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The Art of Persuasion Part 1

The Art of Persuasion

On the 9th of January, 2007 Joshua Bell, one of the greatest violinists in the world, played to a packed audience at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall of 1,000 people where most seats went for more than $100. He was used to full, sell-out shows. He was at the peak of his abilities and fame.

Three days later, Joshua Bell played to an audience of
nobody. He was ignored. Less than a handful of people paused for a moment, and one child stopped for a while, looking, as if he understood that something special was happening.

Joshua Bell was playing violin in a subway station.

What changed? The same music, on the same violin, played with the same passion and by the same man. Why did people listen and then not listen? What was missing?

Ted-Ed Original: ‘What Aristotle and Joshua Bell can teach us about persuasion’

If you have a great idea, how do you get people to listen to you? Why do some people’s words make an impact while others’ do not? How do we become ‘masters’ of words?

Students in Years 9 and 10 have been contemplating some of these questions over the past few weeks. Our students’ journey starts with ‘wordsmithery’ - an exploration of the skill of using words in various ways to achieve specific effects. If the aim of writing or speaking is to convey a meaning to someone – to communicate an idea – how can we help our reader or audience understand what we want him or her to understand? If we cannot, we risk our great idea remaining stuck with us.


When it comes to using language to grab a reader’s attention, to appeal to an audience or to convince an audience, our students’ study begins to take them to Aristotle. 2,300 years ago, Aristotle wrote the most important work on persuasion: Rhetoric.

Rhetoric teaches that we must know not only what to say, but how to say it effectively in words, in a well-connected and well-organised order. It teaches us how to place words together to form sentences, sentences to form paragraphs, and paragraphs to make a complete composition containing unity, coherence, the desired emphasis, force and beauty.

Initially, some of our students are reluctant to concede that writing or speech can be powerful, let alone beautiful. They muse over whether they have ever been gripped by books or blown over by spoken words. Some concede that they may have occasionally, whilst others remain dismissive. All are still unwilling to believe that their own writing or speech could minimally resemble the feat prescribed by rhetoric.

Luckily, Aristotle offers some much-needed assistance. There are three equally necessary ingredients, he says, to create a piece of writing with the power and to resonate with a reader or audience. These are: logos, ethos, and pathos.

Logos is that the idea makes sense from the audience’s point of view.

Ethos is the credibility – the trust – that you build for yourself as a writer or a speaker.

Pathos is the emotional connection; the emotive triggers you create with your words.


Our first task is to ensure that the way we present the idea makes sense from the perspective of the person we are speaking to. Then, we build trust in him such that he sees us as people of sense and care, worth listening to. Finally, we trigger the appropriate emotional sensibility or environment for him to receive our words.

Armed with this triangle and with exposure to writing and speech which uses it effectively, our students begin to spot and note some patterns and techniques. This is an empowering life skill in itself. In today’s world, we are bombarded with persuasively designed language engulfing us through various media to captivate, attract, induce, sell or manipulate. Are our students equipped to notice, engage with or resist such a blitz of words? Where language is, conversely, used powerfully for art and beauty, can we train them to recognise and appreciate the skill mastery involved?

Our students begin looking at various techniques for each ingredient of the Aristotelian triangle until they are in a position to begin practising their skills of persuasion creatively. Working in groups, their task is to come up with a good cause – a charitable or socially beneficial project – and design written material along with an oral presentation for their proposal. They are to present it as if to a benefactor, convincing him or her to support and fund the project.

How do our student groups get on? Their success depends on their ability to work together to gauge precisely what may strike a chord with their audience and sustain their interest. Will they be able to communicate and present their ideas persuasively?

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