Many of us spend significant time in our daily lives attempting to convince others to “see it our way.” Often these efforts are in a courtroom, boardroom, office, or with family and friends.

The secret to succeeding in these persuasive endeavors is “classical rhetoric”—the art of selecting the most effective modes of persuasion, refined over centuries and relevant today, and using them in our effort to persuade. With its seeds in ancient Egypt, classical rhetoric developed and flourished in ancient Greece and Rome as demonstrated or taught by great advocates and scholars.

In Greece, there were Isocrates, Demosthenes, Plato, and Aristotle. In Rome, Cicero, Brutus, Hortensius, and Quintilian. Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” is the foremost work on persuasion and sets the stage for many rhetorical principles that developed after him.

Demosthenes, a contemporary of Aristotle, was perhaps the greatest orator of ancient times. His “Philippics,” orations against Philip II of Macedon, are still read today. In Rome, Cicero prevailed for years as the prominent advocate to retain. He wrote prolifically about advocacy, and his writings remain relevant.

To stimulate thinking, I share with you here a sample of their principles:

  1. Tailor your argument to your listener. Understand your audience and appreciate their attitudes, beliefs, and dispositions. Try to use a receiver center approach, and consider all factors that might influence the listener. Example: “I know that you dislike movies with violence, but we saw three movies of your choice last month. Football is not violent. It would be great, if I could choose the movie. What do you say?”
  2. Maintain high ethos. Ethos is your personal character as perceived by the listener. It is not how awesome you are, but how awesome you are perceived. Components of ethos include credibility, likeability, and competence. Ethos can rise and fall during your presentation. If the listener has or develops a great impression of you, it is an important asset in the context of persuasion. Demonstrate honesty and integrity, and knowledge about your subject matter.
  3. Base your argument on logic. Deductive reasoning moves from a general proposition to a specific conclusion. It is exemplified in a syllogism. Major premise: “The statute of limitations is three years.” Minor premise: “This case was filed five years after the incident.” Conclusion: “It stands to reason that the case should be dismissed.” Inductive reasoning examines particulars and moves to a general conclusion. Example: Robinson Crusoe worried he was alone on the island. But when he saw human footprints in the sand, he inferred that he was not alone. Basing an argument on logic can be powerful, but avoid logical fallacies, e.g. invalid major premise.
  4. Appeal to emotion. Use emotion to persuade. Tell a story, feel the emotion yourself, and be sensitive to your listeners’ feelings. Consider the power of understatement, allowing the listener to feel the emotion.
  5. Strategically arrange your arguments. Every persuasive presentation, written or oral, should have a structure. Consider the doctrine of primacy — you tend to remember best what you read or hear first. When presenting a case, there are rules to follow regarding structure of the argument, but the beginning is the time for assertion of your goal. The middle is where you provide reasons for your assertion, even explaining why opposing views of the matter are not correct. The conclusion, the peroration, is where you eloquently summarize.
  6. Argue with style. Style is the words you use to express yourself. To add eloquence to your courtroom arguments, consider the value of numerous classical figures of speech, such as schemes and tropes. A scheme is changing the normal order of words for drama or effect. Example: Instead of saying, “Mozart was a wonderful composer,” a scheme would be: “A wonderful composer was Mozart.” Repetition is another example of a scheme. Example: “What was your reaction when you saw the collision?” The scheme: “ Horror, horror, horror.” Tropes occur when you change the significance of the words, such as in metaphors and similes. Metaphors are implied comparisons between two things that are unalike but have something in common: Example: “The defendant’s case went down in flames.” A simile uses “like” or “as” to explicitly compare two unalike things. Example: “These facts are clear as a fire bell in the night.”
  7. Use delivery to enhance communication. While style is comprised of the words you use to express yourself, delivery is how you move when speaking. Gestures, eye contact, the volume of your voice, and facial expressions are all components of delivery.

The concepts here are only the tip of the iceberg (trope). I urge you to undertake on your own the study of rhetoric (scheme). Read the works of Cicero, Quintilian, and others. Take it slow, but go deep. Modern resources on rhetoric exist, and are very helpful.

Paul Mark Sandler, trial lawyer and author, can be reached at pms@shapirosher.com.