3.5 Everything’s Persuasion
Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Nancy Ami; and Natalie Boldt
When it comes to academic writing, one can assume that the purpose of every piece of writing is to make an argument – although the term “argument” in this context might need some definition. The title of this particular section is a play on the title of a well-known and widely used writing textbook by Drs. Andrea Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz titled Everything’s an Argument. Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz’s title relies on a rhetorician’s understanding of argument. They recognize that the term argument doesn’t only mean getting into a fight with someone. Rather, their point is that in academic writing, debates or arguments over ideas are common. While Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz’s textbook is excellent, perhaps there is another way to understand persuasion that’s more suitable for undergraduate students studying in Canada.
Remember back in Section 3.3, we introduced you to the rhetorical triangle? If you take a look at the rhetorical triangle, you will see that in the midst of audience, subject, and writer/speaker is the word purpose. Everyone writes for a variety of purposes but generally the goals are to inform, persuade, and perhaps entertain. In academic writing, it’s much more important to inform and persuade (with an emphasis on inform). The triangle doesn’t represent one form of balanced communication but all the ways balance can occur within specific contexts (and those are vast and plentiful). In the context of academic writing, rhetorical balance can take many forms but most often, it’s an emphasis on sharing credible, well-tested data that is explained with clarity of purpose and audience engagement.
Easy, right? Well, academic writing can be made much less of a mystery once you grasp both the concept of genre (covered in chapter two) and the basics of rhetorical practice. One of those basics is the rhetorical triangle, which we introduced you to earlier in this chapter. As a brief refresher, the rhetorical triangle maps out how persuasion operates (see Fig. 3.1).
Let’s turn to the idea of persuasion rather than argument just for a minute and think about the persuader and those who the persuader wants to persuade (otherwise known as the rhetor and the audience). Rhetorician Kenneth Burke redefined the concepts of argument and persuasion to better suit Western culture. In Western cultures, relationships are often unequal and so Burke argued that persuasion is more akin to a historical idea of courtship rather than an argument between equal parties:
An audience’s degree of adherence to the rhetor’s argument can vary greatly. By contrast, courtship focuses primarily on the unequal relationship between the persuader and those being persuaded, rather than employ means generally considered “persuasive.” Through courtship, the “courtier” already commands a certain “captivation” of the audience. This “courted” audience thus yearns to transcend the gap of social estrangement to unite with the persuader.
Now, the idea here isn’t to court someone literally (the word “courtship” is a rather outmoded way to define dating). By “courtship,” Burke refers specifically to courtiers, who had permission to enter the court where they might receive audience with a monarch and other noblemen. Courtiers (like lobbyists, in a way) “court” those in power for various benefits for themselves, their communities, families and so on. This relationship, in some ways, is not unlike when a professor submits a paper for publication and must write a letter (or email of introduction) courting the press with persuasive language (and a certain amount of deference) so that they consider the paper for publication.
Extending Burke’s analogy a little more, when you are writing an assignment, you might feel anxious. This anxiety occurs, in part, because you are working to show a person in authority (your instructor) that you possess certain knowledge. You are “courting” a person who has some authority in order to gain something. In this case, a grade. Luckily, you are not a courtier and your instructor is certainly there to support you. This analogy, though, serves as a means to consider the relationship between rhetor and audience (who are often, but not always, unequal).
When you engage in acts of persuasion, you are hoping to induce action in others. To show you just how common persuasion is in communication, here are a few common examples you might recognize where students want to persuade or induce action:
- You write an email to one of your instructors asking them to grant you an extended deadline for your next essay assignment. In doing so, you are persuading your instructor to give you something.
- One of your friends says that your favourite movie is boring, so you present all the reasons you can think of why this film is interesting. In this case, you are trying to change someone’s mind.
- Your brother is sure that vaping is much safer than smoking cigarettes. You are increasingly convinced that vaping can cause serious health problems. When you show your brother pamphlets and news articles that discuss the dangers of vaping, you are working to change someone’s perspective.
- You and your group members need to pick a topic for your class presentation. Some of you want to create a presentation about the need for better mass transit in your community. Others want to learn and talk about how to design more fuel-efficient cars. And others want to do work on the effects of dedicated bike lanes. As you help everyone decide on and agree to focus on a single topic, you are getting those in disagreement to come to consensus.
- You are asked to give a speech at your friend’s surprise birthday party. Everyone at the party – other friends and family members – thinks your friend is a terrific person. You try to craft a speech that gets everyone to remember and reflect on how much they like your friend. With this speech, you are trying to reinforce ideas that people already have.
- You know a lot about local birds and find them fascinating. You write a post that will be posted on a community blog. Those who read it haven’t given much thought to birds. As you share your knowledge, you are trying to get people to think what you are saying is correct.
If you take nothing else from the above discussion, we want you to remember this: persuasion is a fact of human communication. It functions differently in different cultures but it is always there. Persuasion is about making connections with your audience to induce some kind of action. But how can you persuade your audience? We’d like to introduce you to the fundamental (but not only) means by which we induce action in others: the appeals
3.5.1 Persuasion 101: The Three Appeals
Even if you are trying to achieve the same end-goal with an argument, you likely know from experience that you wouldn’t make an argument in the same way to every person you encounter. For example, let’s say you are a cinephile (someone who LOVES movies). You want to get the friends and family members who have gathered together for a holiday meal to end the day by going out to see a particular classic movie that is showing at your local independent cinema.
For your mom, who thinks movies are too expensive so it’s always best to wait for them to be available via streaming or broadcast, you can show that the ticket prices at the local independent cinema are much cheaper than at a movie theatre chain. You can then follow up by saying you can save money by bringing your own snacks.
For your uncle, who thinks spending time with family is important, you could stress how this outing will offer a fun experience for everyone to bond over.
For your cousin, who loves funny movies, you could stress that you have seen this film and think it’s a great – plus well-respected critics recognize it as a ground-breaking comedy.
None of these approaches is better or worse than the others – but one might be more or less appropriate or effective for a particular audience or rhetorical situation. In all of these cases, the appeals are in play.
Aristotle proposed some labels for the major approaches regularly used to persuade audiences. Knowing these terms can make it easier for you to think and talk about the strategies you are using – and they certainly will enable you to more precisely analyze arguments made by others.
The three major strategies proposed by Aristotle are as follows:
You can make an argument based on logic. That is, you can offer facts and evidence. Then you can explain the logic of how these facts and evidence support your position. (In the example above, you might be using logic to persuade your mom that going to the movies won’t cost as much as she thinks.)
But you can also make an argument based on emotion. Sometimes you can get someone to act by explaining how great they will feel if they do – or how guilty they will feel if they don’t. (In the example above, connecting what you want to your uncle’s desire for family time connects to his emotions.)
You can make an argument based on credibility – sometimes on your own authority but also the reputation or credibility of someone else. We are often more likely to believe claims coming from someone who is recognized as an expert or who we know to be trustworthy or even who we like. (In the example above, when you tell your cousin that you and well-known critics think a movie is a successful comedy, you are asking her to trust you based on authority.)
Because Aristotle lived in fourth-century BCE Athens, the terms he used – still part of the technical vocabulary of the field of rhetoric – are Greek:
Logos: Arguments that appeal primarily to an audience’s sense of logic make appeals to logos, logical appeals.
Pathos: Arguments that appeal primarily to an audience’s emotions make appeals to pathos, pathetic appeals.
Ethos: Arguments that appeal primarily to an audience’s reliance on the authority of the person delivering the argument make appeals to ethos, ethical appeals.
You don’t necessarily have to memorize these ancient Greek terms, but it’s a good idea to understand the appeals and what they do. When you do, you will be more conscious and, therefore, in control of whatever argument you are making or whatever action you want to induce.
These concepts are more complicated in practice than in theory. In real-world arguments, appeals can be quite subtle or even combined with one another in an attempt to persuade an audience. The definitions supplied above are rather simplistic. Here are some more in-depth aspects of each appeal that you might want to keep in mind.
When Aristotle wrote about appeals to logos (logical arguments), he was expressing a set of values associated with his overall worldview – that, ideally, we would only be persuaded by facts, information, and objective arguments. Logos is the effective use and ordering of good reasons to support an argument. In the simplest terms, a rational argument must show more than tell; the strength of an argument is based on its proof and organization; an effective argument will be logical, which means the argument must be ordered in a fashion deemed appropriate.
To explain by way of example, Booth famously argued that literature uses rhetorical argumentation to communicate its purposes. Readers desire completion of an argument and/or chain of events in literary and non-literary works, explains Booth, and this desire can only be fulfilled if the author has managed to effectively prove or support their storyline with good reasons. If not, then the reader will likely state that the work is silly or illogical, even if the work is set in a fantastical context in the first place (e.g. science fiction must use logos effectively to convince the reader of the story’s plausibility).
This example illustrates that logic isn’t just the domain of sciences or philosophy, but each disciplinary context or major has its own means of organizing and proving an argument. In Visual Arts, a student may need to express certain means of visual representation in a logical manner. In Law, students may study a more classical form of logic that demands a specific order of argumentation. In Indigenous Studies, students may study entirely new knowledge systems that follow the logic of Traditional Knowledge.
This is all to say there is more than one form of logic, but if pressed to provide a clear definition of logic, it’s the good reasons or premise for any action you undertake, even academic writing. The word “good” can be deceptive here, so let’s define it as the good of your community and not for selfish interests – that’s antithetical to rhetorical practice and balance. The logic of your communication includes ordering your points in a way that is both readable and appropriate to the communication. It means supporting those points with relevant evidence appropriate to the rhetorical situation. If you are feeling a little confused, just return to the definitions listed above.
It’s important to point out that less than scrupulous speakers or writers can create the impression of a logical argument by using the structures of logical argumentation to present highly selective or unrepresentative evidence or even unsupported claims. As someone who encounters arguments everyday, you can be on the lookout for attempts to sway your thinking that are masquerading as logical arguments. Knowledge of the subject matter can help you perceive when what seem like solid claims aren’t well-supported or when what at first glance appears to be ample evidence has been cherry-picked or even falsified. And you can also be on the lookout for problems with argumentation that crop up so often they have labels. These problematic ways of making arguments are known as logical fallacies (see Fig 3.2).
You can probably think of examples of logical fallacies you have encountered in advertising, in political speeches, or even in conversations with friends. If logical fallacies aren’t logical, why do some writers and speakers use them? A cynical answer is that they work. More importantly, the prevalence of logical fallacies demonstrates something Aristotle recognized – that logic isn’t the only effective strategy for persuasion. Keep an eye out for these when you are scrolling through your social media feeds – can you find examples of logical fallacies? If so, you are well on your way to gaining that keen rhetorical eye that will protect you from unethical forms of argumentation.
Aristotle advises that good rhetoricians will appeal to the emotions to stir the audience in order to create the right kind of emotional conditions such that the audience will be persuaded of the speaker’s argument. Most rhetoricians agree that the appeal to emotions is perhaps the most dangerous of the three appeals. Audiences can be induced to actions that are detrimental to them or others. A blatant example are political speeches that brand one cultural group as a danger to another cultural group.
In Booth’s book, Now Don’t Try to Reason with Me, he outlines Neo-Aristotelian criteria for ethical use of emotional appeal. Simply put, any act of communication must have a balance of ethos, pathos, and logos; otherwise, the speaker/writer misuses rhetoric. A good example of unbalanced, pathos-laden rhetoric is the smear campaigns used by politicians to discredit one another. This approach produces over-generalization and shrill exposé as opposed to a balance of reason, character, and emotional appeal designed to attract and influence ethical, rational, and critical readers.
Human beings are emotional and embodied beings, so it’s not surprising that their thinking can be affected by their feelings. You can probably come up with an example of when someone told you about an event in the world that aroused some emotion and consequently made you want to take action.
For example, imagine that you see your neighbour at the grocery store, and she tells you her ten-year-old daughter Mona is struggling in school ever since funding cuts led to increased class sizes. When you were Mona’s babysitter, you thought she was really bright, and she told you how much she loved school. You are upset that this kid you like a lot is having a bad experience. If the larger class size is affecting Mona negatively, you conclude, then this is a situation that can’t be allowed to continue. You decide to write to your Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) to say that schools need more funding.
In this case, you’re not being entirely logical. In fact, you could be accused of relying on anecdotal evidence or being biased or even sentimental – it is possible that every child except for Mona is thriving in larger classes. But that doesn’t automatically mean you are wrong or that your neighbour is trying to trick you. This is simply an indication that you are not investigating the information in terms of logic (logos) and credibility (ethos).
To demonstrate what can be a positive relationship between emotions and persuasion, we can imagine a slightly different scenario. Let’s say that instead of hearing about Mona’s experience, while you were in the grocery store line, you read a news story online reporting funding cuts to local schools and resulting larger class sizes. Later the same day, while working on a research assignment for a class, you come across a scholarly study showing that larger class sizes have a negative impact on student achievement among grade five students. These two texts might offer more reliable evidence that a problem exists – but they would probably not motivate you to take the time to write to your MLA.
Arguments that invoke an audience’s emotions in order to persuade them more effectively are said to make appeals to pathos or to use pathetic appeals. Here “pathetic” doesn’t mean something you should feel sorry for because it’s inadequate – rather, it just means having to do with emotions. And there can be a variety of emotions brought up by pathetic appeals.
The most obvious appeals to pathos arouse big, clear emotions. For example, an advertisement by a charitable organization that helps to feed hungry children might prominently present a photo of a malnourished, crying infant. That image would likely make audiences feel a strong sense of sadness, pity, and perhaps even guilt – emotions that might more directly lead someone to make a donation than would a page full of statistics about the number of children affected by food shortages.
Politicians can win over voters by presenting thoughtful, detailed plans – but they can also get supporters to act by invoking fear or anger. It is not logical or ethical to say that an opponent’s plan to pilot a restorative justice program for juvenile offenders will lead to senior citizens being murdered in their beds, but offering up such a frightening possibility stirs up strong feelings.
But note that appeals to pathos can be much more subtle. A company that presents its product in a funny advertisement is getting the audience to associate the product with laughter and feeling good. A politician who tells a story about a hometown hockey player who made it to the big leagues gets the audience to feel civic pride, feelings that could lead someone to make a donation or volunteer for a campaign. And even subtle language choices can make appeals to pathos – the authors of this textbook use “we” constructions a lot to try to invoke a sense of belonging in readers. This use of “we” is a rhetorical strategy to connect with our readers in order to further our goal to persuade them (you) to see academic writing as an important and interesting subject.
Academic writing tends to emphasize appeals to logos, but that doesn’t mean there are no appeals to pathos present. When you read an academic article, note places where the authors use “we” constructions or otherwise attempt to build a sense of community for readers. See if the writers have included jokes or witty turns of phrase. And especially watch for case studies or examples that invoke big emotions that are situated in the context of well-supported, highly logical arguments.
As you craft your own arguments, it’s worth reflecting on when it might actually be inappropriate to avoid appeals to emotion in an effort to seem scholarly and authoritative. Some subjects arouse strong emotions in people for very good reasons, and an entirely logical argument about those subjects will likely bore or irritate your readers.
The appeal to ethos might appear to be the least logical of all persuasive strategies. Ethical appeals (appeals to ethos) rely on the authority or character of the speaker or writer. That is, an audience is more likely to be persuaded by the same argument being presented by one speaker rather than another. An ad hominem attack (which was identified above as an example of a logical fallacy) is an attack on a writer’s ethos rather than on their argument and thus isn’t logical – but proving that a writer is a habitual liar will make it more difficult to believe that person’s evidence and claims are correct.
Because it can be difficult to distinguish between when an argument is truly logical or merely appears logical, and because emotions regularly influence thinking, Aristotle and other early rhetorical theorists pointed to ethos as a safeguard against problematic arguments. Roman rhetorician Quintillian actually defined an effective argument as involving “A good man speaking well.” Why a good man? In the ancient world, an audience would know the public reputation and maybe the private actions of the individual speaking in a law court or the Senate (a person who would certainly be male), and the audience could reasonably assume a person they know to be of good character – known to be smart or just or level-headed – would probably make an argument that is in the public interest. And this context is part of why the rhetorical triangle identifies the speaker (or writer) as one of the key elements in any act of communication.
The identity of a speaker or writer still affects how persuasive a text will be for its intended audience. You likely hope a politician is true to their word. If they aren’t, then you probably won’t respond to their fundraising letter with a donation. You probably should be skeptical of speeches about getting “tough on crime” made by a politician who was recently involved in a bribery scandal. They lack credibility. Most of the time, you are assessing others’ credibility. Perhaps a friend who boasts about a Fortnight win streak but then doesn’t show that same skill when you are playing with them loses credibility. Maybe you win a scholarship, which results in your credibility increasing in the eyes of university admissions. But what about academic writing?
In academic writing, ethos more commonly involves our sense of whether the writer is an authority on the subject being discussed more so than whether the writer is “a good man.” When you read a peer-reviewed journal article written by an award-winning scientist who works at a prestigious university, it is reasonable to believe this person has the knowledge and expertise to make a good argument. For example, if an epidemiologist who teaches in the medical school at the University of Toronto writes that wearing masks decreases the spread of COVID-19, this argument seems worth taking seriously.
In contrast, when you get advice from a public figure, a corporation, or someone’s uncle’s neighbour’s tweet that gargling with hydrogen peroxide keeps individuals from contracting COVID-19, you should probably reflect on how much they know about the subject. Put another way, a celebrity might have the expertise to tell you how to make a delicious green smoothie – but that same person isn’t credible as an authority to claim that drinking two green smoothies a day will keep individuals from catching any particular disease.
While our sense of a speaker or writer’s authority can be a good way to begin distinguishing between truthful and highly problematic arguments, appeals to ethos can also lead us astray. For instance, because people tend to believe doctors have a lot of medical knowledge and strongly value their patients’ health, an individual doctor who endorses a treatment might be able to persuade a lot of people to try it. But an individual doctor can be unethical – say, motivated by the financial benefit of recommending a treatment their office happens to offer for a fee. The term “conman” is a contraction of “confidence man,” and people in whom we have confidence have the power to swindle or trick us.
And even when people aren’t trying to deceive, ethos can be problematically linked to stereotypes and even prejudice. Numerous studies of class evaluations of college and university courses show that students are inclined to perceive (white) male professors to be knowledgeable and authoritative while they are more likely to describe female professors (particularly Black women, women of color and Indigenous women) as incompetent and lacking expertise. This trend might be explained by the cultural assumption that the stereotypical university professor is white and male, while the stereotypical K-12 teacher is female.
There’s no reason why professors of differing races, genders, and sexualities with the same educational experience and job experience should be seen as differently authoritative, but this dynamic is common.
In some situations, young people can be perceived as lacking the life experience necessary to have an informed opinion about issues that directly affect their lives. A speaker or writer’s various identity categories (including an individual’s sexuality, race, gender, socio-economic background, ethnicity, and/or religion) can lead audience members to perceive that person as too ill-informed or too biased to make a reasonable argument. Appeals to ethos are not always made on a level playing field.
That said, there are some important ways in which appeals to ethos are in the control of a speaker or writer. Following the conventions of the genre in which one is communicating implies that a writer belongs to the same community as the audience and thus is worth listening to. Note that this dynamic helps to explain why many teachers harp on spelling and punctuation errors in student writing – they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that these sorts of mistakes damage the writer’s scholarly ethos since one of the conventions of academic essays is adherence to a set of language rules. Through stylistic choices and selection of compelling evidence, a writer can create the impression of themselves as smart, well-informed, or even witty, which are qualities that will make an audience more likely to believe their conclusions.
Most notably, writers can make strong appeals to ethos in some situations by sharing their personal experiences. A student who is a member of the Songhees Nation and grew up on Songhees territory has more authority to speak about the need for reform in the local educational system than a professor of education with a PhD from Oxford University who works at the University of Saskatchewan. Our own identities, backgrounds, and histories aren’t always directly relevant to the subject matter of an academic essay, but if you can bring yourself explicitly into your writing, then you have an opportunity to make very strong appeals to ethos.
- Andrea Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz, Everything’s an Argument, 8th ed., with 2020 APA update (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019). You can visit the following website to learn more: https://store.macmillanlearning.com/ca/product/Everythings-an-Argument/p/131905627X. ↵
- John Ramage, Michael Callaway, Jennifer Clary-Lemon, and Zachary Waggoner, “Glossary of Terms” in Argument in Composition (West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2009), 201. You can access this entire book online and for free through the WAC Clearinghouse: https://wac.colostate.edu/books/referenceguides/ramage-argument/. ↵
- Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). ↵
- Booth, W.C. Now Don’t Try to Reason With Me: Essays and Ironies for a Credulous Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970). You can visit the following website to learn more: https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/N/bo5971339.html. ↵
- See, for example, the following scholarly articles on this topic: Amish Bavishi, Juan M. Madera, and Michelle R. Hebl, “The Effect of Professor Ethnicity and Gender on Student Evaluations: Judged Before Met,” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 3, no. 4 (December 2010): 245-56, http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/10.1037/a0020763; Anne Boring, “Gender Bias in Student Evaluations of Teaching,” Journal of Public Economics 145 (January 2017): 27-41, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpubeco.2016.11.006; John A. Centra and Noreen B. Gaubatz, “Is There Gender Bias in Student Evaluations of Teaching?” Journal of Higher Education 71, no. 1 (January/February 2000): 17-33, https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/stable/2649280. ↵
- See, for example, Alia Wong’s article in The Atlantic on the way this teacher stereotype has shifted over time in the United States: Wong, “The U.S. Teaching Population Is Getting Bigger, and More Female,” The Atlantic, February 20, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/02/the-explosion-of-women-teachers/582622/. Note, too, that while Wong writes specifically about the United States, her general claims are relevant in our Canadian context – as evidenced by the following report from the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF): Teachers in British Columbia: A Feminized Workforce (BCTF Research, 2018), https://bctf.ca/publications/ResearchReports.aspx?id=52009. ↵