The art of persuasion in proposal writing

What is a proposal other than a tool to persuade someone of your point of view?

“Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word, there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself.”

Aristotle wrote those words in the 4th century BC, the Art of Rhetoric is still considered the most important work on the art of persuasion. But Aristotle’s modes of persuasion aren’t for just speaking. They should be at the heart of your proposal, helping you build credibility, invoke emotion and inspire action.

Aristotle considered ethos the most important mode of persuasion. Ethos is your credibility and your authority. You can’t expect an evaluator to fund your proposal if you aren’t credible. In fact, Ethos can nearly carry a proposal on its own. For example, if Stephen Hawking writes a proposal about fundamental physics research, you’ll already be inclined to say yes just because of the credibility that he has. Everyone else will have to build ethos through their writing.

Pathos – appeal to the reader’s emotions
Pathos means “pathetic appeal”, but not in the way that we understand pathetic today. Instead, it is “suffering, feeling, emotion, calamity”. Words like empathy and sympathy are derived from pathos. You use pathos to appeal to your evaluator’s emotions, to invoke trust and inspire them with the impact of your idea. No one wants to fund ideas unless they can see how those ideas will change people’s lives.

Logos – appeal to logic
Logos is your logical argument backed by reason or evidence to persuade the evaluator. If your proposal is confusing and doesn’t make sense, then you’ve demonstrated poor logos. Your claims have to make sense, you can’t say that you will disrupt the market and not show any evidence on how you achieve that disruption.

Logos is particularly important because your evaluator will probably have experience developing innovation and turning ideas into sellable products. It is important to demonstrate evidence using facts, figures, and testimony to support your proposal. It also helps to build your ethos.

But ethos and logos are nothing without pathos. We all have examples of when we were armed with facts and figures but failed to persuade someone of our idea or point of view. Logos can only be used once the emotional argument has been made. You are going to need emotion if you really want to persuade someone with your writing.

If you want to know more, read Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction By Richard Toye.

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