Some 2,500 years after his death, Aristotle has a mixed record.
Aristotelian physics, for example, has not survived the test of time. The sudden appearance of two new stars in the 16th and 17th centuries — the supernovae of 1572 and 1604 — dramatically disproved Aristotle’s basic belief that the universe was divided into two separate regions: the earth, where things change, and the heavens, where things never change. Then, in 1638, Galileo used a simple but brilliant thought experiment to destroy Aristotle’s theory that heavy objects fall faster than light ones.
Yet there are other areas where, 23 centuries later, no one has been able to improve on Aristotle’s ideas. One of these areas is a subject of fundamental importance to modern-day leaders, business people and professionals: the art of communication and persuasion.
Aristotle identified three pisteis, or modes of persuasion. The first is ethos, which is persuasion through character. If we want people to listen to us, we need to be credible and believable. This is particularly important, says Aristotle, “in cases where there is not exact knowledge but room for doubt.” Next comes pathos, or persuasion through emotion. Aristotle understood that, as humans, we do not always make rational or sensible decisions. Finally, there is logos, which is persuasion through clear and logical arguments.
In today’s global marketplace, the most common language of communication is English. Since only about 5% of the world’s population speaks English as a mother tongue, this means that most international business communication and persuasion is being done in a foreign language. Developing and maintaining foreign-language skills is not easy, however, especially for someone with a full schedule of work and travel. There are many people in global business who simply do not have time to sit down and study English. There are others who are at a level — or age — where they feel that studying English is not worth the potential gain.
Is it possible for a busy and experienced business person to improve his or her English without investing lots of time in English classes? Yes, it can be, if we focus on the key areas that will really make a difference to that person’s communication skills. How do we find these key areas? By using the map that Aristotle has given us.
We normally think of “better English communication” as meaning “better English”—better pronunciation or grammar, for example, or better reading, writing, speaking or listening skills. Sometimes, though, it would be more helpful if we thought of “better English communication” as meaning “better English ethos, pathos and logos.”
The fact is that there are people who are bad at English, but brilliant at communicating in English. Their pronunciation and grammar may be terrible, but they inspire trust and confidence (strong ethos), they make other people feel good (strong pathos), and they know how to get the message across (strong logos). On the other hand, there are people who are very good at English, but who struggle to get things done in the real world. Their speaking and listening skills may be excellent, but, in English, their character is hidden (weak ethos), they find it difficult to connect with other people (weak pathos), and they have problems expressing what they really want to say (weak logos).
Thinking in terms of ethos, pathos and logos can lead us in unexpected directions. A few years ago, Oscar, a Spanish winemaker, was practising a presentation with me in English. It was a wonderful presentation: he talked about the history and tradition of winemaking in his region of Spain; he talked about geology, topography, soil and climate; he talked about his winemaking team, and their roots in the local community. Oscar wasn’t happy, though. “It’s my accent,” he told me. “It’s very Spanish. I need to improve it, make it less Spanish.”
“Oscar,” I replied, “you’ve just spent the whole of your presentation explaining that where you’re from is central to what you do. Your accent is part of where you’re from. Why would making it less Spanish be an improvement?” Provided that it didn’t affect his logos (in other words, provided that people could clearly and easily understand what he was saying), Oscar’s accent made him more persuasive. It boosted his ethos — it gave him authenticity and authority. It boosted his pathos — it made him more engaging and more likeable.
Everything depends on the context, of course: if Oscar worked in a different profession, his accent might reduce his ethos and pathos. It depends on the audience, too: when Oscar talks to non-native English-speakers, there is a greater risk that, if too strong, his accent might reduce his logos.
Moving from one end of the Eurasian continent to the other, how could an ethos-pathos-logos approach to English help business people in Japan? In general, the Japanese tend to emphasise ethos and pathos more than logos. This is partly a result of Japanese business culture, which places a high value on harmony and teamwork, and partly a result of the Japanese language, which is famously indirect.
But ethos and pathos can become “lost in translation.” In Japanese, for instance, silence indicates respect; in English, it may indicate boredom or hostility. And Japanese-style indirectness can be misinterpreted as weak logos: this is one of the cultural factors that led Hiroshi Mikitani to introduce an English-only policy at Rakuten. According to Mikitani, Japanese companies have a poor record overseas because they think and act like Japanese companies, not global businesses. “English is a tool to globalize you, to make you change,” he says.
Aristotle may not have much to offer 21st-century physicists. On the subject of communication and persuasion, however, he is still the most reliable guide we have.