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Marketing Smarts: Rhetoric and the Art of Persuasion

Hosted By:
Matthew Grant
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
34 minutes
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"Marketers understand what rhetoric's all about," says Jay Heinrichs, this week's Marketing Smarts podcast guest. "They understand that it's not about words sitting around looking pretty. It's not about self-expression. It's about understanding language and how it affects people's view of reality and how it gets them to do things, how it changes their behavior."

And yet, to most inhabitants of the modern world, rhetoric is a medieval oddity, an ancient artifact.

To remedy that situation, Jay, has written two books. The first, Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion, lays out the basic principles of rhetoric as taught by the Greeks and Romans, and practiced by politicians, marketers, and others (often unconsciously) to this day.

The second, Word Hero: A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines that Get Laughs, Go Viral, and Live Forever, shows how to put these principles into practice and use language in a way that is both memorable and engaging.

So, how can the teachings of bygone rhetoricians help us nowadays? Well, Jay points out, the Greeks believed that rhetoric basically consisted of three tools:

  1. Logic—"Using the beliefs and expectations of your audience to your persuasive advantage," as he puts it.
  2. Emotion—Changing the mood of a person or getting them to desire a particular goal.
  3. Character—Getting the audience to like and trust the speaker based on the image he or she projects.

Interestingly, Aristotle thought that character was the most powerful tool in the rhetorician's magic bag, and Jay has found it's also the tool that most appeals to marketers. In fact, we can see brand loyalty—our willingness to buy the latest iPhone from Apple whether it works well or not—as the result of a successful deployment of this device.

So how do we get an audience to trust us?

As it turns out, the Greeks also thought there were three ways to do that. (They LOVED things in threes!)

The first involves a demonstration of practical knowledge. We trust the brain surgeon who has performed 200 operations more than the recent med school graduate because practical experience counts for something. He doesn't just know, he knows how to apply his knowledge to specific situations.

The second method for building trust is to show that you are a "disinterested" party. Doing so indicates that you have the audience's interests at heart, and you can thus endear yourself to them. A good example of this is content marketing that helps you solve a problem without selling you anything.

The final and most powerful method was called arete, by Aristotle; we call it "virtue." Using this method, you communicate to your audience: "We share the same virtues and belong to the same tribe."

The key to virtue marketing is creating a sense of community (of belonging) around your brand or organization. "What sort of man reads Playboy?" was the 1950s version of this and becoming a Deadhead the 1960s version.

You can also pursue this virtuous path by showing that your company already belongs to a community of shared values and that you are doing your best to live up to those values. Depending on what you think of Google, its "Don't Be Evil" motto (with it's implication of "We're not Microsoft") could serve as a good example of this latter approach.

Long story short: Marketers need to study up on their rhetoric. And if the above has not convinced you of that, consider the words of John Quincy Adams:

"Take from the relics of ancient oratory those unresisted powers which mold the mind of men to the will of the speaker and yield the guidance of the nation to the dominion of the voice."

I mean, come on, who doesn't want some unresisted powers?

This marketing podcast was created and published by MarketingProfs.

Matthew T. Grant, PhD is Director of Content Strategy at Aberdeen Group. You can find him on Twitter (@MatttGrant) or his personal blog.

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