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Know Your Greek: Ethos, Pathos And Logos

Before campaign advisors, spin doctors, salespeople or ad men, there was Aristotle. His classic text The Rhetoric laid out a durable blueprint for creating persuasive arguments and the elements he described are as useful today as they were in 4th century BC Greece.

Everyone sometimes get lost in the weeds of data, logic models, detailed methods and other granular stuff. Preparing persuasive proposals can benefit from reviewing these classical principles.

The first of these is ethos. This means the credibility, character, stature and authority of the person (or organization) making the request. You might have the best idea in the world for solving a problem, and maybe you are deeply, passionately involved with the solution, but unless you establish your credentials for speaking out, potential audiences (e.g. funders) might not listen.

According to Thomas Boyd, chief editorial consultant for The Grantsmanship Center in Los Angeles, Calif., “Credibility on one issue does not necessarily transfer to another. A good first question is what qualifies us to be presenting this plan and this request.”

The second pillar of the ancient Greek formula is pathos. An audience (or a foundation’s reviewers) bring their emotions with them when they listen to your presentation. Unless an appeal (e.g. a proposal) touches something within the listener, it won’t matter that you have the best idea in the world. As a reader, I need to be engaged with the idea, care about it, care about the people it impacts. This is why stories are often effective elements in proposals—they help the reader not just “know” what the project is about, but “feel” what it’s about as well.

The third essential leg of the persuasion stool is logos. This is the heart of your argument, the part where you explain how you will address a problem and make progress to something better — identifying outcomes that make a difference. Your organization might be highly credible on the subject, and you might stir the passions of the readers, but if you have no logical plan to propose, a plan anchored by facts and figures showing that you can deliver measurable results, you will frequently fail to persuade. 

Contemporary proposals need details that clarify the problem, show why everyone should care about it and what you plan to do about it. There are many ways to address each of these elements. Nonprofits demonstrate their ethos by what they have done, the credentials of their people, their record of prudent management and stewardship of money. Even proposals dealing with tech or science can, at some point, employ pathos to make a connection to humans and our wishes and wants. And no proposal worth its salt can skip logos, a clear and compelling presentation of the core idea.

It’s a good practice to review these three key principles as you organize your information and arguments next time you prepare to submit the winning proposal. © Copyright 2021 The Grantsmanship Center

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