What’s the Telos of Your Communication?

"I'm number one!," said Plato, to Aristotle. "Yeah, well, I'm quoted in this post."

“I’m number one!,” said Plato, to Aristotle. “Yeah, well, I’m quoted in this post.”

If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “nature always moves toward an end,” the definition of the Greek word telos will be easy to understand: it is the end, purpose or – even better – the completion toward which everything in the world moves. The quote above is Aristotle paraphrased, and so is this, “art imitates life.” That just means that the “stuff” we make is based on how nature makes “stuff,” or we do all our “making” to finish the job nature started.

See, for Aristotle, everything in the world comes to be either from nature or from art (i.e., human craft). His work as a naturalist was, basically, to figure everything out and explain it – all the “stuff” in the world (including us!).

Now is the appropriate time to wonder, “What does a dead Greek bloke have to do with me getting my messages out to the public and stakeholders?” If you’re familiar with strategic or tactical planning, you’ll recognize the influence that has come from Aristotle’s four causes – or, four explanations – for identifying and understanding everything in the world. You don’t have to be a strategic or tactical planner, or a philosophy student, to follow along. Why bother knowing this? You can reverse-engineer these causes to help you be more effective at the gamut of communications tasks.

Here’s what Aristotle said we should look for to be able to understand everything from oak trees and awesome marble statues in Athens, to laptops and kitty cats – identify the thing’s telos, and work your way through the other explanations. Those explanations are:

  1. Material cause – answers the question, “Out of what?”
  2. Formal cause – answers the, “As what?” question.
  3. Efficient cause – answers the question, “From what?”
  4. Final cause – answers the, “For what?” question. The telos.

If you’re already seeing why starting with the final cause is important, it’ll be easy to see how reverse engineering Aristotle’s process can be effective, too. Say, for example, you’re preparing for a media briefing. Your material will be the facts, talking points, moderator and subject matter experts you’ve assembled. The “For what?” of this material will be your briefing itself. The efficient cause – the thing making this happen – is you, and anyone that is helping you put the event together.

The final cause? That’s for you to decide – and think about what your ultimate final cause is. There can be intermediate final causes – answering questions, releasing facts and so on. When we reverse engineer Aristotle’s explanations to understand the world, we find ourselves in an “ends vs. means” discussion. In communication, you’re trying to inform or persuade. In crisis communication, more often than not, you’re just trying to persuade. The telos of your communication can be anything from “I want you to evacuate before this hurricane hits” to “I want you to trust that the water is safe to drink after this hazmat incident in the river.”

If you clearly define the telos of your communication first, before anything else, the material, formal and efficient causes will flow more naturally, and you’ll be better prepared to step up to the lectern or in front of the camera, and persuade people to action.

Image: cropped reproduction of “The School of Athens.” Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. Original image and license information at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sanzio_01_Plato_Aristotle.jpg

2 thoughts on “What’s the Telos of Your Communication?

  1. Having a background in philosophy and communications this was a fun article to read. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that having a foundation in philosophy can be applied to everything we encounter.


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