According to recent research from OnePoll and Sleepopolis, the average child has 4,200 arguments with their parents by the time they turn 18. With all that practice, it would make sense for most people to become masters of argument before becoming adults. But despite being well-practiced in arguing, many people do not understand the essential characteristics of a good argument.
As a business leader, it’s crucial to improve your communication skills, including your ability to argue effectively. A 2023 study from Pollack Peacebuilding Systems found that 85% of employees experience conflict at work. Conflict is bound to happen when people are engaged and excited about their work. However, knowing how to argue effectively and respectfully is the key to resolving conflict, influencing employees and peers, and connecting with clients, investors, and customers.
Luckily, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle created the Rhetorical Triangle to help people improve their argument and persuasion skills. If you can master the Rhetorical Triangle, you can more effectively communicate with people in professional and personal situations. A leader skilled in persuasion can influence their peers, promote their values, and drive change in the world. In this article, learn everything you need to know about developing this persuasive tool.
- The Rhetorical Triangle refers to three persuasive tools–-ethos, pathos, and logos. Leaders can use these tools to more effectively communicate, resolve conflicts, and connect with clients, investors, employees, and coworkers.
- Persuade your audience through ethos by quoting experts, establishing trust with your audience, and improving your own expertise.
- Use pathos in your argument by being sincere, getting to know your audience, and using humor, vivid language, or stories.
- Include logos in your argument by sharing research, data, statistics, examples, and addressing counterarguments.
- A strong argument includes a balance of ethos, pathos, and logos.
What Is the Rhetorical Triangle?
The Rhetorical Triangle is a set of tools for appealing to an audience when making an argument. The philosopher Aristotle argued that persuading an audience depended on the speaker’s ability to use three persuasive tools—ethos, pathos, and logos. These three Greek words are also known as rhetorical appeals or rhetorical devices. They represent different ways a speaker or writer can address their audience.
Here’s a deep dive into each of Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals that are part of the Rhetorical Triangle:
Ethos is a way of persuading others by showing that you are trustworthy and credible. It’s about making others believe you are an expert on the topic or that you have good character and intentions. It comes from the Greek word for ethics.
To understand how ethos works, imagine you’ve been having headaches recently. Would you rather take advice from your long-time family doctor or a door-to-door salesman?
Many people would choose to follow their doctor’s advice instead of a salesman’s because they have known the doctor longer, the doctor went to medical school, and the doctor has experience treating patients. On the other hand, you likely don’t know whether the salesman has any knowledge or experience. This is an example of ethos at work.
In Brené Brown’s Ted Talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” she describes a story when an event planner called her before an event where Brown was scheduled to speak. The planner said to Brown, “I’m really struggling with how to write about you on the little flyer. I saw you speak, and I’m going to call you a researcher, but I’m afraid if I call you a researcher, no one will come because they’ll think you’re boring and irrelevant . . . So I think what I’ll do is just call you a storyteller.”
Brown felt nervous that the title “storyteller” did not convey that she was an expert and researched her topic extensively. She thought the audience wouldn’t take her seriously. So she and the event planner settled on the title “researcher-storyteller,” which conveyed that Brown was qualified to share scientific information and she was experienced in keeping an audience engaged. This title established her credibility, allowing her to persuade the audience of her message using ethos.
Pathos is a persuasion strategy that makes the audience feel emotions such as happiness, sadness, or anger. Speakers or writers using pathos use stories, images, and words that create an emotional connection with the audience.
Many people remember this piece of the Rhetorical Triangle used in the harsh anti-smoking ads that frequently circulated to bring down smoking rates in the United States. These ads showed pictures of the disturbing physical effects of smoking. The ads used pathos to inspire fear in the audience to encourage them to avoid smoking.
Cyrus Massoumi is one of the founders of ZocDoc, a service that allows people to find and book medical appointments instantly. When Massoumi presented the idea for his product at Techcrunch 40, he told a story, using pathos to make his argument.
He began his presentation by describing when his eardrum ruptured while traveling with a sinus infection. When his plane landed, the pressure caused the rupture. He compared the pain to the feeling of Mike Tyson biting his ear off.
However, Massoumi struggled to find a medical provider to treat his ear pain and couldn’t be treated for four days. He presented his product as a solution to problems like these.
Massoumi’s story used the emotion of pain to make his argument. He painted a vivid picture of his pain, allowing the audience to understand just how important finding a solution was.
Logos is a method of persuading others by using facts, numbers, and logic to make your point. It’s about using evidence to show that your argument makes sense. The word logos comes from the Greek word for logic.
To understand how logos works, imagine again you’re considering treatment options for headaches. Your doctor presents you with a few potential options and explains the results of studies on each treatment option. Multiple studies showed one of the options worked for 95% of patients. Because of logos, you’ve been convinced to try that treatment option.
When Spanx founder Sara Blakely was working to get department stores to carry her product, she met with a buyer at Neiman Marcus. When she could not convince the buyer to carry her product within the first few minutes of the conversation, she asked the buyer if she could show her how her product worked.
Blakely went to the bathroom to put on a pair of Spanx and showed the buyer how wearing Spanx made a difference. Because the buyer could see for herself that Spanx worked, she decided to carry the product in Neiman Marcus stores. The in-person evidence of the effectiveness of Spanx is an example of logos in action.
Learn to Use the Rhetorical Triangle
While you may understand the rhetorical triangle, you might wonder how to use it in your writing, speaking, or interpersonal communication. Here are a few ways to increase the presence of each side of the rhetorical triangle in your arguments:
- Share expert opinions: You may not be the leading expert on every topic you have an opinion about, but you can find quotes from leading experts to support your points. If you can find multiple experts with strong credibility, your argument will have more weight.
- Improve your credentials by gaining skills and certifications: If you’re not yet the leading expert, you can work toward it. Take online courses, continuing education classes, or certification programs to bolster your credibility.
- Build trust with your audience: Trust is a huge component of credibility, which means you must show your audience that you can be counted on. Trust is often built over time by showing you are honest and sincere, you honor your commitments, and admit your mistakes. Whether your audience is clients, investors, conference attendees, or employees, you’ll be more successful at persuasion if you have earned their trust.
- Be sincere: It’s easiest to connect emotionally when you are being yourself. Audiences admire a person who is willing to share the real version of themselves.
- Try multiple strategies for connection: An emotional connection can happen in a variety of ways, and the best one is whichever is most natural for you. Try out telling stories, using humor, or speaking with vivid language. Find the strategy that works best for you.
- Get to know your audience: When you know your audience on a personal level, you’ll understand how to connect with them emotionally. Some audiences respond best to humor, many prefer personal stories, and others have different preferences. If you understand the values and interests of your audience, you’ll be able to craft your argument to be more impactful.
- Go heavy on the research, statistics, and data: Each time you make a claim, use data to support your point. If possible, present multiple studies to support each of your claims. Aim to be the most well-researched person in the room. It’s hard to lose an argument when you let numbers prove your point.
- Use examples and demonstrations: It strengthens your argument to give your audience an in-person example or demonstration. For example, if you are showing a product to a potential investor or client, allow them to see the effects of the product firsthand.
- Address counterarguments: Anticipate the counterarguments your audience might have so you can proactively address them. By the end of your argument, you want to show that you aren’t blind to your audience’s concerns, but you have thought of them and have ways of addressing them.
Balancing the Rhetorical Triangle
It’s crucial to evenly balance ethos, pathos, and logos to persuade an audience. Some people lean heavily on just one piece of the rhetorical triangle, but your ability to reach a wide range of people will suffer if you don’t balance the triangle. These are some of the consequences of skipping ethos, pathos, or logos in your argument:
- Ethos: If you don’t establish credibility through ethos, people may discount your opinion as irrelevant or not worthy of listening to.
- Pathos: An argument without any pathos can feel like it lacks humanity. Your audience may get bored or think you don’t understand the human side of the situation.
- Logos: Without logos, your argument will be easy to poke holes in. It won’t be able to stand up well to criticism.
Improve Your Persuasive Skills by Learning to Avoid Fallacies
Masters of persuasion know how to use rhetorical appeals to their advantage, but they also know how to avoid mistakes in their arguments. These mistakes are often called logical fallacies. Once you’ve mastered ethos, logos, and pathos, take your argument a step further by checking for the following mistakes.
Here are a few common logical fallacies to avoid:
- Slippery slope: Suggesting that one event will lead to a series of increasingly negative events without sufficient evidence.
To correct: If you are arguing that “Situation A” will lead to “Situation B,” which will lead to “Situation C,” check if there is sufficient evidence to suggest this series of events is plausible and likely. If the chances are low, it’s best to leave this argument out. Instead, present the more immediate and likely potential consequences of “Situation A.”
- Anecdotal evidence: Using a personal story or isolated example to generalize about a whole group or situation.
To correct: If you use an isolated example or story to introduce your argument or connect emotionally with your audience, be sure to include many other examples, research, and data throughout the rest of your argument so your argument’s success doesn’t rely solely on an isolated example.
- False dilemma: Presenting only two options when there are other possibilities or complexities involved.
To correct: Remember that situations are very rarely black and white, so it can be misleading to represent a situation with only two possible outcomes or options. When there are multiple outcomes or options, explain this to your audience. Even if you choose to focus on just a few possibilities in your argument, avoid presenting these as the only possibilities.
To learn more about improving your communication and argument skills, check out this article: