Stories and the art of persuasion

How do you persuade or convince someone that your opinion on an issue is either the correct one, or, at the very least, worthy of serious consideration? Or, to phrase the problem in a slightly different way, how to you get someone to understand something from your perspective – particularly when their perspective is so radically different? This is a problem that has haunted me for many years. I have, for example, particular views on what the economy is and how it should be modelled, views that are radically opposed to the current dominant neo-liberal model, views that are dismissed by the people I want to engage as (at best) against common sense or (at worst) part of a communist take-over plan.

Whilst this is a chronic issue for me, it occasionally become acute – like when the government, in lifting COVID-19 restrictions, blatently prioritises consumption and the revival of economic growth over the health and safety of its citizens. A standard response would be that I simply need a good argument – that if it doesn’t convince people of the correctness of my argument then it is wrong. Plain and simple. In other words, we are all rational thinkers and are quite capable of making decisions and evaluating ideas using good old reason. But it’s not as simple as this. And we have known it’s not as simple as this for well over two thousand years.

Aristotle was probably one of the first thinkers to study the art of persuasion, or, as he termed it, rhetoric. His work on the subject is still quoted today and still forms the essence of most modern studies. And it certainly moves us beyond a narrow focus on rational argument. For Aristotle, there are three ingredients to the art of persuasion: logos (reason, rational argument); pathos (emotional engagement); and ethos (the character the person making ‘the argument’). So yes, whilst presenting a well-reasoned argument to your audience is important, it is not enough. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

Engaging with your audience on an emotional level is also important. Despite the idea expressed in classical economic theories that people make economic decisions based on rational self-interest, in practice (as people engaged in the advertising industry, people paid to persuade us to make decisions in their clients’ favour, know) it’s usually emotion that sells. And regarding the character of the speaker, I suggest that the only reason why some people have supported Boris Johnson is because they warm to his character. They accept what he says because they regard him as ‘one of us’. Never underestimate the importance of the assessment of character. However, despite my belief in the necessity of all three of these ingredients, I don’t think that taken together they are sufficient. There’s a vital forth ingredient that has not so much been ignored as taken for granted. And that is story or narrative. Or, to use the closest word from ancient Greek that I can think of, mythos.

Mythos is the story that has to be present in order to make sense of any argument related to it. It supplies the relevant history or histories of an argument, its context and background. However, I use the word mythos with some caution because it obviously implies fiction or fable, a story that is essentially untrue. But when you think about it, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that these stories have to be, to some degree, fiction. Take for example the recent debates about the British involvement in the slave trade. Yes, the history we tell ourselves about the slave trade must be based on evidence – evidence that is, to some degree, factual. But this evidence cannot, on its own, form the story that we use to make sense of what happened. First, someone (or some group of people) decide what evidence to include and what to ignore. History, someone once remarked, is written by the winners. Not by the humans that were captured, traded, bred and put to work to make a fortune for the businessmen whose work we celebrate with statues in public places. Not by the women who, for centuries, were deprived both of a vote and an opportunity to express their views on important issues. Arguably a true history needs to include all these voices, though in practice some selection is inevitable. And second, because a narrative (a story) needs to be written that connects the selected evidence in a cause and effect way. Or, to put it another way, the evidence needs interpreting.

My point, then, is that logos, pathos and ethos are all necessary elements in the art of persuasion, but that on their own they are insufficient. What’s also needed is a story or narrative (mythos) that explains the context or history of the situation we want to change, a story that explains how we got to this point and where we need to go from here. These stories have always been present whenever someone or some group is being persuaded of something, but they have always been implicit. I want to suggest that to become really effective in the art of persuasion we need to make these stories explicit. We need to show how the story being told is rational. We need to facilitate emotional engagement with the story. And we need to make the characters of the main players in the story clear – not only the narrator, but the victims, the villains and the heroes. We unconsciously do all these things already. But what we do not do is to pay attention to the story itself. If we fail to do this we risk telling the same old story, a story that we are comfortable with, but a story that doesn’t support the argument we are trying to make.

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