The Art of Persuasion — I

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


Part I

The title of this essay may arouse the reader’s misgivings. What does a philosopher know about salesmanship? That is hardly a subject which falls within his ken.

To set the reader’s mind at rest on this score, I am going to start right out by doing what Aristotle, who was also a philosopher, recommended as the first step to be taken by anyone trying to persuade anyone else about anything, especially in the sphere of the practical.

Many years ago, when the Institute for Philosophical Research was established in San Francisco, an invitation came to me as its Director to address a luncheon meeting of the associated Advertising Clubs of California. They asked me in advance for a title. I suggested that it be “Aristotle on Salesmanship,” a title I thought would be sufficiently shocking to them. It was. No one had ever before connected the name of Aristotle with salesmanship — or with advertising, which is an adjunct of selling.

The speech I delivered began by explaining the title. Advertising was a form of selling, was it not? I asked. They nodded assent. And was not every form of selling an effort at persuasion, in this case an effort to persuade potential customers to buy the product advertised? Again they all nodded.

Well, then, I went on, Aristotle is the master of that art — the art of persuasion — about which he wrote a lengthy treatise entitled Rhetoric. To boil down its essential message for the occasion, I told them that Aristotle pointed out the three main tactics to be employed if one wished to succeed in the business of persuasion. There are no better names for these three main instruments of persuasion than the words the ancient Greeks used for them: ethos, pathos, and logos. That, in a nutshell, is all there is to it.

Before I explain the tactics these three words name, I must report that the advertising experts assembled at that luncheon were so impressed by Aristotle’s know-how about their own business that, as I learned afterwards, the book stores of San Francisco were besieged that afternoon by members of the audience trying unsuccessfully to buy copies of Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

The Greek word ethos signifies a person’s character. Establishing one’s character is the preliminary step in any attempt at persuasion. The persuader must try to portray himself as having a character that is fitting for the purpose at hand.

If, facing an audience of one or more persons on a particular occasion, you wish others to listen to you not only attentively but also with a sense that what you have to say is worth listening to, you must portray yourself as being the kind of person who knows what you are talking about and can be trusted for your honesty and good will. You must appear attractive and likeable to them as well as trustworthy.

To achieve this result with my audience of advertising specialists, I told them two stories about myself. The first was about a conversation I had had with one of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s bankers at the time that that company was spending large sums of money on the production of Great Books of the Western World and the Syntopicon, of which I was editor.

The banker came to that meeting highly skeptical of the saleability of the product on which the company was spending so much money, and especially skeptical about this strange thing called the Syntopicon that threatened to consume more than a million dollars — a lot of money in those days — before it was completed. What good would the Syntopicon do anybody that might arouse their desire to purchase the set with the Syntopicon attached to it? “I, for example, am interested in buying and selling,” the banker said; “and if I went to the Syntopicon’s inventory of 102 great ideas, would I find one on salesmanship?”

That stumped me for a moment because, of course, the word “salesmanship” does not appear among the names of the 102 great ideas, nor does it even appear in the list of 1,800 subordinate terms that provide an alphabetical index referring to aspects of the 102 great ones. I got over being stumped by asking him a question.

Did he agree that to sell anybody anything one must know how to persuade them to buy what one wanted to sell? He agreed at once. I then clinched the matter by telling him that one of the 102 great ideas is rhetoric, which is concerned with persuasion, and that, if he consulted the Syntopicon’s chapter on that idea, he would find many extremely helpful passages in that chapter, even though none of the great authors cited there ever used the word “salesmanship.”

That was all I had to do to put an end to the banker’s qualms about the money being spent on the production of the Syntopicon. I had sold him on it. I then told my audience in San Francisco the story of how I had to sell five hundred sets of Great Books of the Western World in order to raise enough money to defray the printing and binding costs for a first edition.

I did this almost single-handed, first by writing a letter that Bob Hutchins (who was then President of the University of Chicago) and I sent out over our signatures to 1,000 persons who might feel honored to become patrons of a special first edition of the set by purchasing it in advance of publication at the cost of $500 — again a lot of money in the nineteen fifties.

That one letter brought in 250 purchase orders accompanied by checks. The 25 percent rate of return on a single appeal struck my audience of advertising men as an unparalleled success in the business of direct-mail advertising. I followed that initial success by selling the remaining 250 sets to individual patrons, either on the phone or by visiting them in their offices.

On one such occasion, I sold the head of a chain of over eighty department stores forty-five sets — one to be given away by each of the forty-five stores in its hometown to the local library or college as a public relations gesture. This particular sale took less than thirty minutes to make. The chief executive clearly indicated that he had little time to give me on a late Friday afternoon when he was about to leave town for the weekend. So I cut my sales talk to the bone in order to avoid impatience on his part, thereby gaining his good will.

By the time I had finished this second story, the advertising experts in my San Francisco audience were sufficiently impressed by my own personal involvement in the business of persuasion and of selling to be all ears when I then went on to explain how Aristotle had summed up the essence of salesmanship in his analysis of the three main factors in persuasion. I had succeeded in establishing my own ethos with them before I started to explain the role that ethos, pathos, and logos play in persuasion.

And that is what I hope I have just done with you by telling you these two stories about my own personal experience as an advertiser and a salesman.

Of the three factors in persuasion — ethos, pathos, and logosethos always should come first. Unless you have established your credibility as a speaker and made yourself personally attractive to your listeners, you are not likely to sustain their attention, much less to persuade them to do what you wish. Only after they are persuaded to trust you, can they be persuaded by what you have to say about anything else.

There are, of course, many ways to take this initial step in the process of persuasion. You can do it by telling stories about yourself, the effectiveness of which will be heightened if they provoke laughter and the laughter is about you. You can do it more indirectly by under estimating your credentials to speak about the matter at hand, thus allowing the listeners to dismiss your underestimation as undue modesty. You can also do it by suggesting your association with others whom you praise for certain qualities that you hope your listeners will also at tribute to you.

Two classic illustrations of the role of ethos in persuasion are to be found in the speeches made by Brutus and Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It is, of course, somewhat incongruous to refer to these two great orations as sales talks. They are instances of political persuasion, in which the attempt is to move the listeners to take one or another course of political action.

Nevertheless, practical persuasion is always selling, whether it be in the market place or in the political forum, across the counter or in a legislative chamber, in a commercial transaction or in a campaign for public office, in the advertisement of a product or in an appeal for a public cause or a political candidate.

To Part II…

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]

Your comments