The Art of Persuasion 101

By Moksha Agarwal 2021-07-17

When I was sixteen, the only person I was trying to persuade was my mum. I had a few weapons in my arsenal: sulking, tantrums and of course, straight-up wailing. I didn’t have to deliver any speeches, argue in a debate, or even write an essay—small-town schools are really good at steering students away from such ‘distractions’. But as a teenager in 2021, your needs are rather different from mine. Not only are you inducted into an education system that emphasizes developing and expressing your point of view, but you’re also someone who is grinding hard to convince admissions officers that you will be a great fit at your dream school.

So what tools can you use to tip the scales in your favor, in other words, express yourself persuasively? Let’s hear from Aristotle:

There are three modes of persuasion—Logos, Ethos, and Pathos. There’s a fourth one, Kairos, but we’ll be focusing on the first three today.

Logos, quite simply, refers to logic. The solidity of your argument influences your persuasiveness. Are you making sense? Do your conclusions follow from your premises? To ensure that they do, you need to pay close attention to how your argument is developing throughout the piece. You may use data and statistics, draw on common myths or assumptions, and even lead your audience to arrive at the conclusion on their own, before you do so yourself. While all of these will contribute to your logos, incorporating common myths or assumptions may boost your pathos, and presenting facts and figures may strengthen your ethos.

Ethos means credibility. What gives you authority to speak on the given subject matter? More importantly, can your audience trust what you are saying? In a way, ethos speaks to your credentials, as well as your character. Let’s say you’re writing about the struggles of acting. Would your audience take you seriously if you never tell them about the work that you have done? That’s why most TED Talks start with an introduction—who am I, what have I done. But the speaker also practices caution. It is seldom that a persuasive speaker appears boastful or arrogant. What you choose to reveal about yourself must also provide insights into the kind of person you are. It must show the audience that you’re speaking in good faith.

Pathos, the third mode of persuasion, champions emotions. We’re emotional creatures. That’s why we read books or watch movies. They allow us to feel something. When you’re trying to persuade someone, think about who your audience is and what they feel about your chosen subject. Then, think about the emotions that you wish to elicit from them. You don’t want the admissions officers to feel angry or disappointed, nor do you want them to pity you. You also don’t want to bore them. Once you’ve identified the emotional core of your essay, you must employ words and sentence structures that accentuate that feeling. 

Now before you go on and persuade others, there’s something you should know. Persuasiveness isn’t something you develop overnight. It’s a skill that needs to be tested, refined, and perfected. The more you practice, you’ll realize that logos, ethos, and pathos are not isolated categories. They are, instead, heavily interdependent. And it is their interaction that ultimately determines whether you’ll be able to tip the scales in your favor or not.