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Digital Rhetoric 101

How Aristotle invented Information Architecture - and wrote the book on Persuasive Design


Rhetoric is the art of persuasion through the use of oral, written, or visual language - a definition that could also be applied to advertising. For the Romans it was one of three essential liberal arts - alongside logic and grammar. These days, we tend to associate it with slippery politicians, where it is closely associated with the concept of “spin”. In fact it has been controversial right from its beginnings. Plato condemned it as immoral, dangerous, and unworthy of serious study. However he later became convinced of its value in the hands of a true philosopher for "winning the soul through discourse." This spurred his pupil Aristotle to treat it as an art worthy of systematic, scientific study, forming insights that underpin the subject even today. Far from being a means to obscure the truth, it became seen as essential to its discovery, as it provided the means to order and clarify an argument.

Aristotle was the first person to draw up a map of learning and define the relationship between the various disciplines of the arts and sciences. In his writings on rhetoric he introduced the idea of topics - a term he invented to refer to a heuristic tool for categorizing, retaining and applying frequently used types of argument. These days we would call them patterns. In effect, it was Aristotle who invented information architecture.


Topics are basic categories of relationships among ideas, each of which can serve as a template or heuristic for discovering things to say about a subject. Topics derive from topos, the Greek word for place, literally, "places to find things." Taken together they provide a primer for those learning how to argue convincingly in public. If Aristotle were designing a site map about rhetoric, one silo would be allocated to common topics, which are used with any form of knowledge, and another to special topics, which refer to branches of rhetoric more closely associated with government.

For us latter-day IAs, I suggest that the task is to become rhetorically literate. That means becoming aware of the rhetorical structures that underpin digital marketing campaigns. I donʼt profess to be an expert on rhetoric, but my exploration of the subject suggest four strands to explore: two associated with classical rhetoric, two corresponding with the application of rhetoric to visual media. The first comprises Aristotleʼs Persuasive Appeals referred to above -- Ethos, Pathos and Logos;

Ethos, Pathos and Logos

Ethos is all about whether you feel the person whoʼs trying to persuade you is someone you can believe -- at least for the purposes of the subject at hand. Your decision will be largely determined by previous experience of the individual, and your estimation of how likely the person is to have an ulterior motive for making you believe something. It works for people and brands. For each of those represented on the screen I expect you will have a pretty good idea whether it is worth listening to anything they have to say. NEXT And it can work for websites too, according to B J Fogg, whose book "Persuasive Technology" explained why it's important, and how to convey it.

Pathos is about the effect you can have on peopleʼs emotions, the effect that can have on what they believe, and their openness to becoming emotionally involved. In the world of digital marketing it is pathos -- a.k.a passion, or emotional involvement -- that everyone is trying to achieve. The reason is that while we like to think we are most likely to choose a product or a service on the basis of a rational argument, the only way we are going to overcome our indifference and buy or sign up to something is if we want to.

Logos is about the argument itself. It comprises the facts, or in political terms “the issues” that your opponent refuses to discuss, choosing instead to focus on “character” and “values” Shown here is a simple verbal political argument (although notice that little bit of pathos there in the statistic about 8 million children) However in digital marketing terms we could also describe a tool such as VWʼs Product selection page as a form of visual or functional logos.

As I have explained, however, logos is ineffective on its own, as much of the audience will not be motivated to change their position by the argument alone. It does however play an important role in helping people to feel more comfortable by allowing them to justify a decision they have already made on emotional grounds. This is illustrated by the common practice of people poring over the brochure for a car after they have already put in their order.

Common Topics

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Logos itself can be broken down into component parts.

Aristotle proposed 28 valid topics, which at first sight seem a little arcane, but for several of them it is easy to think of examples from marketing.

Examples include

7. From definition: “Lincoln - What a luxury car should be”

8. From varied meanings of a word in different contexts: “Things Go Better With Coke””

11. From authority: citing experts or authorities to bring credibility to your argument

Rhetorical figures are the kind of devices that can be used to enhance and sustain an audienceʼs interest in a message and Visual grammar, an attempt to distinguish the rhetorical functions of imagery

Invalid Topics

So why does rhetoric have such a poor reputation?

Aristotle also proposed 9 invalid topics, or fallacies. Itʼs the common use of invalid topics under the guise of plausible argument that we brought rhetoric into such opprobrium and, arguably, Trump into the White House.