06 Sep 16 / Blog

Use ethos, pathos and logos to persuade

If you’ve got an idea that you what to share, how do you persuade your audience to value your idea as much as you do?  You might want to influence in the boardroom where your idea is one of several ‘right’ answers to a problem.  Your idea might be about persuading your audience to change their behaviour.  You could be giving a talk to change how people view themselves in your organisation.  Or perhaps your goal is to change their perspective, to help them to shift their worldview on a particular issue.  If you have an idea that matters, then the three pillars of influence that you need to consider are ethos, pathos and logos.

Because people persuade themselves.  You can’t persuade them.  But you can give them the information they need to evaluate your idea.   Your audience has to feel something about what you’re saying, as well as knowing that it makes sense. You’ll need to connect with your audience emotionally as well as rationally. The behavioural scientists call feeling a form of thinking. If you can make your audience feel something, you’ll connect with them in the moment.  It’s why speeches from great orators throughout history are rich in metaphor – think Churchill and his ‘sunlit uplands’ and Pankhurst with ‘I am a soldier’ in her great ‘Freedom or Death’ speech. 

Both of these great orators built their followings by understanding their audience intimately.  They understood that they needed to shift the prevailing groupthink at the time in order to achieve their political aims.   Just as you too can shift the dial on your audience’s interest in your idea.  By knowing your audience – their interests, biases expectations – you can go about crafting a talk or presentation that persuades.  

Aristotle – ethos, pathos and logos

And here’s where we call on the tradition of the ancient Greek philosophers. Aristotle, the father of rhetorical theory, used the three modes of persuasion in his every speech –  ethos, pathos and logos. Over two thousand years later his advice still rings true. Ethos is your authority to speak on the subject, logos is the logical argument to support your idea and pathos is the emotion you use to win your audience over.

Let’s take a look at the ultimate persuasive talk-form, the TED Talk. Watch how these brilliant TED speakers use ethos, pathos and logos to educate and inform, motivate and influence, entertain and persuade.

Ethos – your own credibility

Ethos answers the question – “why you”? When you appear in front of your audience for the first time, they’ll want to know why you are the person giving them this talk. So you establish your authority to speak on the subject. This is where you build in short references to reinforce your experience of, and expertise in, the topic of your talk. In his TEDxStormont talk Sacred Values and Deadly Violence, Lord Alderdice references his political pedigree to build the case for a kinder, more tolerant society. And who would you listen to when it comes to arguing for change in the way we assess our kids at school? Listen to Roisin Rice reference her experience as a school leader in her talk Making our Exam Systems Fit for the Future – she’s able to speak with authority and passion on her idea. If your audience can relate to you, then you’ll be well on the way to winning them over.

Logos – your reasoning

How can you build out your argument? What data do you have to back up the claims you make? You want to be able to build such a compelling case that your audience can’t conceive of an alternative. And Aristotle’s teachings provide further advice. The most persuasive talks build up such a crystal clear case that your audience has arrived at the conclusion before you reveal it to them. After all, people persuade themselves, you can never do that for them. When you appeal to logic, you’re building your argument as the logical and reasonable option. You can use statistics, historical data, surveys and reasoned arguments lead your audience to the conclusion that you support.

Here’s statistician, the late Hans Rosling, in his TED Talk on The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen explaining why he makes the claim that top students in Sweden

“know, statistically, significantly less about the world than the chimpanzees.”

His evidence comes from a survey he conducted where he asked his students a basic question and he discovered that they

“got … 1.8 right answers out of a possible 5. Because the chimpanzee would score half right”

Writer Chimamanda Adichie uses her TED Talk on The Danger of a Single Story to explain

“how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.”

And she talks about her upbringing in Nigeria where she notes,

“I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books. I was also an early writer, and I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples. Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes.”

Pathos – emotional appeal

Pathos is the emotional appeal to your audience’s values and emotions to make a persuasive case. Here’s where your personal stories hold power in helping your audience to understand your passion and conviction for your idea. You can use also stories of other people’s lived experience, testimonials and case studies. Your story is a medium for your message. Not only does it help you to persuade in the moment, but it also makes your talk up to twenty times more memorable. In her TEDxStormont talk on Writing for the Future, Recording Conversations at the End of Life, Rachel Smith makes an eloquent case for valuing what’s important. Naomh McElhatton uses humour to soften the blunt edge of the disconnect we’re all feeling in her TEDxStormont talk Virtually Connected Socially Disconnected.

It’s the blend of all three elements that will give your talk it’s power. Weave ethos pathos and logos into your talk in a connected way for power and impact. No one mode of persuasion by itself is sufficient to move your audience to action. It’s the balance of all three that will help you to speak a masterpiece that changes hearts and minds.

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