Four Timeless Ideas to Make Your Point


Dr. Tim Elmore shares how communicators can earn and communicate social capital.

In 350 B.C., Aristotle mused about how to communicate effectively, as well as what makes for a convincing argument. How could someone make a speech and persuade listeners to agree and act on it? That’s a good question.

It seems this is a timeless question, too. The answer, he argued, could be found in three ideas:

Ethos (credibility) – This is an ethical appeal. It is about convincing a listener by the character of the author or speaker. A doctor might say, “Based on my experience in medicine, this is the best treatment for your condition.”

Pathos (emotion) – This means persuading by appealing to the listener’s emotions. A friend might say, “Don’t take that road downtown. It’s dangerous; you might be robbed or even mugged along the way.”

Logos (logic) – This means persuading by use of reasoning. A person might say, “I’ve discovered seventeen reasons why investing in gold and silver is the best and safest investment to make right now.”

Content should have an ethical appeal, an emotional appeal, or a logical appeal. A rhetorician strong on all three is almost sure to persuade an audience. Replace the term rhetorician with teacher, online content creator, coach, manager, youth worker or parent…and Aristotle’s insights seem entirely relevant for our times.

But Wait…There’s More…

Our world today, however, has become more savvy and sophisticated. Not necessarily smarter—but socially complex. With more means of communication than ever, communicators must understand elements beyond ethos, pathos and logos. Jonah Berger, author of Contagious—Why Things Catch On, explores yet another reason for messages to be convincing. I believe it’s timeless as well.

Berger’s research tests a variety of viral-promoting factors, which he details in his book. After ten years, he feels he’s discovered a formula of sorts. While emotion and arousal still top the list, a few additional factors seem to make a big difference. First, you need to create social currency—something that makes people feel that they’re not only smart, but in the know. “Memes like LOLcats, I think, are a perfect example of social currency, an insider culture or handshake,” Berger says. “Your ability to pass it on and riff on it shows that you understand. It’s the ultimate, subtle insider signal: I know without yelling that I know. When your mom sees an LOLcat, she has no idea what it is.” When Upworthy first started, not everyone knew what it was, and the videos seemed fresh. Now they are being derided as link bait and mocked.

Social currency takes on various forms. In addition to the savvy element above, it also includes the idea of relationship capital. In other words, when your listener feels you know them, understand them, empathize with their needs or hurts, and speak in terms of their best interest, you can say almost anything. But it has little to do with logic. It’s about earning social capital through connection.

This may be because we live in an increasingly high tech world, but not high touch world. So, the “touch” part becomes more valuable. It’s difficult to communicate this on a screen or in a formal speech. It doesn’t mean you are not professional; it simply means that you are deeply personal in your words. They are heartfelt.

SALT: How Do We Earn and Communicate Social Capital?

1. SHARE: Tell personal stories on yourself, even personal struggles.

2. ASK: Inquire and seek; ask questions of your listeners that relay you care.

3. LISTEN: The fastest way to persuade someone you care is to listen to them.

4. TRANSLATE: Then, speak in understanding, relevant terms from their world.

My guess is—this is not a news flash. But far too often, we adults fail to take the time and make the effort to do it.  We are too busy informing, correcting or even barking our orders to do so. In today’s world, students all but require this kind of social capital from the communicator.

So, how are you doing with ethos, pathos, logos, and social currency?

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