Triangles of Persuasion

James Malloy Harmon, PhD, CPSM

We all want to be persuasive. At the very least, we hope to connect with others and to be understood. 

Imagine my delight when I discovered three ancient mystical forms conceived by the First Toastmaster, Finn the Whisperer, a wise poet and sage who spoke to fish and was credited for convincing salmon to swim upstream. These forms’ alchemical powers have the capability of changing words to gold! Together, they are known as the Three Triangles of Persuasion.

Actually, some of them aren’t that ancient, but they may help you understand how to speak with persuasion. In order, they are (1) the Semantic Triangle, (2) the Rhetorical Triangle and (3) the Hierarchy of Needs. In this three-part series, we will discuss the Triangles of Persuasion, starting with the Semantic Triangle.

1. The Semantic Triangle

Ferdinand de Saussue, a twentieth-century Swiss Linguist is credited with developing the Semantic Triangle. Because he wasn’t particularly good about publishing his own ideas, his students C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards refined it further.

At some point, you must have heard somebody’s drunken uncle complaining, “I can’t say anything that won’t offend you!” In a way, that uncle was right, and the Semantic Triangle explains why.

We begin with a subject or a thought — for example, a fox. If you are a fox, you simply think, “I am me!” and “Look, a vole! Yum, yum!” But what do we think when we think “fox?”

We use a symbol, in this case, the word fox. In the same way you’d never confuse a photo of your grandmother with your actual grandmother, you wouldn’t confuse the word fox with an actual fox. The symbol simply exists to help us express the idea, “Look, a fox!”

When someone hears, “fox,” that symbol becomes a thought. What pops up in your mind when you think of a fox? Do you imagine an Arctic fox? Or perhaps Disney’s dashing Robin Hood? Or Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes? Or perhaps you recall a mythological Japanese trickster known as the nine-tailed fox (or kitsune). Or if you’re that drunken uncle, you’re in a froth about Hannity on Fox News.

Yes, we may be describing a furry, four-legged creature, but at the same time, the symbol fox is loaded with all these other meanings as well a wide range of emotions from nostalgia to aneurysm-inducing rage — all of which we cannot help but dredge up along the way.

The takeaway:

The Semantic Triangle teaches us to choose our words carefully. We must consider our audience when selecting words, knowing that each word conveys a unique idea or emotion. 

Meet with your audience. Get to know them. Pay attention to the words they use. Consider building a list of key words to use or avoid when speaking before them. Also, pay attention to other grammatical choices, including the use of action verbs and active voice.

2. The Rhetorical Triangle

The Rhetorical Triangle takes us back to Ancient Greece and Aristotle, a philosopher who these days is mostly remembered for being wrong about a great number of things. He famously misunderstood the uterus, for starters. I remember as an undergrad thinking, “If he was wrong about so many things, why study him?” As I came to learn, every once in a while, Aristotle came up with something quite brilliant. And where rhetoric is concerned, he’s given us some fairly useful models. Even if you happen to disagree with those models, you at least have Aristotle to credit for getting you all worked up about them in the first place.

The Rhetorical Triangle breaks the art of persuasion into three basic elements: ethos, pathos and logos.

The first of these, ethos, appeals to your soul. As a speaker, you must convince your audience that you are trustworthy and have a sense of authority. The question you need to ask yourself is, “Why should someone believe me?”

And why should you believe me? If you’re in need of a marketer, look no further, for I’m a credentialed marketer. I’ve also studied literature and rhetoric and I have a doctorate. If you’re not impressed by my credentials, then perhaps you might be convinced if I talk about the people I’ve helped out, and they, in turn, can vouch for me. Finally, I can earn more credibility by admitting when I don’t know the answer to something or acknowledging when I’m borrowing someone else’s idea or research.

Pathos appeals to your heart, and probably about 75% of what marketers do involves pathos. Some of the most memorable ad campaigns are still remembered to this day. If you’ve ever been to an Italian restaurant, no doubt you’ve heard some tenor singing, “Funiculi Funicula.” Did you know that song was an ad campaign? Composed in 1880 by Luigi Denza with lyrics by Peppino Turco, the song commemorated the opening of a funicular railway on Mount Vesuvius near Naples. Today, you hear that song, and think “Spaghetti Bolognese at the Old Spaghetti Factory,” but back in the day, people were thinking, “Let’s ride the funicular!” That’s the power of pathos and a memorable ad campaign.

Logos appeals to your mind. This is dry and statistical part of your speech. This is where you include facts, statistics and evidence to back up what you have to say. You might mention some case studies, or cite a few peer-reviewed studies. A handout or a few clear, well-crafted slides and charts go a long way towards adding logos to your argument.

The takeaway:

A convincing argument needs all three elements. If you have pathos but nothing else, you are left resembling a cereal box that boasts, “Now with 10% more!” (More what?! Spiders? Air?). Too much logos, and you’ll bore your audience to tears. Too much ethos, and you might have your audience thinking, “Perhaps they protest too much. What are they hiding that they have to keep telling me they’re honest and reputable?”

3. Hierarchy of Needs

You have probably come across Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs at some point in high school or college. But did you know that Abraham Maslow wasn’t the person who came up with the idea?

Recently, it’s come to light that Maslow was visiting members of the Siksika (Blackfoot) nation in Alberta, Canada, and was impressed by their hierarchical of needs, which used a tipi as a model. Maslow liked the idea so much, he adopted their tipi, changed it to a pyramid, borrowed a number of their ideas and added a few of his. And then, sadly, he conveniently forgot to thank the Siksika people for sharing a concept that was originally theirs. (You can read more about this story here).

If you trying to formulate a persuasive argument, the Siksika-originated Hierarchy of Needs teaches us to pay attention to the unmet needs your audience has — such as a yearning to be a part of a community or the desire for safety. If you want to convince your audience that you have a great idea they should get on board with, you need to demonstrate how that great idea meets their own personal needs.

The takeaway:

Get to know your audience. Talk to them first. Listen carefully to what they have to say. And most importantly, when presenting an idea, remember, they come first. 

This is how you should approach building your argument: “You have told me about a problem that is keeping you up at night. I have a solution. Would you like to hear it?”

Your audience needs to know that you understand where they’re coming from. You can do this in a number of ways, and you won’t be manipulating your audience if your intentions come from a genuine desire for their well-being.

Be a mirror. Use the same language or interests that both of you share. If you both have a common love of the campy 1960s-era Batman TV series, consider making references to your Bat Utility Belt that is full of useful solutions. If you both believe that Linda Carter was the one-and-only Wonder Woman, invite them to take a figurative ride on your invisible jet.

Additionally, practice Kairos — the art of conveying the right message at the right time. If the community is in a state of mourning over yet another mass shooting, consider curtailing any firearm-related analogies or anecdotes about your trips to the firing range. Or, if it is the Holiday Season, consider tailoring your message around those holidays because that would be fa-la-la-la-lawesome.

What is the ultimate takeaway for us from the Hierarchy of Needs? To be persuasive, you must both gain and express empathy for your audience.


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