Aristotle tells us that persuasive appeals rely on logos, pathos, and ethos, aka logic, emotion, and character.

Unfortunately, most textbooks and teachers act as if they are three separate and exclusive appeals, as if you must choose one over the others, or as if they are essentially unrelated to each other.

This is totally and fatally wrong.  Here’s the right way to think of these things, as quoted from Dr. Jonathan Shay‘s essay, Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a Handbook of Leadership [emphasis mine]:

Aristotle shows us that leader has three interrelated means of achieving his fellow citizens’ trust:

  • Appeal to their character (éthos)
  • Appeal to their reason (lógos)
  • Appeal to their emotions (páthos)

These three are interrelated, not separate, because the goals of action arise from the troops’ ideals, ambitions, and affiliations—their character. Reason concerns the means to reach those goals. And the emotions arise primarily from their cognitive assessments of the real-world improvement or deterioration of their ideals, ambitions, affiliations, and how fast they are changing in the world.

Aristotle has useful comments on the leader’s need to build trust through appeal to the troops’ character and emotion. He even explains how it is possible to be “too rational,” losing the trust of those you are trying to lead. (See Garver’s, “Making Discourse Ethical: Can I Be Too Rational?”)

Now, to be fair, Dr. Shay’s essay also examines the importance of the leaders Ethos as perceived by his followers/audience, but this is the aspect of ethos most everyone else already focuses on, with lots of solid content on incorporating speaker/brand ethos into your copy.  What most people gloss over when discussing ethos is the importance of the audience’s ethos.

Why is this so important?

Because you want to appeal to prospective customers’ best image of (and aspirations for) themselves.  Then show how your advocated course of action corresponds with that image.

And when you do this, you’re not ignoring pathos or logos, either.  The emotional appeal in your copy will stem from the gap between the reader’s ideal image of themselves and the current (often frustrating and disappointing) reality.  While the logos will both demonstrate the credibility of your proposed solution while also demonstrating your inherent respect for the audience.  To quote a bit more from Dr. Shay’s essay:

The centrality of rational explanation (“argument”), rather than coercion or deception, shows the leader’s respect for the troops, who are his or her fellow citizens. You can’t separate respect from good will… The persuasive power that comes when a leader appeals to reason comes more from the degree to which it provides evidence for the leader’s respect toward the troops than from the power of reason to compel assent, or having compelled assent, to guide or restrain behavior.

Or as I like to say, Facts need Drama and Drama needs Facts.

So, while I fully recognize that the character or ethos of the leader/speaker/brand IS indeed incredibly important, I’d suggest that this is so only in relationship to the ethos of the audience.

Start with the audience’s self-identity first, and the rest will fall into place.

Stories Affect Memory

We like to think our memories are both accurate and unchanging, but the truth is they’re far from either. Research by Elizabeth Loftus has shown memories to be extraordinary malleable and capable of being falsified. And pioneering research in social psychology has shown the mind-bending power of cognitive dissonance to alter our memories.

So what does this have to do with advertising and small business?

The Festinger and Carlsmith Experiment

First, let’s review the research in cognitive dissonance. Here’s a quick and dirty write-up of the original experiments conducted by Festinger and Carlsmith:

  1. At the beginning of the experiment, student volunteers were asked to perform a simple and boring task.
  2. Then, before the subjects left the experiment, the experimenter asked if the subject would be willing to do a small favor for the experimenter, specifically asking if they would tell the next subject in line that the experiment was fun and enjoyable.
  3. Subjects who agreed to do this were paid either $1 or $20. Subjects in both groups typically agreed to tell the next subject that the experiment was interesting.
  4. But when experimenters followed up with the subjects, the highly paid subjects confessed that the experiment was actually boring, while the lower-paid subjects were more likely to say that the experiment was “not bad” or that it was “interesting.”

So why the difference in opinions between the lower-paid and highly-paid volunteers?

Cognitive Dissonance and Cialdini’s Influence

Psychologists call it Cognitive Dissonance, but if you’re a fan of Cialdini‘s book, Influence, you probably know it as an example of Commitment and Consistency. Either way, social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen it in the absence of strong outside pressure.

So for the Festinger and Carlsmith experiment, a large reward (like a $20 payment in 1950s money) counts as strong outside pressure, while a $1 payment does not. That’s why the lower-paid volunteers (and not the higher-paid ones) changed their judgement to reflect the “stories” they told the other “volunteers” — the story that the experiment was fun and enjoyable!

OK. Now how would this apply to you and your business?

Business Applications

Despite what you may be thinking, the applications do NOT involve some Machiavellian plan to implant false memories or employ psychological pressure on your prospects/customers through cognitive dissonance. And for the record, I truly do NOT recommend such schemes.

What I do wish to emphasize, however, is this fairly straightforward bottom line:

*People Remember What Gets Reinforced Through Re-Presentation*

So the great results you get for people?  You might want to ensure that experience gets reinforced, right?

And the best thing that people remember from your work?  You might want to reinforce that, too, right?

And the time you jumped through some hoops to get them something extra or extra-fast?  Ditto.

So how do you make sure these things get Reinforced?  Through Re-presentation.  And what the hell does that mean?

Understanding and Using Re-Presentation

At it’s simplest, representation is nothing more than a recounting of events through narrative.  When you tell me what happened, you are re-presenting the experience and also solidifying the memories of that experience — but only for those memories that get included in the story.  What gets recounted in the narrative gets reinforced, and those aspects left out of the narrative get diminished from memory.

In more elaborate form, a re-presentation can involve making abstract benefits tangible. Or providing a symbolic marker/event for an accomplishment earned over time.

When weight loss services give you a bag of sand that weighs as much as the fat you lost, they’re reinforcing the benefit through a dramatic re-presentation of your weight loss. Same thing with the before and after snapshots.

When a martial arts dojo gives your kiddo a new belt through testing, they are helping to commemorate progress with a symbolic marker/event.  Same thing with breaking boards.  What’s more likely to stick out when you tell someone about your experience at the dojo: all the times you sat watching your kids work through forms, or the moment you saw one of them break a stack of pine boards with their bare hands?

So what’s the best method for ensuring your clients most favorable memories get reinforced?

Use symbolic and tangible markers combined with narrative re-presentations to really ensure those positives get cemented in memory.  Don’t just hand the successful weight loss client a bag of sand, tell their story, and then get their emotional response and testimonial on video tape. Your retelling of the story, plus the dramatic re-presentation of their accomplishment, plus their own recounting of their success and happiness at the event will ensure they never forget the way they feel about that accomplishment.

So what symbolic markers and tangible, dramatic re-presentations are you using?  What kind of narrative re-presentations?

Don’t leave positive impressions of benefits to chance.  Reinforce them through re-presentation.

The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss

“Now, the Star-Bell Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
And, whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past them without even talking…”

The $80 Embroidery, by Lacoste (poem by me)

Now, some polos have emblems and some have none.
And those emblems resemblems all critters under the sun
Moose and Crocs and Sheeps and Ponies,
All set-up to cost you more monies
Why should those emblems matter at all?
Those critters are cute but still rather small…
But they’re sure to win the approval of cronies
So search out those emblems and join all the phonies









P.S. I’m not really calling Polo and Lacoste wearing folks phonies. I’ve got my favorite brands like everyone else. But, hey, it fit in with the rhyme scheme and general theme. Also, if you’re interested in the subject of mimetic desire (and you should be) you can read more about it here and here.

“…it is James Thurber’s Walter Mitty who, in the space of a single afternoon, is the commander of a navy hydroplane, a life-saving surgeon, an expert marksman, and an intrepid army captain. Walter Mitty isn’t crazy. He just has trouble convincing the outside world of who he is inside.

‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ is a favorite American story because it speaks to the Mitty in each of us. Who among us has never played cowboy, astronaut, princess, or nurse? Like Don [Quixote] and Walter, each of us has a secret life, and it is silly to pretend that our outward choices are not influenced by the people we are inside.

In we are to insist on intellectual honesty, we must urge Don and Walter to abandon their childish dreams. But if we would sell our products and make two customers happy, we will speak not to a tired old man and a henpecked husband, but will eloquently address the needs of a chivalrous knight and an intrepid army captain.

It’s called ‘Advertising.'”

Roy H. Williams, The Wizard of Ads

In my last Practical Tactical Tuesday post, I mentioned that features might be dramatized to show something other than immediate, objective benefit, that features might be dramatized, instead, so as to tie the product into the values and self image of the prospective customer. When you choose this other path, you end up advertising to the felt needs of  your prospects’ inner Walter Mitty, rather than to their actual, real-life needs.

SUVs vs. Minivans

Examples of this abound, but here’s one we’re all familiar with: the millions of mothers driving around in SUVs instead of minivans.  They chose the more expensive SUV despite the fact that SUVs cost more, guzzle more gas, are more likely to roll-over, and just generally aren’t as well suited to the actual commuting demands of most moms. By all objective standards, the minivan (or, maybe even the station wagon) is the better choice.

But does the average mom see herself as a minivan-driving Soccer Mom?

Um, no, actually.

So why would she want to drive a vehicle that’s stigmatized by such an unflattering stereotype?  Well, quite a few of these moms wouldn’t.  So they opted, and continue to opt, for a vehicle that better fits their inner image while retaining most of the seating and cargo capacity they really need. Hence the cross-over SUV craze.

But I’m far from picking on mom’s or SUV drivers — I’m saying we ALL have at least a few areas of our lives where we pick the objectively sub-optimal choice in order to chose the product or service that better fits our inner values and identifications.

2 Ways of Making Decisions

Copywriters need to keep in mind that we have two ways of making decisions: one is the self-interest, pros and cons model, and the other is the identity model:

  • The Self-Interest Model asks: “What’s In It For Me?”
  • The Identity Model asks: “What Kind of Person Am I and What Would That Kind of Person Do In This Situation?”

Best of all, your copy doesn’t have to exclusively choose one over the other.  In fact, a blend of the two is usually your best option, when you’re fortunate enough to have options.  But if you’re really hankering to see an almost pure use of identity in ad copy, go read a J. Peterman product description or two, and you’ll see this style of copy at work.




by Jeff

Seth Godin posted this with more of a “consumer protection” spin on it, but I think it’s fundamental to marketing as well, so I’m going to quote part of the post here, and then elaborate on it a bit.  Here’s the excerpted quote, but you really ought to read the entire post:

Here’s one reason we mess up [big decisions about money]: Money is just a number.

Comparing dreams of a great [car] stereo (four years of driving long distances, listening to great music!) compared with the daily reminder of our cheapness makes picking the better stereo feel easier. After all, we’re not giving up anything but a number.

The college case is even more clear. $200,000 is a number that’s big, sure, but it doesn’t have much substance. It’s not a number we play with or encounter very often. The feeling about the story of compromise involving something tied up in our self-esteem, though, that feeling is something we deal with daily.

Here’s how to undo the self-marketing. Stop using numbers.

You can have the stereo if you give up going to Starbucks every workday for the next year and a half. Worth it?

If you go to the free school, you can drive there in a brand new Mini convertible, and every summer you can spend $25,000 on a top-of-the-line internship/experience, and you can create a jazz series and pay your favorite musicians to come to campus to play for you and your fifty coolest friends, and you can have Herbie Hancock give you piano lessons and you can still have enough money left over to live without debt for a year after you graduate while you look for the perfect gig…

Do you see the connection with marketing?

Making numbers, or more commonly features, tangibly and compellingly real to the buyer is exactly what good copywriters are paid to do. And they do it the same way Seth does in that quote:

  • By converting numbers and features to human-scaled concrete measures
  • By identifying the benefits that really matter to the customer
  • By dramatizing those same end benefits and creating identifiable scenarios around them

Telling me that this lightweight luggage is X pounds lighter doesn’t do much for me.  It’s just a number, unconnected to anything I might really care about.

Telling me that the saved weight equals the combined weight of an extra sport coat, shirt, and pair of dress pants, basically an entire extra change of clothes without incurring any weight penalties, and I just might become interested in the luggage for an upcoming extended trip.

Remember, a number, unless it’s a dollar-figure that’s going into my bank account, doesn’t directly address the all-important What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) question. But a vision of me enjoying some tangible benefit does.

That’s the obvious part — the tactical practical, must-do part.  So if you’re not converting your features into “which means” benefit statements, and then converting those benefits into dramatic, visualizable scenarios, then get on it… and start answering WIIFM with load, clear, and vividly dramatized benefits.

And then, of course, there’s the more subtle part: talking about what this or that feature or characteristic means not in terms of immediate benefit, but in terms of self-identity and shared values.  It’s a bit less practical-tactical, but perfect for Theory Thursday…



by Jeff

There’s a simple axiom amongst direct response copywriters: “make it easy for the customer to say yes.”

Sounds like a “duh” piece of advice, but it’s amazing how often this advice gets botched.  And it usually get’s botched in one of two ways:

1) The copy doesn’t make it easy for the customer to realize WHAT she would be saying yes to.  

In other words, the site doesn’t clarify:

  • WHAT is being offered for sale,
  • WHEN or in what FORM the customer should expect the actual deliverables to arrive
  • WHY this is a good deal and better than the other options
  • HOW MUCH the offered product or service will cost

2) The copy doesn’t make it clear HOW to say yes and take that next step.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of having different conversion points for early, middle, and late stage shoppers (where appropriate), but  you shouldn’t let that get in the way of having a nice, clean, simple Call to Action.  If prospective customers have to decide between 14 options just to buy, you’re making them work too hard, and your sales will suffer accordingly.

You Might Be Messing This Up If…

What’s really insidious about this particular conversion flaw is that your marketing and Web teams are unlikely to know about simply because they’re suffering under The Curse of Knowledge.  To them the offer seems perfectly clear, and the different options for buying are  a bonus rather than a burden.  So even if you don’t think you suffer from this, you might want to check to see if:

  1. You have unusually high bounce rates on your home page.
  2. People are clicking on your Calls to Action and then backtracking to “How it Works,” “FAQ,” and “About Us” pages — almost as if they’re looking one last time to see if they can’t find some answers.
  3. You have unusually high exit rates from “How it Works,” Services, and Product pages
  4. Your cart or checkout abandonment rates stay high despite a high-quality check-out process and repeated optimization efforts aimed at this portion of your Website.

I’m not saying these issues are proof positive that your messaging and basic offers need work, just that the represent a good reason to look into it.

How to Fix It

The best advice is to hire an outside expert. I realize that sounds a bit self-serving, coming from a messaging-driven Website Optimization professional, but, well, what can I say? It’s the simple truth.

But if you’re trying a DIY approach, here’s what I recommend:

A) Try the “Here’s the Deal” Exercise.

Imagine that you’re at the bar with an acquaintance who knows almost nothing about your product or service, but who would benefit from it, if only she understood a few things. If you were to turn to her and say, “so here’s the deal,” what sort of short and sweet pitch would you give to her that would get her ready to say yes or commit to learning more in 120 seconds or less?

Also, make sure you don’t use jargon — remember, this prospect isn’t an industry insider — during your “so here’s the deal” speech, and make sure the benefits are dramatized and compelling.

B) Try Using Schemas

I had Baba Ghanoush for the first time a few months ago, and when I asked what it was, a whole bunch of people started to explain it to me, with varying degrees of success.  But then Bryan Eisenberg — a consumate marketer and my personal Website Optimization mentor — nailed it when he said it was “eggplant guacamole.”  Boom. Suddenly everybody got it.


Because Bryan invoked a schema we already recognized, guacamole, and then modified it with eggplant. Isn’t that a much more elegant explanation than Wikipedia’s, “a Levantine dish of eggplant (aubergine) mashed and mixed with virgin olive oil and various seasonings”?

The same thing happens with movies, too.  According to Chip and Dan Heath, Speed was initially pitched as “Die Hard on a Bus.”  Boom. You get it.  Aliens is a science fiction movie, but it’s nothing like Star Trek. Totally different feel, right?  But if you say “Jaws in Space,” you instantly grasp both the concept and the feel of the movie.

So what schema could you use to describe your product or service?

Caution — the schema you use can greatly impact the customer’s expectation of value and price, so choose wisely.

C) Streamline Your Call to Action and Conversion Process

Now, don’t get rid of your lead nurturing program or anything, but do consider whether you might narrow down your offerings and options. Or at least consider making one option the “default” and most promoted option. And as with any piece of Web Optimization advice, test it out. See what actually converts the best. You might just be surprised at the results.

And that’s today’s Practical Tactical Tuesday Tip 🙂