Persuasion (purr-SWAY-zhun) is a literary technique employed by writers to influence their audience. Writers use persuasion to present their ideas as reasonable and logical, establish their credibility and position as an authority in their field, and/or sway readers’ emotions. Writers may also employ persuasion to convince readers to take a certain position, change their beliefs to echo the writer’s own, or commit to taking action.
The word persuasion derives from the Old French persuasion, which originated in the Latin word persuasionem, meaning “a convincing, persuading.” Persuasion was first used in English in the late 14th century and meant “an action of inducing (someone) to believe (something); argument to persuade, inducement.”
Types of Persuasion
Writers use three main types of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos. These three modes were originally defined by philosopher Aristotle in Ars Rhetorica, his 14th-century treatise on rhetoric. The concepts covered in his treatise remain equally effective today. Contemporary readers are easily persuaded by ethos’s appeal to authority, the appeal to logic of logos, and pathos’s appeal to the emotions. To effectively persuade readers, writers try to incorporate all three techniques in their writing, rather than highlight one over another.
This type of persuasion is an argument that uses the writer’s credibility and authority to sway the audience. If the writer is an expert in their field or renowned for their knowledge of a subject, anything that remind the audience of the writer’s credentials serves as an example of ethos. For example, a doctor writing a medical text might bring up where they obtained their degree(s) and how long they have been practicing medicine.
An easy way to remember the term ethos is to think of the word ethics, which shares the same root. Writers often employ ethos to ensure readers will trust them; this trust convinces readers to support the writer’s position. To establish strong ethos, writers must demonstrate expertise, sound moral character, and objectivity. This is an effective persuasive tool because people trust the opinions of subject-matter experts.
Arguments that appeal to the reader’s sense of reason employ logos. Writers establish this technique by supporting their work with data, statistics, facts, and other evidence from credible sources. They also develop the reasons behind their argument in precise detail. A good way to remember the term logos is to connect it to the idea of logic, which means “strong reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity.”
Logos is an effective persuasive tool because logic and strong cited evidence are very convincing to readers. For example, to convince readers to recycle more, a writer might say “According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Americans produced 254 million tons of trash in 2013.”
This technique is an appeal to an audience’s emotions. Writers establish pathos by utilizing strong visual images; telling personal anecdotes or affecting stories; or directly appealing to the reader’s sense of duty, purpose, or empathy. Writers may also establish pathos through the use of second-person point of view by placing the reader within a story’s events or by employing emotionally heightened language.
While ethos and logos are more evidence-based than pathos, people are often more influenced by emotions than they are by logic or authority. Thus, pathos remains a powerful persuasive tool for any writer. Consider most romance stories, wherein writers focus on characters’ feelings and actions to appeal to readers’ sense of love or heartache.
Persuasion Outside of Literature
Persuasion is a very common technique that can be used in places other than literary works. Persuasion is a major component of legal and otherwise official discourse, such as courtroom arguments and political speeches. Lawyers often use logos to influence juries’ decision, though in cases where there’s a victim, lawyers may use pathos to appeal to jury members’ emotions.
Persuasion can appear in academic works, like papers or presentations, and newspaper editorials. These works may include any or all persuasive techniques, though academic settings tend to discourage overuse of pathos.
Perhaps most obviously, advertisements engage in persuasion to coerce audiences into buying a product, using a service, or taking an action. In medication advertising, for example, companies employ ethos by including testimonies from medical experts or patients who successfully used the product. Anti-smoking campaigns use logos by including statistics on the effects of smoking. Pathos, meanwhile, can be an extremely effective technique in ads—consider commercials for animal shelters that accompany jarring pictures of animals with sad music.
Finally, persuasion can be used in everyday conversation, whenever someone wants to convince others of an idea or persuade them to act. Think of children appealing to their parents for a later bedtime or friends discussing opposing views on the latest blockbuster.
Persuasion and Rhetoric
Rhetoric is the skillful use of effective or persuasive speaking or writing. Sometimes the term has a negative connotation that indicates persuasive language lacking in sincerity or greater meaning. Ultimately, rhetoric refers to effective communication.
While persuasion has always been an element of rhetoric, historically the art of rhetoric is verbal, not written. Rhetoric revolves around the realm of political discourse, public speaking, and oratory performed in assemblies, courtrooms, and civic ceremonies.
Examples of Persuasion in Literature
1. John Donne, “The Flea”
In the poem “The Flea,” Donne’s narrator lays out a logical argument to cajole his beloved into sleeping with him. He begins by pointing out a flea to her and how the flea has bitten each of them:
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Donne weaves logos in this poem. The narrator persuades his mistress that their sexual act would be as inconsequential as a flea bite—so insignificant that it cannot be seen as shameful.
2. Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Gonzo journalist Thompson begins his nonfiction book with a scene where he’s driving down the highway with his attorney:
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. . . .” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like he bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
Although the drug-induced hallucination Thompson describes is troubling, paradoxically this section helps establish his ethos. Readers know they can trust him as a narrator because—from the very first line—he is completely honest and open. He makes no attempt to conceal unfavorable information about himself or his illegal activity. This use of ethos allows Thompson to persuade his readers to believe all the events that occur throughout the rest of the book.
3. Rick Bragg, All Over but the Shoutin’
In a pivotal scene in his memoir, Bragg recalls paying a final visit to his dying father. Although Bragg’s childhood was difficult because his father’s cruelty and alcoholism, in this scene he describes his father thusly:
My daddy, who was supposed to be a still-young man, looked like the walking dead, not just old but damaged, poisoned, used up, crumpled up and thrown into a corner to die.
Bragg’s use of pathos allows readers to experience the same sorrow and horror he feels as he sees his father for the first time after many years. Despite the pain Bragg’s father inflicted upon their family, he is still a damaged man, ignored by society as he dies alone.
4. Cathy Park Hong, “Zoo”
In her book Translating Mo’um, Cathy Park Hong includes many poems that detail the experience of a child of immigrants. The poems discuss how immigrant parents try to assimilate into American culture while at the same time judging their child for not truly understanding Korean culture. In the poem “Zoo,” Hong writes:
Words with an atavistic tail. History’s thorax considerably
Cracked. The Hottentot click called undeveloped.
Hong shifts from Korean to English, illustrating for the reader how the poem’s speaker retains the fluency and understanding of both worlds. Her use of words from both languages establishes her ethos and persuades the reader that she is a trustworthy narrator, able to move easily between both cultures.
5. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
Very early in Morrison’s first novel, young narrator Claudia tells readers:
Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.
Morrison uses pathos to play upon her readers’ emotions. The information revealed in these two sentences is heartbreaking: a young girl was sexually abused and impregnated by her father. The image of flowers not blooming heightens the emotional impact because it associates the horror with the idea of a barren garden, implying the earth was so horrified by what had happened to Pecola, it could no longer nourish new plants.
6. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
In Beckett’s famous play, two characters sit beneath a tree in an otherwise empty landscape every day from dawn until dark. They are waiting for the mysterious Godot to appear and spend the hours in endless conversation. In Act Two, they’ve the following conversation:
ESTRAGON: In the meantime let us try and converse calmly, since we are incapable of being silent.
VLADIMIR: You’re right, we’re inexhaustible.
ESTRAGON: It’s so we won’t think.
VLADIMIR: We have that excuse.
ESTRAGON: It’s so we won’t hear.
VLADIMIR: We have our reasons.
ESTRAGON: All the dead voices.
VLADIMIR: They make a noise like wings.
ESTRAGON: Like leaves.
Beckett uses logos in this scene. With this dialogue, the friends justify to themselves and the audience why they speak incessantly. They follow a line of reasoning to illustrate how their uninterrupted discussions prevents them from dwelling on their despair. Because they talk all the time, they don’t have to think about what happened to make their landscape so bleak, and they can drown out the noise of the dead who haunt them. The logic they follow persuades the characters to continue their unceasing conversation rather than be silent and endure their thoughts and the voices of the dead.
Further Resources on Persuasion
The OWL Online Writing Lab, created by Purdue University, has a comprehensive guide for how to create a persuasive presentation.
Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains an excellent guide to Aristotle’s Treatise on Rhetoric.
Wired magazine published an article about persuasive techniques used by advertisers to market their products.