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June 2017

A 2,500 year-old tool for better messaging

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It’s old. It’s Greek. And, unsurprisingly, it involves geometry. But let’s save the history lesson for the appendix and jump right in.

Fundamentally, there are three ways to persuade someone. These are called modes of persuasion or rhetorical appeals. Any one of them can work, but when you can get more than one of these appeals working together, your effectiveness will multiply.

ONE – Credibility (Ethos)

When a doctor tells you to do something for your health you are more likely to believe her than your brother-in-law. But, in our over-credentialized age, this appeal is not as simple as having the right initials behind your name. We are more likely to be persuaded by those who model what we value or want to be. For example, how much credibility would you give a personal trainer who is obviously out of shape?

TWO – Logic (Logos)

People can be persuaded by logic. If I show you data that links smoking and lung cancer, then I don’t have to be a doctor to be persuasive. Theoretically, logic is the purest and best of all appeals. But if you’ve had any experience with non-theoretical people, you know that logic doesn’t always apply. Smoking is the perfect example. Smokers don’t disagree with the logic that smoking is bad for you. So, if you want to persuade someone to stop smoking, you need more than logic.

THREE — Emotion (Pathos)

Emotion is messy, unpredictable, and oh so powerful. Some have described being overcome with emotion as something that happens to a person against their will, depriving them of agency — quite literally an assault. While there are hundreds of words to describe the many shades of emotions we can feel, when it comes to persuasion, I think that only five are elemental.

  1. Love – We are all connected, the world is full of beauty and wonder. Kitten pictures.
  2. Pity – Isn’t it awful what happened to this poor person?
  3. Fear – Something like this could happen to me!
  4. Anger – This is wrong!
  5. Greed — the possibility of gain.

For example, while you might deeply regret something you’ve done, only the fear of regretting something you’ve done or haven’t done is likely to be persuade you.

For business, Fear and Greed are usually the most persuasive. Greed is not a dollar amount, but an emotion. It’s flip side, the fear of loss, is often a more persuasive emotion.

Anger is only really persuasive when directed at people. It is almost impossible for a person to be angry at an institution without transferring that anger onto an individual.

Anger, Fear and Love are the emotions that cause things to go crazy on the internet. When looked at which from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes a lot of sense that “This could get us all killed! I must tell the tribe!” should be deeply wired into our psyches.

But however, you analyze them, emotions are powerful stuff when it comes to persuasion.


When you put all three appeals together you get what I call the persuasive triangle.

Any persuasive message fits on some point in this triangle. And my contention is, the closer you get to the middle, the more powerful your appeal will be. Let’s use an example:

Let’s say I want to convince my 73-year-old father to quit smoking. I could simply say, “Dad, smoking causes lung cancer.” This is all logic. And it’s unlikely to work. Because, he knows it already. And if this message was going to work, it would have worked before now.


So how can we move our appeal closer to the center of our triangle? Credibility is going to be hard to come by because this is my Dad. (I think, on some level, you’re always a little bit of a punk to your Dad.) But this is the same problem advertisers have faced since Don Draper had first his three-martini lunch: Why would I believe anything I read in an ad (or anything a salesman says) when I know that the speaker has skin in the game. They make money when they make a sale. 

One solution to is to borrow credibility. “Four out of Five Dentists recommend Trident to their patients who chew gum.”  And it’s crazy to me that line works at all. When you think about it, it’s not a ringing endorsement. It could easily be taken to mean, “Yeah, if you’re going to chew gum, which I don’t recommend, then chew trident. It’s the best of a bad bunch.”

But that’s not even close to the weirdest thing about credibility appeals. Sometimes an appeal to authority doesn’t have to be even remotely connected to the truth. Think four out of five dentists are right about chewing gum?

One out of one illustrated dentists recommend Viceroys to their patients who smoke!

More doctors smoke Camels. They’re probably fine!?! But you know, maybe they’re not smoking in a professional capacity. Maybe somebody should study this. How about some science?

Well, thank goodness we have “scientific” evidence. And my personal favorite: The health cigar.

Borrowing credibility isn’t always so foolish or evil. But like any tool, it can be misused.

To get my Dad to quit smoking, I could honestly borrow credibility from a lot of sources. The Surgeon General, for instance. But that’s probably not going to work either. For one thing, the Surgeon General’s warning is right on the side of the pack. Everybody knows it already.


So, let’s try to get some emotion into the mix and see if that changes things. And to do that, we need a deeper understanding of our audience of one. If I just think of him as my 73-year-old Father, then there’s not much wiggle room. But if we recognize that he’s also a 73-year-old Grandfather, then some opportunity opens up.

How about, “Quit smoking, so you’ll have more time with your grandkids?”

  • Logic: Smoking is killing you. If you quit you’ll live longer.
  • Emotion: Grandpa taking grandkids to get Ice Cream in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Or, “Quit smoking, because if the grandkids see you smoking, they will be more likely to start.”

  • Logic: Smoking is bad for you. Your grandkids look up to you.
  • Emotion: Suffering, grey-skinned, cancer-riddled grandchildren.


Be it an ad, a management conversation or an appeal to a loved one, the more you can successfully consider and combine multiple modes of persuasion, the more successful you will be.

Why should you get your car regularly serviced?

  • Logic: To protect the value of your car.
  • Credibility: AAA and consumer reports recommends an oil change every three months or 5,000 miles.
  • Emotion: Your car needs to be a safe way to transport your kids.

Appendix – Aristotle and the Modes of Persuasion

Beyond a certain point in history it becomes impossible to track the provenance of an idea — people simply didn’t write things down — so, I think it’s safe to say that all of the ideas here were first codified by Aristotle in his Rhetoric. It is an immensely practical and useful work, even if it sometimes suffers in translation, or from the people who teach it.

If this is the first time you are encountering the idea of the modes of persuasion, I think somebody in your education owes you an apology and a refund. Persuasion and persuasive communications is such an important part of everyone’s life and work, you make people more capable and powerful by teaching them how to use these tools.

An Easier Way to Develop Persuasive Communications

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The world is filled with other people. And if you want to get anything done, you’re going to have to persuade at least some of them to see things your way. Influencing people is especially important if you want to make a sale, get the promotion or, even change the world.

It can seem that being persuasive is a natural gift, like charisma or good looks, but I assure you, just like everything else, it can be learned. After 20+ years helping people with persuasive messaging, I have boiled it down into a few simple models that anyone can use to hone their message and deliver it more effectively. In this article, I’d like to show you one of them. But first, a caveat.

But, whatever else you do, get to your point as quickly as you can.

No matter what your strategy for persuading someone may be, you are always, always, always better off doing it with as few words as possible. We live in an attention-deficit disorder of an age and are, literally, the most messaged humans in the history of the world. We don’t have any attention left to spare.

So when you create any communication, be it an e-mail, a video, a proposal, a presentation, always try to use as little of your audience’s attention as possible. If you think about communication as a production process, what you are making is a change in someone else’s mind. And to do that you use words and images, but the main input into that process, is someone else’s attention. And attention is a highly constrained resource.

Audience – Message – Action

Every message is aimed at an audience. Even if you are talking to yourself, you have an audience. And everybody talks to themselves. Even if you are all alone and bark your shin on a coffee table, when you curse, the audience is yourself and the desired action is to make you feel better. And if you think that’s crazy, here’s something even crazier: It f#$%!ing works!

Every message has a desired action. We communicate because we want to change something in the world. Even if the thing we want to change the other person’s mind, that’s real change. And it’s not ‘just’ or ‘even’ somebody else’s mind. Changing someone’s mind is a huge thing. Companies spend billions of dollars to influence and change people’s minds. Most of the time they fail. Provide me any example of communication you like in the comments and I will show you how there is an action hiding within it.

A message can be anything. But, in a persuasive sense, there’s only one way to evaluate it. Does it get the audience to take the action you desire? It doesn’t matter if it is grammatically correct or if it rhymes or if a third-party outside the audience doesn’t like it. Does it get a result?

Using This Model

The Audience – Message – Action model frees your brain up to not have to remember everything all at once. Especially when it comes to remembering to make sure that your message actually stands a chance of working. Seriously, with all of the jargon, the politics and the strategerizing (that’s when you overthink your overthinking), it’s easy to lose sight of simple effectiveness.

But writing down audience, message and action is like showing your work in math class. You immediately begin to see how the parts are working (or failing to work). And you get to see how changing one component can make the entire system click.

For example, let’s say we want somebody (anybody!) to buy our motor oil. At the very beginning, we probably don’t even care who, we just want to sell some oil. Let’s arbitrarily pick an over-targeted, consumer archetype, Soccer Moms.

AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms


ACTION: Buy a case of Motor Oil

What can we say to soccer moms (and when and where) to make them more likely to buy a case of motor oil?

It doesn’t seem like there’s much. In fact, at first blush, it seems like this is the wrong target for this product. Soccer Moms don’t seem like they really buy motor oil by the case. We could investigate this with research — figuring out what questions to ask is another valuable way to use this model — but for the sake of illustration, let’s move along.

Keeping the same target, we could recognize that soccer moms don’t buy oil by the case, they buy it by the oil change.


AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms


ACTION: Specify our motor oil for their oil changes

Or we could develop new audiences for our action.


AUDIENCE: Mechanics


ACTION: Buy our motor oil for their oil changes


AUDIENCE: Procurement director for Spiffy Lube


ACTION: Buy our motor oil for their oil changes


AUDIENCE: Fleet Maintenance Directors


ACTION: Buy our motor oil for their oil changes

Even if you are not the most creative, strategic or persuasive person, I’m willing to bet you’ve already got a couple ideas for what could go in the message slot. Or even a couple ideas for other targets. That’s the whole point. This AMA model is a more productive way to think about persuasive communications.

Sadly, in my experience, what usually happens is this:

AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms

MESSAGE: A Focus on Performance

ACTION: Specify our motor oil for their oil changes


Or, at worst, this.



MESSAGE: A Focus on Performance

ACTION: We need sales to go up


And it’s usually not even that specific. Maybe it’s “Our tagline is “Performance” or “Quality” or “Partnership”. And it’s inane to think that those abstracts are persuasive. They don’t even communicate any meaning. The takeaway here is that the more specific you can make each of these elements, the more successful your efforts will be.

Tips You Can Use

1. Lower the cost of the desired action.  This is the magic of return postage. I want you to send me something, so I send you a letter asking for it. But to make it easier, I include an addressed and stamped envelope. Now, instead of having to find a stamp, find an envelope and address a letter, you can just seal the envelope and drop it in the mail.

Maybe I want to get a raise. So our model looks like this:


AUDIENCE: My Tightfisted Boss

MESSAGE: I’d like a raise.

ACTION: Get approval from his boss to pay me more.


It’s obvious that we could come up with more persuasive messages here, but let’s see how just lowering the cost of the desired action can make it more likely to get a raise.

ACTION: Take two minutes to look at this comparative salary report.

Assuming that the salary report shows that I’m being underpaid, this seems like a good way to get started.


AUDIENCE: My Tightfisted Boss

MESSAGE: According to glassdoor, my salary is well below industry average.

ACTION: Take two minutes to look at this comparative salary report.

One thing always leads to another, so figuring out a chain of actions that lead to what you ultimately want is often a better way to think about persuasion. Because maybe what we are really looking at is:


AUDIENCE: My Tightfisted Boss

MESSAGE: According to glassdoor, my salary is well below industry average.

ACTION: Read report => Believe that I am underpaid => go to bat for me for the raise.

Or maybe the action chain looks like this:


ACTION: Read report => believe that I am underpaid => worry that I might take another job => go to bat for me for the raise.


One thing leads to another. Make the first thing as easy, fun and low cost as possible. It’s hard to get someone to buy a car. It’s easier to get them to take a test drive. So which one does the car salesman ask you to do first?

  1. Be as specific as possible with the desired action.

What specific action do you want someone to take? I know this seems simple, but because we live in an attention-deficit disorder of a world there is a big difference between asking someone “Please help us put an end to cancer” and “Please donate $5 to fund pediatric leukemia research?” In the first one, you are leaving the audience with the burden of figuring out how they can help. It’s harder for someone to process and understand. Because the second one is more specific, the audience doesn’t have to burn brainpower filling in the blanks.

Or, consider it from a management standpoint. If I say, “Jim, I need your performance to improve?” How likely is it that Jim is going to mend his errant ways and become the stand-out, the go-to-guy on my team?

But if I say, “Jim, you need to be here and at your desk by 8:30 every morning.”

Or, “Jim, I need you to make twenty service calls a week.”

Or, even “Jim, every time you kill the Joe, you need to make some Mo’.”

These last three stand a better chance of succeeding simply because they are specific. But “Jim, in our handbook it says that we are all respectful and considerate of our fellow employees,” isn’t going to get Jim to stop leaving an empty coffee pot on a hot plate.

  1. Be as specific as possible with the audience.

Far and away the best place to be specific is with your audience. Don’t try to persuade an industry when you can persuade a role. Don’t target your message to a role when you can target it to a specific person.


AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms


ACTION: Specify Old North State Oil at your next oil change.


Oof, this is tough. But watch what happens if we can make that audience more specific.


AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms who drive over 25,000 miles a year.




AUDIENCE: Soccer Moms with 2+ kids on sports teams.




AUDIENCE: Audrey Johnson who lives at 332 Drury Lane


Making the audience more specific always opens up new and more powerful ways to think about persuasion.

Enough Hypotheticals, Let’s Introduce the Rubber to the Road


Audience: You

Message: This Post

Desired Action: To be a more persuasive communicator


If this model works for you, use it and spread it. If you have questions, or want to see it applied to your situation, please leave a comment or message me and I’ll do my best.