Rhetoric is the art and technique of persuasion, through oral, written, or visual media. The contemporary World Wide Web is a unique combination of all three media, but audience reaction to your high-tech web site is still governed by aspects of rhetoric that the Greek philosopher Aristotle identified almost 2,400 years ago. In The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle outlined three major elements of rhetorical persuasion that can easily be understood in relation to web design.
Ethos establishes the credibility of an information source. Does the speaker have the credentials and seriousness of purpose to be believed? Many otherwise distinguished and credible institutions still present a painfully amateurish web presence—government and higher education sites being especially notorious offenders here—in spite of the damage poor presentation does to the credibility of the web site and the host institution.
Even small lapses can erode the ethos of a site: broken links, missing graphics, outdated content, and misspelled words all damage the overall trustworthiness of a site. Ironically, with attention to editorial detail, ethos can also be easily spoofed on the web. Many email scams depend on carefully crafted forgeries of real sites like eBay, PayPal, and personal banking sites. Beware of cheap thieves in expensive suits.
Pathos is the art of developing a positive emotional response in the viewer. Most sites don’t develop high emotional responses in users, but a well-designed home page with attractive graphics and interesting articles and links makes users more likely to explore your site. A strong appeal to pathos is central to many marketing web sites, particularly where the user’s identification with an upscale brand image is crucial.
Logos uses reason, logic, statistics, convincing examples, and depth of information to persuade an audience. A newspaper front page or home page isn’t just about packing the maximum amount of news into a given space. Over weeks, months, and years, a news source builds credibility with an audience through the sheer depth and breadth of information, carefully presented news photography, and information graphics, now augmented on the web with audiovisual media.
Go to your home page and do your best to see the site anew, the way a stranger might, who knows you only through your web presence. Does the rhetoric of your site support or erode the user’s sense of the credibility, trustworthiness, and humanity of your enterprise?