Understanding Ethos, Pathos, and Logos: The Foundations of Persuasive Speaking

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Here at The Speaker Lab, we talk a lot about how to launch a speaking business. Usually, we focus on the “business” part. Fundamentals like establishing your pipeline and setting your speaker fee are key to really succeeding as a speaker. But mastering the business side will only take you so far if your talk isn’t persuasive! How do you make sure your message sticks with your audience? That’s what we’re diving into today. Learning how to speak persuasively will help you deliver a compelling talk that listeners remember. And what do we find at the heart of persuasive speaking? Three age old terms coined by an ancient Greek: ethos, pathos, and logos. 

Today we’re breaking down how ethos, pathos, and logos play a role in persuasive speaking in any field, on any topic. If you’re busy crafting your signature talk, it’s easy to get caught up in the weeds and forget to look at the big picture. That’s why we’re getting back to the basics–all the way back to the fourth century B.C.

Aristotle and Persuasive Rhetoric  

Aristotle’s Rhetoric is one of the foundational philosophical works at the basis of what we consider persuasive speaking. In the Rhetoric, he explains that ethos, pathos, and logos are three ways that any speech–no matter what kind of speech–can have a persuasive effect. So what exactly do these words mean? 

Ethos

Ethos refers to the character of the speaker. Good, bad, old, young, famous, obscure…any attribute that belongs to the speaker as a person. Would you more willingly listen to someone whose character is honest and trustworthy or a well-known con man? The ancient Greeks felt the same way. Listeners are more likely to take advice from a speaker whose character they trust.

Keep in mind that character qualities in a speaker can be positive or negative depending on context. A speaker’s age on either end of the spectrum can give a negative impression of either inexperience or outdatedness. But youthfulness characterized by drive and ambition (or old age characterized by wisdom and self-reflection) comes across extremely favorably, especially to other young people! 

Pathos

If ethos centers on the speaker, pathos centers on the audience. A speaker leveraging ethos appeals to their own character, one using pathos appeals to emotion. To master pathos, you must influence your audience’s emotional state throughout your talk in a way that contributes to your message. While your credibility goes a long way toward winning their trust, if you fail to evoke the right emotions you will quickly lose their interest. You can be the most rational, data-driven speaker and ruin the impact of your talk by “giving someone the ick,” as the kids say these days! By using vivid words and dynamic nonverbal cues, you can profoundly impact your audience’s feelings as they listen to your talk.

Logos

Logos is where the rubber meets the road. This is your argument–how you prove your point with evidence and logic. No good speech can go without logos, though it can play a greater or lesser role depending on the context. Logos is especially important when the desired impact of your talk requires big changes from your audience in thought or action. Industries and events that rely heavily on research and data will also have high expectations for the logos in your talk. 

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Applying ethos, pathos, and logos to your own talk.

Now, we’ll go through a few practical applications of ethos, pathos, and logos to your professional speaking business. As you book speaking gigs, keep in mind how your marketing, content, and delivery can reflect these principles. We don’t intend to burden you with extra steps on the route to your next speaking gig. You don’t have to be a Greek philosopher to figure this out! Often, it just requires a little extra introspection as you compose and rehearse your talk.

Applying Ethos

Your ethos is the story your personal brand tells on and off the stage. Focus on establishing expertise, authority, and credibility before and during your talk.  Your audience will find you more persuasive if they already trust you. That’s why it’s important to write your speaker bio effectively with references to your experience in the field.

Relating to your audience in your talk will also establish a powerful ethos. If they know that you are someone like them, they are more likely to agree with your argument. Tell stories that connect your experiences to those of your audience.

Citing data and known authorities also contributes to a positive ethos. Without realizing it, your audience will associate the authorities to whom you appeal with you. Appeal to inspiring figures and well-reputed sources already trusted by your audience–they will trust you. Appealing to a screenshot of a random tweet you found on the internet or treating unverified theories as facts will simply discredit you.  

Offstage interactions play a huge role in ethos too. Try to take the time to chat with your audience after your talk, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Make friends with mission-driven speakers in your field who are easy to work with and genuinely care about their audience. Event planners and audience members alike will see you as someone accessible rather than aloof. As your reputation precedes you to each speaking engagement, back it up with the version of yourself who goes onstage.

Applying Pathos 

Swaying your audience’s emotions can rarely carry your entire argument. But it can be a huge help. Feeling a variety of emotions will keep your listeners from getting bored and put them in the right headspace to receive the information you want to communicate. 

Think of your talk as an emotional journey on which you embark with your audience. When you write your speech section by section, think about what you want the audience to be feeling at each point. Anticipation, as you introduce a meaningful story that leaves them breathless? Somber gravity, as you present facts and data about a troubling situation to which you present solutions? Enthusiasm, as you offer a transformative business solution that, while difficult, might get them out of a rut? Amusement, as you tell a funny joke to hook their attention? 

You are their guide on this journey, so it’s up to you to tell them (without literally telling them) how to feel. Delivery and nonverbal communication are key here. Voice intonations, hand gestures, pauses, and facial expressions can add emotional weight to even the driest of phrases. Often, the best way to elicit a new emotion is to tell a story! Stories can support your message, offer humorous diversion, or transition to a new topic…all while guiding emotions along the way. 

Applying Logos 

Neither ethos nor pathos directly concern the content of your talk, but logos does. Logos is the logical argument you make. You can ruin the effects of great pathos and ethos by failing to adequately support your argument. Sure, if your main purpose is to hype up your audience, you will likely rely more on pathos. But if you fail to connect everything you say to the point or (even worse) cite exaggerated facts or falsehoods, any listening ear will immediately discredit what you have to say. On the other hand, if you struggle to emotionally connect with your audience and have little experience in your field, great logos can still carry your point across and convince a skeptical audience. 

Think of Logos as simply speaking the truth with clarity. Back up your claims and cite any important data or statistics. Use compelling examples from client results you were responsible for with or well-established research. Avoid fallacies and over-fluffy modes of speaking that might throw your audience off. Many speakers try to cover up weak links in their argument with jargon or convoluted palaver. Don’t do that! If the data doesn’t back up your argument, it’s time to reevaluate your argument. 

Many speakers unintentionally obscure a good point by going off track. Your stories, jokes, and elaborations should all support one clear message. If you try to communicate too many messages at once, you’ll leave your audience adrift. Some tips? Replace long tangents with more relevant stories. For a talk on a broad topic, only delve into one or two examples in detail. If you’re speaking about something specific or granular, only give the most necessary background information. 

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Exemplary Persuasive Speeches

To wrap up, let’s look at some classic examples of how speakers use ethos, pathos, and logos to persuade their audiences. 

Ethos

Winston Churchill’s address to Congress in December 1941 utilizes ethos remarkably well to assure the assembly that he is speaking as a friend, not a foreigner. He reminds them that his own mother was American. He emphasizes his understanding of the American system of representation as a “child of the House of Commons.” Then, he further details that the King himself gave him permission to meet with the president! This way, he appeals to two very venerable heads of authority. As he moves on into a grim but stirring vision of the war, its past present and future, his credibility and trustworthiness are well-established. 

Pathos

Marc Antony’s speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a timeless example of powerful pathos. He immediately plays into the emotions of his audience by reminding them that his purpose is not to deliver a panegyric, but to bury a friend. “When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept” he reminds the Romans, giving them cause for self-reflection upon whether their empathy matched Caesar’s. As if his appeal “You all did love him once” was not stirring enough? He finishes off “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, / And I must pause till it come back to me.” Absolutely gutting! (Incidentally, Marc Antony also leverages some reverse psychology ethos by referring to Caesar’s murderer Brutus as “an honourable man” throughout.)

Logos

Frederick Douglass’ moving address “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” is a long speech worth reading. Indeed, it could be used as an example for all three pillars of persuasion! He appeals especially to logos by examining the documents of the American Founding and pointing out the hypocrisy with which they have long been interpreted regarding slavery. Then he declares: “Take the constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single proslavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.” He supports his point with facts (the text of the constitution was easy to fact-check) and clear, concise argumentation. The powerful impact of his words even today stands a testament to his mastery of rhetoric.  

Conclusion

You should always use a combination of ethos, pathos, and logos to speak persuasively. Your niche will likely determine which you spend the most time emphasizing. For example, a motivational speaker in an intensely personal field like relationships, grief, or mental health will likely need to leverage a lot of pathos. A speaker who tries to convince professionals of any kind to make big changes will need a great deal of logos to show why their proposed solution is better than “what we’ve always done.” And any speaker in any field offering a potentially controversial solution will need to establish an ethos that is authoritative and trustworthy.

Ethos, pathos, and logos have played an integral role in the art of persuasive speaking for over 2000 years. Even the greatest speakers continue working on this skill well into their careers. While we are no longer Greek orators in marble amphitheaters, Aristotle’s principles can help you craft your speech and finesse your delivery for maximum impact. 

 

 

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