We’re all more or less familiar with the syllogism. The idea is that we can state premises – with certain rules – and draw conclusions that are logically valid. So we might say:
Major premise: All humans are mortal.
Minor premise: Travis is a human.
Conclusion: Therefore, Travis is mortal.
In this case, the syllogism is deemed valid because the conclusion flows logically from the premises. It’s also considered sound since both premises are demonstrably true. Since the syllogism is both valid and sound, the conclusion is irrefutable.
We often think in syllogisms though we typically don’t realize it. Here’s one that I go through each morning:
Major premise: People get up when the sun rises.
Minor premise: The sun is rising.
Minor premise: I’m a person.
Conclusion: Therefore, I need to get up.
I don’t usually think, “Oh good for me … another syllogism solved”. Rather, I just get out of bed.
We often associate syllogisms with logic but we can also use them for persuasion. Indeed, Aristotle identified a form of syllogism that he believed was more persuasive than any other form of logic.
Aristotle called it an enthymeme – it’s simply a syllogism with an unstated major premise. Since the major premise is assumed rather than stated, we don’t consider it consciously. We don’t ask ourselves, Is it valid? Is it sound? We just assume that everything is correct and get on with life.
Though they don’t use the terminology, advertisers long ago discovered that enthymemes are powerful persuaders. People who receive the message don’t consciously examine the premise. That’s exactly what advertisers want.
As an example, let’s dissect one of my favorite ads: the 2012 Volkswagen Passat ad featuring the kid in the Darth Vader costume. The kid wanders around the house trying to use “The Force” to turn on the TV, cook lunch, and so on. Of course, it never works. Then Dad comes home, parks his new Passat in the driveway, and turns it off. The kid uses the force to turn it back on. Dad recognizes what’s going on and uses his remote starter to start the car just as the kid hurls the force in the right direction. The car starts, the kid is amazed, and we all love the commercial.
So what’s the premise? Here’s how the ad works:
Major (hidden) premise: Car companies that produce loveable ads also
produce superior cars.
Minor premise: VW produced a loveable ad.
Conclusion: Therefore, VW produces superior cars.
When we think about the major premise, we realize that it’s illogical. The problem is that we don’t think about it. It enters our subconscious mind (System 1) rather than our conscious mind (System 2). We don’t examine it because we’re not aware of it.
Here’s another one. I’ve seen numerous ads in magazines that tout a product that’s also advertised on TV. The magazine ads often include the line: As Seen On TV. Here’s the enthymeme:
Major (hidden) premise: Products advertised on TV are superior to
those that aren’t advertised on TV.
Minor premise: This product is advertised on TV
Conclusion: Therefore, it’s a superior product.
When we consciously examine the premise, we realize that it’s ridiculous. The trick is to remind ourselves to examine the premise.
If you want to defend yourself against unscrupulous advertisers (or politicians), always be sure to ask yourself, What’s the hidden premise?
Let’s say that Suellen and I have an argument about something that happened yesterday. And, let’s say that I actually win the argument. (This is highly theoretical).
The Greek philosophers who invented rhetoric classified arguments according to the tenses of the verbs used. Arguments in the past tense are about blame; we’re seeking to identify the guilty party. Arguments in the present tense are about values – we’re debating your values against mine. (These are often known as religious arguments). Arguments in the future tense are about choices and actions; we can decide something and take action on it. (Click here for more detail).
In our hypothetical situation, Suellen and I argue about something in the past. The purpose of the argument is to assign blame. I win the argument, so Suellen must be to blame. She’s at fault.
I win the argument so, bully for me. Since I’ve won, clearly I’m not to blame. I’m not the one at fault. I’m innocent. Maybe I do a little victory dance.
Let’s look at it from Suellen’s perspective. She lost the argument and, therefore, has to accept the blame. How does she feel? Probably not great. She may be annoyed or irritated. Or she might feel humiliated and ashamed. If I try to rub it in, she might get angry or even vengeful.
Now, Suellen is the woman I love … so why would I want her to feel that way? If someone else made her feel annoyed, humiliated, or angry, I would be very upset. I would seek to right the wrong. So why would I do it myself?
Winning an argument with someone I love means that I’ve won on a small scale but lost on a larger scale. I’ve come to realize that arguing in the past tense is useless. Winning one round simply initiates the next round. We can blame each other forever. What’s the point?
In the corporate world, the analogue to arguing in the past tense is known as sunk costs. Any good management textbook will tell you to ignore sunk costs when making a decision. Sunk costs are just that – they’re sunk. You can’t recover them. You can’t redeem them. You can’t do anything with them. Therefore, they should have no influence on the future.
Despite the warnings, we often factor sunk costs into our decisions. We don’t want to lose the money or time that we’ve already invested. And, as Roch Parayre points out in this video, corporations often create perverse incentives that lead us to make bad decisions about sunk costs.
Our decisions are about the future. Sunk costs and arguments about blame are about the past. As we’ve learned over and over again, past performance does not guarantee future results. We can’t change the past; we can change the future. So let’s argue less about the past and more about the future. When it comes to blame or sunk costs, the answer is simple: Don’t cry over spilt milk. Don’t argue about it either.
As I survey the American political scene, I’m encouraged to find one topic that both the left and the right agree on: We’re doomed!
The right seems to think we’re doomed because of a looming debtpocalypse. We’re guilty of living high on the hog and now it’s payback time. We’re in over our heads, the economy is about to crash, inflation is about to skyrocket, and oh by the way, our foreign policy provides clear signs that the end times are nigh. All the more reason not to strengthen our gun laws; we’re going to need all the guns we can get to fight off moochers and looters.
The solution (apparently) is to vote for Republicans to balance the budget and avert catastrophe. However, the last Republican president to balance the budget was Dwight Eisenhower so I’m not sure how much expertise the GOP can claim in the matter.
The left seems to think that the world will end (soon apparently) in an ecotastrophe. We’ve eaten all the low-hanging fruit, lived off the fat of the land, and now we’re going to have to pay the piper. We’re guilty of living high on the hog and now it’s payback time. And, oh by the way, the growing inequality in wealth is a sure sign that the end times are nigh.
The solution seems to be to vote for Democrats who will make us healthier, happier, and more equal. However, Democrats have dominated the federal government for much of my life and, though we’ve gotten much richer, we’ve also gotten fatter and less equal. So I’m not sure that Democrats can claim much expertise either.
I suspect that all this doomsaying is the reason that zombie books and movies are so popular recently. Clearly the world is ending, so let’s imagine how it might happen. We also love being scared. The Russians are coming! No, the Chinese are coming! No, the secular humanists are coming! No, the zombies are coming! Annie, get your gun!
Traditionally, churches were the primary producers of guilt. We were sinners in the hands of an angry God. Recently, our political parties have stepped into the breach as the leading guilt creators. You eat too much! You spend too much! You pollute too much! You whine too much!
Frankly, I’m not buying it. Here’s why:
The purpose of political parties is to make people angry – anger is the one emotion that promotes action. Action creates votes and votes create power. Just as bad news sells newspapers, it also creates votes. Political parties have always predicted doom and gloom. It’s how they win elections. Both parties are doing a very good job of making people angry now. So what? That’s what they do.
Things have gotten better – since 1960 per capita wealth in the United States has tripled. Sexism and racism – though still evident – have abated dramatically. Our rivers no longer catch fire. Our air is breathable. Violent crime has dropped significantly, especially since 1990. Even those things that threaten us have gotten less awful. The Soviet Union could have wiped us out. Terrorists can’t.
Do we have problems? Of course, we do. We always have and we always will. So let’s calm down a bit. The way forward requires thinking, not screaming. If you want to be scared, don’t listen to politicians. Just go to a zombie movie.
I love it when the Harvard Business Review agrees with me. A recent HBR blog post by Scott Edinger focuses on, “Three Elements of Great Communication, According to Aristotle“. The three are: ethos, logos, and pathos.
Ethos answers the questions: Are you credible? Why should I trust your recommendations? Logos is the logic of your argument. Is it factual? Do you have the evidence to back it up? (Interestingly, the more ethos you have,the less evidence you need to back up your logos. People will trust that you’re credible). Pathos is your ability to connect emotionally with your audience. If you have high credibility and impeccable logic, your audience might conclude that you could take advantage of them. Pathos reassures them that you won’t — your audience knows that you’re a good citizen.
When I teach people the arts of public speaking, I generally recommend that they start by establishing their credibility (ethos). The trick is to do this without overdoing it. If you come across as a braggart, you reduce your credibility rather than burnishing it. A good tip to remember is to use the word, “we” rather than “I”. “We” implies teamwork; “I” implies an egocentric psychopath.
After establishing your credibility, you proceed to the logic (logos) of your argument. What is it that you’re recommending and why do you think it’s a good solution for the audience’s needs? It’s often a good idea to start by defining the audience’s needs. Then you can fit the recommendation to the need. Keep it simple and use stories. Nobody remembers abstract logic and difficult technical concepts. They do remember stories.
Think about pathos both before the speech and in the conclusion. Ideally, you can meet the audience before your speech, ask insightful questions, and make personal connections. The more you can talk to members of the audience before the speech, the better off you’ll be. Look for anecdotes that you can use in your speech — that also builds your credibility. If nothing else, spend the last few minutes before your speech shaking hands with audience members and thanking them for coming to your speech. At the end of your speech, you can return to similar themes and express your appreciation. It’s also appropriate (usually) to point out how your recommendation will affect members of the audience personally. For instance, “We believe that our solution will help your company be more efficient. It will also help you build your career.”
Those of you who have followed my website for a while may remember my videos on ethos, logos, and pathos. I made them when I worked at Lawson Software and was teaching communication skills internally. Again, I’d like to thank Lawson for allowing me to use these videos on this website as I build my own practice.
By the way, all these suggestions apply to deliberative speeches. You present a logical argument and ask your audience to deliberate on it. On the other hand, you can also give a demonstrative speech where you throw the logic out altogether. They’re often called barn burners or stem winders. You can learn more here.
Some interesting things I spotted this week, whether they were published this week or not.
The Economist asks, will we ever again invent anything that’s as useful as the flush toilet? Is the pace of innovation accelerating or decelerating? And what should we do about it, if anything?
When we think about innovation, we often focus on ideas and creativity. How can we generate more good ideas? But what about the emotional component of innovation? For innovative companies, emotional intelligence may trump technical intelligence. Norbert Alter answers your questions from Paris.
We’re familiar with the platform wars for mobile applications. Will Apple’s iOS become the dominant platform? Or maybe it will be Android from Google? Perhaps it’s some version of Windows? But what if the next great mobile app platform is a Ford or a Chevy? (Click here).
For my friends in Sweden, here’s McKinsey’s take on the future of the Swedish economy. Things are looking up — just don’t rest on your laurels.
Where does America’s R&D money go? Here’s an infographic that shows how the Federal government has invested in research over the past 50 years.
The Greeks had lots of tricks for memorizing things. They could hold huge volumes of information in their heads. But does memory matter anymore? After all, you can always Google it, no? William Klemm writes that there are five reasons why tuning up your memory is still important. And he’s a Texas Aggie so he must be right.