this?  How does one persuade?  Aristotle neatly outlines three strategies for his followers, Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.
Ethos is the appeal to trust. Pathos, the appeal to emotion. Logos, the appeal to reason.

Let’s break each of those down one by one.

Regarding Ethos: we believe those we respect and like. A central tenant of argumentation is conveying to others you are worth listening to because you are trustworthy and an authority on a given topic. Moreover, Ethos communicates a strong set of moral principles, which for Aristotle were justice and generosity, among others. In fact, the word ethics is directly derived from ethos.

Where do we see this in our daily lives?

Advertisements with endorsements are probably the most obvious. If a famous person is on a magazine cover or recommending you to use a product, that’s ethos. Because we admire or respect the celebrity on the advertisement, the brand or company anticipates we will begin to associate those positive thoughts with the brand itself.

This is also why we might take the recommendation of a close friend of family member to go to a new restaurant, rather than looking online: we trust our friends and family.

Credentials are also important for ethos. Seeing the initials, PhD after someone’s name gives them an immense degree of credibility. Graduating from a reputable school or working for a well-known company also builds trust.

If you are not an expert on a topic, borrow another person’s credibility as well! We do this all the time in daily conversation, citing quotations or opinions of others. If you don’t believe me, listen to Woodrow Wilson, the 26th president of the United States, who famously quipped, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.” This is a clear indication that President Wilson understood and employed the concept of ethos.

Pathos, or appeal to emotion, is the second side of the Golden Triangle of Persuasion. Emotional appeals are incredibly persuasive. Think of pathos as igniting the listener’s imagination and enabling them to create personal connections with your arguments.

In order to employ Pathos and establish an emotional connection with your listeners, use stories that enable others to identify with your ideas, use descriptive language to create vivid images and sensations that speak directly to a listener’s heart. Words such as sympathy and empathy are directly derived from the word pathos.

Imagine: You’re walking on the street and at the corner up ahead you see a box of small puppies. Barely two weeks old, they are as cute as can be. A young woman is there trying desperately to find a home for them. She asks you, “Please sir, ma’am, these puppies will starve to death unless we find them a home. They’re so young and innocent. Please don’t let them die. They don’t deserve it. Will you adopt one?

That’s significantly more persuasive than simply, “I have some puppies here. Will you adopt one?” By tugging at your heartstrings and playing upon your emotions, whether pity, hope, fear, or greed, someone who wants to persuade you to change your behavior may often use pathos to do so.

Logos, the final side of the Golden Triangle of Persuasion, is the use of sound reasoning to persuade an audience. Logos means creating an internal consistency within your message. Having a clear argument, logical reasoning, and presenting evidence to show how impactful your argument is all serves to create a persuasive case. The word logic is directly derived from Logos.

A prime example of the power of logos is Al Gore’s documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. While I’m not attempting to open up a debate about climate change here, Gore’s use of charts and evidence displays vividly how the number of floods and hurricanes has increased over time, as one example.  Chai Jing recently took a note from Gore’s book in her film/speech, Under the Dome, which focused on China’s pollution problem.

Intuitively, we can understand this is true as well. Comparing this statement:

“Climate change may be occurring. It’s been a lot hotter recently.”


“Climate change may be occurring. According to a United Nations panel of experts, Twenty of the twenty-one hottest years measured since 1860 have occurred within the past 25 years.”

Facts, figures, and logic create a persuasive argument.

Ethos, Pathos, and Logos, when used properly and ethically, can be an immensely powerful force of persuasion.  All debaters would be wise to remember The Golden Triangle of Persuasion in their upcoming debate tournaments in May.  Good luck, LearningLeaders!

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