Aristotle: the first marketing guru?

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was an avid student of communication and his observations are still very relevant today, says Ashgrove Marketing’s Terry van Rhyn.

I have always been fascinated by the art of communication and the effect a well-presented or well-told story has on an audience.

While no-one is certain when language evolved, the general view is that it could probably be traced back to modern Homo sapiens who lived around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. Our early ancestors probably expressed themselves through grunts, facial expressions, hand gestures, drawings in the sand or cave paintings.

Today, we have evolved more sophisticated ways to communicate with each other in speech, in print and digitally. But, no matter what the method, the ability to articulate a message that will resonate with an audience – whether to express your view, change their opinion or even present a new opinion – is immensely powerful.

Around 300 BC, Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and polymath, identified three key elements in the art of communication. These were “ethos” (speaker), “pathos” (audience) and “logos” (message). In other words, he recognised the act of persuasion. In fact, you could say old Aristotle was the very first “Mad Man” on the Madison Avenue of Macedonia.

Ethos relates to the speaker’s credibility and trustworthiness when presenting to the audience. The speaker has to possess a deep understanding of the subject matter and plan his presentation in great detail before he engages the audience. Most importantly the speaker has to not only possess the ability to articulate his idea in a meaningful manner, but to ensure the finer nuances of body language, voice modulation and demeanour are observed.

Aristotle believed that public speaking is where the art of communication was honed: the purpose of a well-rehearsed presentation was to instil trust, believability and for the audience to be persuaded by the proposal or message. It is therefore also important to style the message to appeal to – and be relevant to – the audience.

Pathos is all about making that emotional connection with the audience and how they react to the speaker’s message. The audience must feel connected through an emotional trigger which makes them feel part of the communication. The speaker must make the audience believe that they matter and that they are at the centre of the focus. At the end of the day, pathos is a reflection of the speaker’s effectiveness as a communicator and this is judged by their influence on the audience’s actions afterwards.

Although the direct translation of logos is logic, it actually refers to the factual information shared to support the proposition or argument. Aristotle believed this to be the most important element in convincing the audience of your story: sharing the facts, analytical data, statistics and strategies to articulate the proposition through logical reasoning.

Facts must speak for themselves and the critical tipping point is when a complicated concept or idea is explained in an uncomplicated manner for the audience to understand.

Well, you don’t need to be a “Mad Man” to appreciate Aristotle’s theory of communication as all of us have to follow these basic principles in order to be successful. It’s the same process whether, as a CEO, you are communicating direction and vision to your staff, or, as a member of that staff, you want to articulate your needs or ambitions in order to be recognised or appreciated.

Even in our private lives we are constantly presenting ideas to friends and family. Usually our success will depend upon the effort and planning we put into our argument. When looking for a new partner, we will follow the same principles, dressing up to look the part, speaking in a certain way and exhibiting mannerisms that will draw attention or make an impression.

This is why advertising and marketing are fundamentally about communication and social skills. We follow Aristotle’s principles by taking the time to find out a brand’s value propositions, working out who we are talking to and making sure we deliver the message in a way that is not only compelling, but will be memorable and trusted. It’s all about making brands both understandable and desirable.

Aristotle would no doubt be bemused by Facebook, Tik Tok and all our other channels of communication today. But I think he’d also recognise how to make the most of them too.