The Secret Sauce to Persuasive Marketing Copy is 2,300 Years Old

Sindhu Shivaprasad
5 min readOct 30, 2023
Photo by Yao Hu on Unsplash

Alright, we’re going to summon a spirit. You won’t need candles or a sketchy-looking Ouija board. But you will need a first draft of some marketing copy and a thesaurus. Maybe some patience for good measure. Ready? Okay, look straight at your first draft and repeat after me:

“The Sophists are here!”

Congratulations — you’ve just summoned Aristotle, although he’s confused that there aren’t any Sophists around. He was excited to call them out for manipulating 5th-century Greeks with overly emotional language that glossed over facts. Nevertheless, he’s here, he’s caught sight of your draft, and he’s willing to help you defend yourself against manipulative writing. Dang Sophists.

He can’t grant you three wishes, but he can tell you the secret to writing authentic copy that inspires readers to do what you want them to without trickery and deceit.

It’s called the Rules of Persuasion, and it’s 2,300 years old.

“Wait,” you say, holding up your hand. “Why do I need some 2,300-year-old rulebook to work on a marketing webpage/ case study/ brochure? Am I writing for toga-wearing ghosts now?” You’re not. But you probably have one aim above all: to persuade.

Marketing is all about persuasion.

Persuading pet parents to buy an absurdly shaped chew toy. Persuading 600-people organisations that they need your SaaS tool to function. Persuading readers that your 1000-word article is of immense value to them (ahem). You want your audience to go from “eh” to “take my money”, pronto. And the spirit of Aristotle can help you do that, through the Rules of Persuasion.

Still reading? Great. Whispers to Aristotle: “I think it’s working!”

Aristotle initially intended the Rules of Persuasion — Ethos, Logos and Pathos — as advice for speakers. He wrote in Rhetoric that a good speaker must work to perfect their presentation, logic, and influence over their audience. But what is writing today if not speech in visual form? The Rules of Persuasion are simple enough to apply in everyday writing, and profound enough to redefine the way we look at copywriting. Let’s dive in.

Ethos

In Greek, ethos means character, and Aristotle used it to define personality and authority. Using the ethos in your writing would mean implying, “you should trust me, because I’m honest, transparent and well-informed.”

Remember the sentence from a few paragraphs ago that said I’ve been practicing the Rules of Persuasion for 5 years now? That’s me exercising ethos: validating my credibility and experience so you know your trust isn’t misplaced. You can also display ethos in marketing copy by:

  • Writing with clarity, using plain language and avoiding jargon
  • Steering well clear of unnecessarily inflammatory phrases
  • Providing enough context for readers to make their own decisions
  • Tailoring vernacular and grammar to suit the audience
  • Demonstrating expertise and experience assertively

Case studies, “why choose us”, expert deep-dives, and service pages are often dedicated to communicating your ethos. But remember, while doing all this, you’ll want to keep your reader’s best interest in mind. As the meme goes, “this ain’t about you.”

Logos

We’ll leave the wordmark-variety logo to the branding team. We’re more interested in Aristotle’s Logos, which meant “reason” or, more simply, logic. If you want to make a point, you want to do it rationally and logically. Like a lawyer, you want to convince the reader of your argument with evidence. That phrase “to make someone see reason”? This is where you do it. As for the how:

  • Verify facts and provide sources so readers can check for themselves
  • Structure your argument logically, so one idea segues neatly to the next
  • When you make a claim, immediately back it up with evidence
  • Avoid hyperbole and wild generalisations like “we all know that” and “most people say…”
  • Keep your sentences and logic simple, but provide a way to get into the weeds if the reader wants to
  • Check for consistency in writing, facts, claims, and arguments
  • Avoid wielding statistics as a weapon, especially if it makes sentences look clunky.
An infographic showing two screenshots of marketing website copy, one of with is marked with an ‘X’ for being incorrect and the other with a tick mark for being correct.

As with Ethos, you want to keep in mind the person you’re writing for. Will this logic convince them? Have you given them enough to think about? Have you helped them with ways to verify what you’re saying about anything?

Pathos

Okay, so maybe we’ll borrow a few notes from the Sophists on stirring emotions, i.e. Pathos, and use them with a solid foundation of Logos and Ethos. After all, stating cold hard facts may not always be inviting. They need to be presented in a way that piques the reader’s interest and curiosity, like a moth being drawn to light.

We’re not looking to make readers angry or euphoric or upset, because often our emotions are finicky and can’t be relied on. We’re using the Latin meaning of emotion, which is “to move.” The aim is to win the audience’s heart and motivate them to want what you’re offering using logic and presentation.

This is what we see in really great advertisements, the ones that make you thirsty for a Coke specifically, or convince you that this new product will change your life.

A Vintage Magazine Advertisement for Coca Cola, with the text “ It’s the real thing. Sharing good times with friends, the good times you always find around refreshing Coca-Cola. The taste you never get tired of, Coke after Coke after Coke.”
Source

You can do this in writing by:

  • Using anecdotes to make the narrative more relatable
  • Interacting with the audience through open-ended questions that get them to articulate their problem rather than you predicting it
  • Building suspense and keeping your readers’ attention at all times
  • Concluding with a statement or some information that really seals the deal
  • Making someone feel good (by telling them, say, that you’re solving a problem they have) rather than negative or upset (that they’re stuck because they have a problem)

I’d add a footnote to the Rules and say: you want to persuade, and you also want people to remember. Here’s where emotions come into play. If you write cheeky, funny, moving marketing copy, chances are people would remember your ad or brochure or website more, and would come find you. We can take a leaf out of The Dictionary Hostel’s marketing playbook for this:

Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash

Cheeky, huh?

Modern problems, m̶o̶d̶e̶r̶n̶ ancient solutions

Now that you’ve downloaded all the juicy info from the spirit of Aristotle, he can go happily knowing one more orator is walking the path of authentic persuasion. He didn’t know about the Internet in his time (though I wouldn’t have put it past him to imagine it). But if ancient Greeks valued the art of persuasion, Aristotle understood it. He shaped it. He nurtured it.

Sure, our environment has changed. Graceful columns have been replaced by glass skyscrapers, and we now write on giant screens rather than on papyrus. But the art of persuasion is still relevant. For men may come and men may go, but persuasion lives on forever.

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Sindhu Shivaprasad

Chief of Staff, documenter, writer and marketing strategist. Mind gardening at https://sindhu.live 🌱