Rhetoric & Rhythm
The 4-part structure Aristotle used for persuasive communication
Hey – Nathan here.
I cringe when I remember studying Aristotle in school. Pathos means emotion, Logos means logic, and Ethos means credibility. At least, that was the extent of my experience.
But Aristotle’s Rhetoric is much more. It offers a fascinating look into how language can be used to influence and sway others, and it’s just as relevant today as it was in ancient Greece.
Next week we’ll look at Poetics, his masterful breakdown of the story structure that makes a great Tragedy.
Today’s hook (hit me back with your best guess): “Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-f-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time.”
Last week’s hook: The Psychology of Money
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School of Athens, Raphael
In the 4th century BC, a young Greek guy apprenticed to one of the greatest philosophers to ever live. Plato.
Just one problem.
He actually disagreed with Plato on a few specific points. One of those was the idea of persuasion…
So Aristotle wrote one of the most influential books of all time, Rhetoric, on the art of persuasion.
It’s split into three smaller books:
Book 1 – The general principles of rhetoric
Book 2 – A deep explanation of Pathos, Logos, and Ethos
Book 3 – The delivery and structure of persuasion
The third book is both my favorite and the most overlooked.
In it, Aristotle lays out his 4-part structure for persuasive writing. It’s not as catchy as Pathos, Logos, and Ethos, so it doesn’t get as much love today. But despite being specifically for public speaking, his ideas provide the foundation for many of the storytelling (and more broadly communication) principles talked about today.
“Naturalness is persuasive, artifice just the reverse.”
You can sense a fake. Aristotle gave us four errors to avoid to keep it real:
1. Strange words
The modern version of this advice comes from David Ogilvy’s 3rd rule for writing, “Write like you speak. Naturally.”
Use contractions: you will —> you’ll
Use abbreviations: European Union —> EU
Write like the people of the day
Tip: Try powerthesaurus.org/ to find the right word.
2. Poor use of compound words
Aristotle harped on the need for clear, simple language. He argued that most compound words (words that smash together two other words to make a new word) are confusing and often have better replacements.
These were more common in Ancient Greece than they are now. Generally, he’s saying never to use a long word when a short word will do (which George Orwell echoed some 2300 years later).
Tip: Use hemingwayapp.com/ if you need help simplifying your writing.
3. Bad use of epithets
I had no idea what an epithet was, so here’s a quick definition:
A descriptive word or phrase, especially one joined by fixed association to the name of someone or something.
Basically, a hyper-descriptive adjective.
4. Bad use of metaphor
According to Aristotle, a “bad metaphor” is one that doesn't fit, is too complicated, or is used in a manipulative way.
Instead, he says effective metaphors should be drawn from experiences and objects that are relevant to the audience. Most importantly, they should be used to clarify rather than confuse.
To sum it up: For Aristotle, relaxed, clear speaking meant easy listening. And when persuading, you want your audience focused on your words, not your delivery.
“You only obscure and spoil its clearness by piling up words.”
I’d argue the same for story.
Aristotle devoted the last few chapters of Rhetoric to the structure of persuasive writing. That structure mimics much of what today’s 1000s of storytelling structures tell you. (More like they mimic Aristotle, but you get the idea.)
And it seemed he loved 4-step processes:
That means hook in Greek. Well, more accurately it means “beginning.” Aristotle says a good intro should do two things:
Establish the speaker’s credibility
Capture the audience’s attention
He goes on to suggest four ways to create a great exordium:
Using vivid language
Asking rhetorical questions
Telling a story (knew I liked him)
Establishing common ground with your audience
Even Aristotle knew 2,400 years ago the hook could make or break you. He says it sets the stage for the rest of the work. Promises and Payoffs.
Shockingly, this translates to “narrative.” But what Aristotle is referring to is backstory. He says backstory should accomplish three goals:
Provide just enough info the audience knows what’s going on
Create a sense of need to hear the argument
Further establish credibility
Notice how the backstory comes after the hook and he suggests using as little as possible.
Time for your solution. Logically, Aristotle argues, your intro and backstory should lead naturally to your solution. Then you use a combo of Pathos, Ethos, and Logos to persuade your audience.
While schools like to display Aristotle’s famous three as an equilateral triangle, he actually doesn’t recommend using them in equal weight. Quite the opposite. He suggests finding the one that connects most to your audience, then leveraging it far more than the others.
“Rhetoric then may be defined as the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever.”
The call to action. Aristotle says your conclusion should inspire a specific action. You weren’t talking just to talk – you want them to move, to decide, to laugh, to share, to vote, to do whatever it is you want them to do.
You have to ask for that thing. Nobody can read your mind. Make the ask.
Aristotle believes the ultimate goal of communication is to persuade others to take a specific action. The term he applied was “Teleology.” It means many things, but in Rhetoric it meant knowing the end goal first to craft the beginning and middle of your argument.
Authors like Toni Morrison and Neil Gaiman start with the end, then write the rest of their books to get there. Same idea.
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Digital Storytelling of the Week
After I was convicted of murder and sentenced to 26 years in prison, when the earth dropped out from beneath me, and global shame rained down on top of me, I had my first ever epiphany.
— Amanda Knox (@amandaknox)
Feb 24, 2023
What stood out:
“Going for the throat,” as Ryan Holiday likes to say. No punches pulled.
The great use of metaphor, “global shame rained down on top of me.”
The powerful yet subtle open loop: “I had my first ever epiphany.”
Thanks to Art for sending the thread my way.
This Ted Talk was runner-up, and one of my favorites I found while researching Rhetoric.
🔥 Tactic: Chris Voss is a former FBI hostage negotiator who now teaches negotiation. His go-to word? Fair.
☁️ Quote: “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good [artists] are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” — Orson Scott Card
Found in my friend Billy’s Six at Six newsletter.
When you’re ready to go deeper, here are two ways I can help:
If you want a practical way to improve your writing and storytelling in less than 25 minutes a day, check out StoryWork (80+ students).
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PS: Usually these come on Saturdays. How'd ya feel about it coming on Tuesday?