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March 6, 2011 / Tony Arena

How Aristotle Can Help You Sell Better

By Stephen Shapiro

I was recently in the market for a new car.  I had narrowed down my list of prospects and went out for some test drives.  At the car dealerships, each sales person immediately jumped enthusiastically into sharing the features and functions of the cars.  “It has cruise control, alloy wheels, and a cup holder.”  Exciting.  Interestingly, the same thing happened when I was looking to purchase some software. The sales person recited a well-rehearsed script.  “Our software will allow you to keep a record of every customer.”  My reaction: “Um, and so can all your competitors.” In both cases, I was uninspired and unmotivated to buy.


This got me thinking about the selling process.


Your ability to sell is fundamental to your success.  Maybe you want customers to buy a product or service that you offer.  Or maybe, as a leader in an organization, you might want your employees to embrace the latest management technique to help spur innovation.


Regardless of what you are selling, from my experience, most people sell incorrectly.


When you focus your selling strategy on features and functions, it positions you as a commodity.  It is well-known that people buy more often for emotional rather than logical reasons.  So why are you starting the sales process with logic?


A more effective way to sell involves a simple three-step process: ethos, pathos, and then logos.  Just in case your Greek is a little rusty, ethos, pathos, and logos are the three corners of Aristotle’s “Rhetorical Triangle” – the use of language to persuade.  Ethos is credibility, pathos is empathy, and logos is logic.


Selling your ideas using this construction, in that order, leads to more persuasive arguments.


Ethos: First, establish your credibility.


Get people to listen to your ideas.  They will listen only if you have credibility.  Why should they believe you?  Start with a story that establishes your authority.  “This car was rated No. 1 by JD Power.”  Gain testimonials and trusted references to build credibility.  Do this first, without sounding as if you are hyping yourself.  You are there to create value for others.

There is a reason why professional speakers always have someone introduce them before they take the stage.  Studies show that the quality of the introduction has a significant impact on how intently the audience listens and what they ultimately retain.


I know of a company that sells insurance door-to-door (yes, people still do that).  When someone opens the door, the first thing the agents are trained to say is, “Hi, my name is Bill. You may have heard of me.  I’m the one talking to all the families in the area about cancer.  I just met with your neighbors Sally and Joe and they suggested that I meet with you as well.”  This social proof gives him immediate entrance into most homes and leads to historically higher sales hit rates.


Pathos: Next, create an emotional bond with others.


Speak their language.  Address their needs.  Tell them what THEY will get out of buying your product or by paying attention.  Why should they care?  This is about context.  Remember, people rarely listen to the emergency procedures when an airplane is taking off, but they are highly attentive when the plane is about to crash.  You must get people to the point where they really want to hear what you have to say about the proposed solution product.


I love an old AT&T commercial in which a busy mother is always heading off to work.  The children don’t understand why they can’t spend more time with her.  The four-year-old daughter then says, “Mom, when can I be a client?”  In the next scene, you see the mother and daughter at the beach having fun.  When the cell phone rings and the four-year-old yells out, “Hey, everybody, it’s time for the meeting!”  They aren’t selling a phone, they are selling more time with family. A clear emotional pain that many individuals have.


Logos: Finally, present the solution.


This is where you get to share the features and functions of your products.  What does it do and how does it do it?  How will the change be implemented?  How will it affect them?  What do they need to do differently?  What actions do you want them to take?


The proverbial used car salesman has always gotten a bad rap.  But, personally, I think it should be for their inability to effectively influence. To sell your ideas, you need to understand how people make decisions.  People rarely make decisions intellectually. They make them emotionally.  Ethos, pathos, logos is a powerful, emotionally-driven, non-manipulative formula for persuading others to take action.

Stephen Shapiro is the author of Personality Poker: The Playing Card Tool for Driving High Performance Teamwork and Innovation (Penguin Portfolio).  You can read over 500 articles at,  play the free Personality Poker video game, or follow him on Twitter.




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