A few weeks ago I wrote an essay about polymaths. I described the challenges and benefits of living a polymath lifestyle, along with my own experiences embracing it. To my surprise, the essay really took off – I was incredibly humbled by the response. I was also curious to understand what made the essay resonate so strongly.
Later that week, I was catching up with my good friend Patrick when the topic of my essay came up. I shared some of the responses I had been seeing with him. Immediately, Patrick recognized a pattern: almost all of the resonance connected with one of the three appeals of persuasion described by Aristotle (Ethos, Pathos and Logos). I had heard of them before, but never considered applying them to my writing. I decided to explore them further in hopes I could leverage them more intentionally in the future.
In this essay I’ll be sharing the learnings from that exploration. I’ll review specific examples of feedback and how they connect to each of Aristotle’s appeals. I’ll then propose a set of writing appeals that you can use to improve the resonance of your own writing.
Ready? Set? Let’s get started!
Most of the feedback could be categorized into one of these “three P’s”: personality, poetry and proof.
My essay was about the polymath approach to life, but it was also a story of my own attempts to embrace that life. Hearing my personal story made the essay feel more familiar to readers:
Early this year I read the book Range and realized that maybe being so wide-ranging wasn’t a bad thing after all. It could even be an advantage. It was eye-opening. But the stories felt very distant, you know? They were about people I would never meet. When I finally read your content, I felt relieved because you were very close - just a DM away.
I went on to describe the obstacles I faced exploring different pursuits. For example, I talked about how I struggled to fit into social groups with other ‘specialists’ — my experience with multiple pursuits made it more difficult to relate to my peers. This anecdote resonated with a lot of readers, many of whom noted that they never even realized the impact of their pursuits on their social lives.
For readers, the personalization effect changed the essay from just being my words into a description of their lives.
Writing about my own experiences proved to be quite challenging. I ran into a lot of personal resistance against talking so much about myself. My inner critic became especially prevalent when I was sharing how a polymath approach had helped me succeed by building mental models and differentiating myself.
At one point, I was tempted to take out the personal stories entirely. But I reminded myself of my intention to be authentic with my writing, and left them in. I’m really glad I did, as the personal components of the essay were by far the most resonant.
I like to think of essays as art. I give myself a bit of artistic license with each essay. I’m no poet, but I’ve found that a little bit of effort in this department can go a long way.
In the conclusion of my polymath essay, I used phrases like “Fluidity is the essence of humanity” and “Follow the rivers that flow within you”. I also included a beautiful quote from R. Buckminster Fuller:
Even a few of these phrases seemed to really resonate with readers. I believe it gave them a language to express not just what they learned, but how it made them feel.
I provided historical background on the industrial revolution, and how it led to the proliferation of division of labor and specialization in society. In particular, many had not recognized how closely fundamental programs like healthcare were tied to employment.
This foundation provided readers with an understanding of the structures and incentives that discourage polymath lifestyles in modern society. Many had not made this connection before, or hadn’t considered the historical factors that led to the current situation. By recognizing these systemic factors, readers gained context for the problem grounded in the reality of their daily lives.
With these three categories in mind (personal, poetic and proof), we’re now ready to embrace the wisdom of Aristotle. In his treatise on the art of persuasion, Rhetoric, Aristotle describes a set of rhetorical appeals that a speaker can use to effectively convey their message to an audience. He describes them as follows:
Ethos is an appeal to the authority or credibility of the presenter. It is how well the presenter convinces the audience that the presenter is qualified to speak on the subject.
Pathos is an appeal to the audience’s emotions. The terms sympathy, pathetic, and empathy are derived from it. It can be in the form of metaphor, simile, a passionate delivery, or even a simple claim that a matter is unjust.
Logos is logical appeal or the simulation of it, and the term logic is derived from it. It is normally used to describe facts and figures that support the speaker’s claims or thesis.
We can correlate each of these appeals to one of the categories I described earlier:
Ethos appeals to the credibility of the presenter established through personal stories.
Pathos appeals to audience emotions, which can be touched with poetic language.
Logos appeals to a logical foundation supported by proof using facts and figures.
I believe the most impactful way to use this framework is to observe your own writing and recognize which appeal you’re trying to leverage. Once you identify it, you’ll be able to double down and ensure every word supports its appeal more effectively.
Each appeal is valuable on its own, but I believe they are most powerful when combined together. If you’re credible but boring, no one listens to you. If you’re inspiring but illogical, no one believes you.
Serve a balanced diet of all three appeals. You’ll convince your audience and inspire them along the way.
Thanks to all the readers who shared their feedback on the polymath essay, and special thanks to Patrick for helping me connect them to Aristotle’s ideas. Also, thank you to Juan David, Adam, Avthar and Rishi for their feedback on a draft of this essay.