Persuade the Employer by Speaking their Language


Writing or speaking to your audience is the key to crafting persuasive application materials and sharing your story effectively in interviews and networking interactions.

In this second installment of Humanities Skills for the Job Search, we’re talking about how to use your understanding of audience to begin crafting a persuasive pitch.

Appealing to Your Audience: Conveying Commonality

So, what does rhetoric say about the ways of appealing to an audience?

Classical Rhetoric: How Do We Persuade Someone?

If the words ethos, pathos, and logos ring a bell, you probably know more about classical rhetoric than you think. As defined by Aristotle way back in the 4th century BCE, these terms refer to modes of persuasion:

  • Ethos: appeals based on credibility (of your authority as the writer, or leveraging other authoritative sources to bolster your claim)
  • Pathos: appeals based on the audience’s emotions or psychology
  • Logos: appeals based on logical reasoning

Until the mid-twentieth century, these were the main ways rhetoricians (that’s a crossword puzzle word for you!) conceptualized persuasion.

Persuasion as Identification — A new rhetoric

Enter Kenneth Burke. Burke was an American literary critic and writer whose seminal 1950 book A Rhetoric of Motives is widely considered a turning point in the discipline.

What Burke essentially did was say, hey, rhetoric itself is persuasion, or “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other human agents” (41).

How does this occur?

Well, Burke coined a new term, identification, to explain: “Here is perhaps the simplest case of persuasion,” Burke wrote in A Rhetoric of Motives.

“You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his (55).

That’s it, Burke’s then-revolutionary idea: that to convince someone of something, one of your most compelling strategies is not to violently oppose someone, but rather to convey a commonality, a sense that I am in some way like you, or I share common interests or goals with you.

It may seem so intuitive now, but this idea kickstarted what is now known as the “new rhetoric,” of which Burke is considered the father.

Persuading the Employer: Your Goals = Their Goals

Okay, so what does this have to do with my pitch? Glad you asked.

When we think about pitching yourself for a professional opportunity, we usually think of the persuasive goal as being two-fold. To convince the employer that

  1. You will be motivated to do this job, for them.
  2. You can do the work well.

Both of these, in and of themselves, imply a commonality between you and the employer: you will want to, and are able to, help them work toward their organizational goals.

The reality of the matter, though, is that we should add a third persuasive goal:

  1. That the individuals in charge of hiring see you as being a good addition to the team, that you bring new strengths, perspectives, or identities that complement those of existing team members, and that you’re someone they could envision working with day in, day out.

This suggests that your appeal to the employer—whether in your application materials, a networking interaction, or interview—will be most successful when you convey how your experience, perspective, values, goals, interests, strengths, and work preferences align with those sought by the organization and the team.

Doing so, of course, requires understanding the employer.

Making Your Case: Understanding the Employer

You had to know this was coming: this is where we implore you to do your research.

Your research can take many forms: analyzing the job description, researching the employer, or building relationships with professionals in the industry and at the organization.

Use your research to identify the main things the employer is seeking, and where that intersects with you and your experience. You can do this through independent self-reflection, or by brainstorming with a career counselor. (We’re happy to walk through this process with you.)

Once you’ve done this, there are lots of ways to apply your understanding of employer needs when you tell your story in application materials, networking pitches, and interviews. We’ll tackle some of these strategies in part two of this post.

Our Humanities Skills for the Job Search series

If you missed our first installment of Humanities for the Job Search, read on for tips on how to use close reading to analyze a job description.

You might also like our posts on creative writing activities for career exploration, how to apply humanities mindsets to your career development, and social science skills for the job search.