About rhetoric, storytelling and persuasion

This is a compilation post that brings together my views on closely related topics, collating articles that I published earlier on this blog. It doesn’t contain new content, although part of it may have been slightly reworked. Knowing that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, I hope this update provides you with a bigger picture, a more complete list of good practices, or a better grounded opinion.

Persuasion is defined as “human communication that is designed to influence or change a person’s (or a group’s) beliefs, attitudes, intentions, motivations, or behaviors.” In a public presentation, persuasion often boils down to the ability of the speaker to appeal to his audience.

Aristotle’s ethos, pathos and logos

One of the oldest (and most important) theories about persuasion was formulated by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived and worked from 384 to 322 BC.

Aristotle listed four reasons why one should learn the art of persuasion:

  • Truth and justice are perfect; thus if a case loses, it is the fault of the speaker.
  • It is an excellent tool for teaching.
  • A good rhetorician needs to know how to argue both sides to understand the whole problem and all the options.
  • There is no better way to defend one’s self.

In his Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle introduced the persuasive appeals ethos, pathos and logos. Since the 4th century BC, Aristotle’s rhetoric has become one of the foundations of public speaking and, and any public speaker should be (or become) familiar with these three appeals.

  • Ethos means ethical appeal. We tend to believe people whom we respect. We trust in products with a good reputation. We go to places that were recommended on Tripadvisor… So, Ethos is all about the credibility of the speaker. About his or her trustworthiness and reputation. As such, you should never talk about a topic you’re not familiar with, and always adapt your content, presentation style and outfit to the context and the audience.
  • Pathos translates to emotion. We all like stories about the good vs. the bad. We (too) often make decisions motivated by love, admiration, fear or disgust. We prefer presenters that speak passionate about their topic. Telling stories is a way to create a tension with the audience, get them engaged beyond the rational and make them connect
  • Logos stands for reasoning and argumentation. We believe in what we can see and what we can touch. We want statements supported by facts and figures. If not, we keep asking for the Why, the What and the How. This is why one should add real life examples, case studies, and customer testimonials to his or her story.

If you think about it, ethos, pathos and logos are present in almost every area of our daily lives. And more than we realize, they determine how we (and our audience) experience situations, interact with people and make decisions. And, as for so many other things in life, the whole of Aristotle’s rhetoric is greater than the sum of its three parts: it’s neither about ethos OR pathos OR logos, but all about ethos AND pathos AND logos.

Robert Cialdini’s principles of persuasion

Robert Cialdini is an American professor of marketing, business and psychology, who published a bestselling book about the “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.”

Cialdini’s theory of influence is based on the following 6 principles of persuasion, which – like Aristotle’s appeals – should be part of the toolbox of every B2B storyteller:

  • Reciprocity: humans tend to return favors to somebody who has done something good to them. Cater your audience with good content, an inspiring presentation and a positive experience. Probably they will want to give you something back.
  • Liking: we take a more positive stance towards people that we know or that we like. Introduce yourself, break the ice, and explain to your listeners why you’re here. Some of them will start looking at you as a good acquaintance and open up.
  • Authority: men and women have come in to listen to and learn from an expert. Explain them why you have ‘the right to speak’ and why they should listen to you. Your reputation, job title and a quick résumé may certainly help, but also your body language, clothing, and even the use of accessories such as a laser pointer may be instrumental to the perception of your authority.
  • Social proof: listeners often look to their neighbors in the room to guide (and approve) their decisions and (re)actions. So, always look for friends and allies in the audience that can contribute to a positive and constructive atmosphere.
  • Commitment: if people commit, orally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are likely to stay consistent with that commitment. Start a dialog with your public and try to get their buy-in for your ideas. Poll their opinion, let them share their views or ask questions, and take their comments seriously.
  • Scarcity: the less there is of something, the more it is worth. Announce that you’re going to bring content that is exclusive, exceptional or contains things that you’ve never presented before. They will certainly pay more attention to your words.

In 2016, Cialdini published another book: “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade,” in which the author introduces a 7th principle…

  • Unity is about shared identities such as race, ethnicity, nationality, and family, as well as political and religious affiliations. These are categories in which the conduct of one member influences the self-esteem of the other members. Put simple, we is the shared me.”

I am not sure if the above principles of persuasion are to be considered science (as Dr. Cialdini positions them) or just common sense. Knowing, understanding and empathizing with your audience (and the people around you) is always key to connecting with them. Use these rules wisely and complement them by tools such as power, influencer and personality quadrants.

But also don’t forget always to be honest, respectful and authentic. Persuasion is not about telling lies, cheating or fooling on people. The best way to charm your audience is by being truthful, while staying your friendly self!

Steven Denning’s narrative patterns

In a blog post about storytelling and persuasion, Steven Denning (a former Program Director of Knowledge Management at the World Bank, and an international authority on leadership, innovation and  management,) introduced the homo narrans as “a person who combines story-telling and analysis in a discourse that is rational, lively, imaginative, open to dialogue, entertaining and persuasive. The kind of person we would like to have at our dinner tables, and with whom we would be willing to discuss even the most difficult and controversial of topics. It is the sort of the person we might like to have as a friend and companion. It is the sort of person we would listen to, since conversing with homo narrans might well lead to the mutual discovery of truth.”

You might also take a look at Denning’s 2005 article “mastering the discipline of business narrative” in which he provides a list of “narrative patterns” from which you may pick a story format for your presentations:

  • Springboard stories refer to concrete situations or problems your audience is facing, to spring them into action. This is an ideal opportunity to bring in your personal experience and talk about a similar situation you were confronted with in the past. It is important that the examples you give have a positive tone and a (sort of) happy ending – which the people in the room can get inspired by, learn from and reuse in their own context.
  • Stories with a moral often take the form of a parable or even of a fairy tale. The stories are usually set in a kind of generic past, and have an explicit moral at the end. The context-setting of these tales may be vague and the facts may be hypothetical, but there must be a clear, believable, and –most important of all– an inspiring take-away at the end.
  • Stories about you are based on an event in your personal life event. They help you emotionally connect with your listeners and put a human face (namely, yours) on a problem or solution. Tapping into personal stories often also means sharing details about your private or professional life. Many people may not feel very comfortable with this idea, and it’s a good practice to think before you act, and never share anything you may later regret.
  • Visionary stories take your audience on a trip to the future, give them a perspective on the “things to come”, and inspire them to take action to make this vision become reality. Some of my favorite visuals to start such a presentation with are the postcards created by French artist Villemard, that depict his visions of the year 2000… in the year 1910.
  • Stories about your brand capitalize on the good reputation of your company, its products or services. These are narratives about happy people who have enjoyed a first class experience with your brand. Turn your audience in advocates too, and enrich your presentation by a few catchy anecdotes or –why not—a video testimonial of a happy customer or a model employee.
  • Knowledge-sharing narratives overall contain few storytelling elements. They concentrate on a (often very specific) problem, a description of the solution and its positive effect(s). This is the pattern most often used in technical presentations. As such, it’s extremely important that you have a good understanding of who is your audience to tailor your presentation to their specific knowledge, needs and expectations.
  • You may also use stories for fostering collaboration between the members of your audience. Make sure you are addressing a concern or goal that is shared by a number of people in the room. You may start your presentation e.g. by a poll, enrich the conversation with your personal experience, and fuel the discussion with provocative statements.
  • Some people may come to your talk with certain prejudices about you or about your presentation content. First thing you’ll have to do in this case is try to debunk the speculations, mock the gossip and tame the grapevine. Apply rational elements, gentle satire, or even reductio ad absurdum techniques, but avoid shocking or ridiculing your audience. Also beware when the prejudice is right, because, as Steven Denning is saying: “If that’s the case, there is little that can be done except to admit the rumor, put it in perspective, and move on.”

A story is an extremely powerful format for delivering your message. By putting things in (a sometimes surprising) context, and wrapping facts in emotion, it helps people ingest, digest and retain the information you present them. A good business narrative taps into your personal strengths or experience, appeals to the specific audience in the room and calls them for action. As such, it should be clear that there is no one-size-fits-all template for a good story, or an exhaustive list of “stories that can be told.”

Elements of classical storytelling

Most novelists and movie directors rely upon 5 key elements to ensure a consistent story, allow the action to develop and let the audience emotionally engage: character, setting, plot, theme, and style.

And, though “telling a story” is often associated with delivering fictive content, the same components can be explored by business presenters too.

  • The character is the individual (or several of them) that the story is about. The answer to the “who?” question. Many narratives introduce protagonists and antagonists — respectively the main characters of the story and their opposites. Note that a protagonist does not necessarily represents the “good guy”, though it’s always the one with whom the reader can identify himself or herself.
  • The setting is the “where? and when?” of a story. It is the time and place during which a  story takes place. This can be in the past, the present or the future, and in an imaginary or a real-life location. Introducing a setting with which your audience is familiar can help them to better visualize the story and feel connected to the plot.
  • The plot defines the structure of a book, movie or talk. The sequence of events and (inter)actions that make up your storyline. Many good plots are centered around a conflict or a problem (the “what?”), the ways in which the characters attempt to resolve the problem (the “how?”), the actual implementation of the solution (a.k.a. the climax), and what happens with them when the conflict is no longer existing (“they all lived happily ever after”.)
  • The theme is the main idea, the central message,  the answer to the “why?” question(s). It’s what the writer, the director, or the presenter wants his audience to learn from the story. It’s the umbrella statement of the message house you’ve prepared, that will translate into the conclusion and/or the call for action at the end of your discourse.
  • And finally, there’s a style element in each presentation you deliver. “How?” do you want to get your message through? How will you tap your audience’s imagination? What will be the tone of your words? What mood or atmosphere do you want to create with them? Is the evidence you provide factual or anecdotal?

Gene Amdahl’s fear, uncertainty and doubt

Most humans tend to be afraid of the unknown. As such, some marketers and sales people (and politicians – but this is out of the context of this post) try to implant fear, uncertainty and doubt (also known as FUD, a term introduced by computer architect and high-tech entrepreneur Gene Amdahl.) In people’s minds to make them buy their products or services, or to prevent them from trying competitors’ ones.

In the previous section I iterated a number of narrative patterns to be (re)used in presentations. Now, I’m adding a few FUD related items to this list:

  • Create a sense of urgency by confronting people with a (familiar) situation, and making them aware of the threats they are facing if they don’t react timely or properly. You may appeal to their emotion and/or ratio by telling anecdotes, referring to case studies or citing from media clippings. A call for action at the end is always a no-brainer: “Act now!” or “Buy now!”
  • Telling a story with open ending can also be a good way to instill doubt. People may start making (sometimes irrational) assumptions and come to (sometimes wrong) conclusions. Feed their imagination and steer their judgment by introducing an antagonist (your competitor), bringing in some gossip, or posing some insinuating questions.
  • By listing the perceived risks of doing (or notdoing) certain things, using (or not using) certain products, or working (or not working) with a certain partner, you may create a feeling of uncertainty. Then relieve your audience’s minds by showing them that you have the best and most safe solution, and that you are the most trustworthy party to deal with.

Although FUD may be an effective competitive weapon, my advice is not to use fear as a tactic (and if you do, apply it scarcely and with caution.) Don’t sling mud to your competitors, but rather give a positive message and to tell a story with a happy ending.


Here are the links to the articles I compiled in this post: