Last week, some of our team were lucky enough to hear the highly entertaining and hugely erudite Bennet Brandreth speak. As well as being an Edinburgh-fringe-performing barrister and author, Bennet is also an expert on the subject of classical rhetoric.
Plato defined rhetoric as “the art enchanting the soul.” Many others have defined it as “the art of persuasion” and it concerns the way in which we can use language to influence others. Whilst Bennet typically shares his extensive knowledge of the subject with aspiring barristers, we, as a team of mere communications folk, took it as a timely reminder of the importance of understanding an audience—their needs, interests and priorities—when helping our clients to communicate.
Modern day academics regularly refer to the ancient philosophers for help, especially when it comes to reducing a question or a problem to its very essence. When looking at the art of persuasion, Aristotle did this brilliantly by categorising persuasive techniques into three simple modes: ethos (the argument from authority, e.g. “this is why I should be heard”); logos (the argument from reason, e.g. “this is why I am right”); and pathos (the argument from emotion, e.g. “this is why it matters”).
We use each of these persuasive techniques all the time, often without noticing. A surgeon might employ ethos to put a nervous patient at ease (“Trust me, I’m a doctor”), a lawyer will focus on logos when confronted by a judge interested only in legal reasoning (“These are the irrefutable facts”), or a protester might use pathos to convince an impassioned crowd (“Won’t somebody think of the children!”). In all these examples, the persuader is building their case very clearly on what it is that matters most to the persuadee. After all, the barrister who relies on pathos alone to convince the fact-seeking judge will not be very successful.
Effective communications campaigns should do the same. It’s easy to see that campaigns too often involve messages simply imposed on an audience, whether they are relevant to that audience or not. We believe that successful campaigns should begin with data-driven insights into the audience demographic—what they are interested in, concerned about and what drives their decision-making. This insight-driven approach is fundamental to a successful communications campaign, whether that’s around an IPO or a product launch. Only with these insights to hand, and a real understanding of the audience and their dispositions, is it possible to create narratives that really resonate.
Sometimes the old ideas really are the best ones.