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The Rules of Persuasion

"I was hooked from the first page — a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how persuasion really works."

—Toby Gordon, Sc. D., Johns Hopkins Carey Business School


From the Introduction:

In a memorable scene from Kevin McDonald’s 2006 film, The Last King of Scotland, the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin explodes in anger at his personal physician Nicholas Garrigan for allowing him to expel all of the Asian nationals from the country. A hysterical Amin chastises Garrigan for not telling him to leave the Asians in peace. The terrified Garrigan defends himself by reminding Amin about the emphatic warning Garrigan had given that the expulsion would bring dire consequences and that the international press would condemn Amin mercilessly. Yes, says Amin, you told me all of these things, “but you did not persuade me, Nicholas. You did not persuade me.”


I begin this book with the scene above because it neatly encapsulates the problem this book examines: why is it that human communication, which is almost exclusively aimed at persuasion, so often fails to persuade? How is it that very senior leaders, accomplished and successful in so many ways, struggle when asked to convince their boards or employees to follow them or embrace their ideas?  On an everyday level, why is it that so many people fail to persuade colleagues, children, and friends when debating important issues or seeking support for a cause?


Together, we will look at persuasion through what are at the same time very old and very new perspectives. The basic rules I will explain were first articulated by the philosopher Aristotle over two-thousand years ago in a work called, the Rhetoric. This book by one of the foremost thinkers the Western world has ever known is a guide to how language and persuasion work. Contained within it is a simple claim with profound implications.


Persuasion, Aristotle believed, works through three specific modes: character, argument, and emotion. For centuries, Aristotle’s words inspired analysis, inquiry, and debate and were a key part of all formal education across the Western world. However, in the second half of the 20th Century, the study of rhetoric disappeared from primary and secondary education and became an esoteric topic for specialists in Classics, philosophy, and logic. There are pedagogical and philosophical reasons for this disappearance, and I will discuss them in my chapter on the dark side of persuasion. However, Aristotle's fundamental insights about the three essential elements of persuasion are as true today as they were over 2,000 years ago.


This book is your guide to Aristotle's discoveries updated for our time. It is not meant solely for an academic audience. Unlike other many books on the subject, I will not talk about esoteric terms of rhetoric that are of little interest even to specialists, much less to a general reader. I do not think you need to know what asyndeton and metonymy are to understand persuasion, or that there were five elements to classical oratory. Instead, we’ll look at how persuasion works all around us, through the various means of communication that make up our past and present worlds.


This book is meant for anyone who wants to understand how persuasion functions, how to put those techniques to work, and how to critique their use, both effectively and ineffectively, in virtually any form of human communication, from speeches to presentations, to film, literature, social media, music, advertising, and visual arts. From Homer to Shakespeare, from Magritte to Rothko, from Bach to Rakim, we will uncover insights and concepts, some of them secret and powerful, that will fundamentally alter how you think about persuasion. In the end, my goal is to help you understand how these insights can make you a thoughtful and persuasive communicator in almost any setting in which you may find yourself.

Advance Praise for The Rules of Persuasion

“From Aristotle to Instagram, Carlos Alvarenga weaves together examples from ancient Greek and Roman texts to modern-day art, film, hip-hop, and social media to provide a useful overview of the tools and levers of persuasion in a variety of contexts. Informative and thought-provoking, this book illuminates the exact ways in which words and ideas, persuasively communicated, have shaped people’s actions and beliefs from antiquity to the present.”

Jason Steinhauer,

Bestselling Author,

History, Disrupted: How Social Media and the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past

“Many of us in the arts struggle to communicate to different audiences in ways that inspire. The insights of Carlos Alvarenga draw on decades of experience helping leaders craft and convey their message. By laying out a clear approach with examples ranging from real-life coaching experiences to ad campaigns to artworks, he transforms the ‘art’ of persuasion into a practical framework that enables readers to sharpen their abilities to influence and motivate others.”

Amy S. Landau, Ph.D., Director of Education and Interpretation at Fowler Museum, UCLA

“This brilliant book packs more erudition and insight per square inch than any major university. We learn from a dazzling array of sources including Homer, Aristotle, Sterne, Hemingway, and YoYo Ma. At the same time, there are practical lessons on how to influ- ence audiences, either through force of character, strength of argument, or the power of emotion—with an ample supply of case studies that illustrate the concepts in action.”

Greg Stone, Author of the mystery Dangerous Inspiration and Branding with Powerful Stories: The Villains, Victims, and Heroes Model

“The Rules of Persuasion deserves to become a cornerstone of corporate communications programs. Its mesmerizing review of the history, science, and best practices of persuasion and its powerful case examples 

make it extremely useful both to business executives as well as to students learning negotiations, marketing, and customer service skills.”

Sandor Boyson, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland

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