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Ethos, Logos and Pathos: The Structure of a Great Speech

“A speech is like a love affair. Any fool can start it, but to end it requires considerable skill.”
— Lord Mancroft

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The structure of a great oral argument has been passed down through the ages, starting with Aristotle. Not only is it an incredibly valuable skill to have, it’s important to know how you’re being persuaded when you’re a part of the audience. So using Sam Leith’s Words Like Loaded Pistols as our guide, let’s discuss Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos.

But before we get into the specifics of the three modes, we need to decide on the structure of our argument itself. How? By doing the work required to have an opinion.

This phase is referred to as invention, but it’s not about making something up, it’s more about the information gathering or research phase of your work.

Invention is doing your homework: thinking up in advance exactly what arguments can be made both for and against a given proposition, selecting the best on your own side, and finding counterarguments to those on the other.

This research phase should not be limited to the subject matter, it should also include your audience. If there is one theme that resonates throughout Leith’s book, it’s that you must know your audience; their interests, prejudices and expectations. Without that grounding, you’re already setting yourself up for failure. (In other words, your moving speech on why we all need to take a social media holiday may not resonate at the Twitter shareholder meeting.)

Ethos is about establishing your authority to speak on the subject, logos is your logical argument for your point and pathos is your attempt to sway an audience emotionally. Leith has a great example for summarizing what the three look like.

Ethos: ‘Buy my old car because I’m Tom Magliozzi.’ Logos: ‘Buy my old car because yours is broken and mine is the only one on sale.’ Pathos: ‘Buy my old car or this cute little kitten, afflicted with a rare degenerative disease, will expire in agony, for my car is the last asset I have in the world, and I am selling it to pay for kitty’s medical treatment.’

Ethos

The first part of ethos is establishing your credentials to be speaking to the audience on the specific subject matter. It’s the verbal equivalent of all those degrees hanging up in your doctor’s office. And once you’ve established why you are an authority on the subject, you need to build rapport. Ethos, when everything is stripped away, is about trust.

Your audience needs to know (or to believe, which in rhetoric adds up to the same thing) that you are trustworthy, that you have a locus standi to talk on the subject, and that you speak in good faith. You need your audience to believe that you are, in the well-known words, ‘A pretty straight kind of guy.’

So if you’re a politician and you’re speaking about reforming the legal system, it’s great to be a lawyer or a judge, but it’s even better to be a lawyer or a judge who comes from the same community as your audience. Between two speakers with identical credentials, the more closely relatable one will win the audience.

You’ll even see a reverse ethos appeal at times, an attack on an opponent which questions their credentials and trustworthiness and serves to alienate them from the audience. To head that off, it’s best to establish your ethos early on, both to give your attackers more of a challenge and to create a hook for your logos to hang on.

Logos

Here’s how Leith describes logos, the next link in the chain:

If ethos is the ground on which your argument stands, logos is what drives it forward: it is the stuff of your arguments, the way one point proceeds to another, as if to show that the conclusion to which you are aiming is not only the right one, but so necessary and reasonable as to be more or less the only one.

Think of this as the logic behind your argument. You want your points to seem so straightforward and commanding that your audience can’t conceive of an alternative.

Aristotle had a tip here: He found that the most effective use of logos is to encourage your audience to reach the conclusion to your argument on their own, just moments before your big reveal. They will relish in the fact that they were clever enough to figure it out, and the reveal will be that much more satisfying.

Another logos trick used often is the much abused syllogism.

The syllogism is a way of combining two premises and drawing a fresh conclusion that follows logically from them. The classic instance you always hear quoted is the following: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

While you need to take care with the syllogisms you use — false syllogisms can lead to obvious logical fallacies — they can be a powerful tool for helping your audience draw certain conclusions.

Aristotle also advocated the use ‘commonplaces’, or accepted premises shared with the audience. The best arguments are soaked in them.

Associated with these general topics are ‘commonplaces’ (topos is Greek for a ‘place’). Any form of reasoning has to start from a set of premises, and in rhetoric those premises are very often commonplaces. A commonplace is a piece of shared wisdom: a tribal assumption. In the use of commonplaces, you can see where logos and ethos intersect.

Commonplaces are culturally specific, but they will tend to be so deep-rooted in their appeal that they pass for universal truths. They are, in digested form, the appeal to ‘common sense.’ You get nowhere appealing to commonplaces alien to your audience.

The wise persuader starts from one or two commonplaces he knows he has in common with his audience – and, where possible, arrives at one too.

Your use of commonplaces is also a good point to interject pathos, as many of these common beliefs can illicit an emotional response. Let’s dig into pathos.

Pathos

Your logical argument will be that much more persuasive if it’s wrapped up with a good dose of emotion. Because of the way we use the word pathos in the modern world, you may be thinking of something dramatic and sad. But pathos is more nuanced than that; it can be humor, love, patriotism, or any emotional response.

The key here once again is to know your audience. If you are trying to evoke a sense of anger or sadness regarding mankind’s role in the decline of the honeybee, you might not get the response you want from the bee allergy support group.

You can even invoke pathos by admitting a wrong. (We all make mistakes…) This can be a clever way to put your opponent off balance.

This is the figure, called paromologia in the Greek, where you concede, or appear to concede, part of your opponent’s point. It turns what is often necessity to advantage, because it makes you look honest and scrupulous, takes the wind out of your opponent’s sails, and allows you to shift the emphasis of the argument in a way finally favorable to you. It’s the equivalent of a tactical retreat, or of the judo fighter using an opponent’s momentum against him.

Another tool you can use with pathos is something the ancients called aposiopesis.

Aposiopesis – a sudden breaking off as if at a loss for words – can be intended to stir pathos. And even where something appears merely decorative – a run of alliteration or a mellifluously turned sentence – it serves to commend the speech more easily to memory, and to give pleasure to the audience. Delight is an end, as well as a means.

And we can’t forget joy and laughter. A well received joke can help you both connect with the audience (ethos) and bring home the pathos appeal.

… the joke can do more than just perk up a drowsing audience. It can be a powerful rhetorical tool. It participates in the pathos appeal inasmuch as it stirs an audience’s emotions to laughter – but more importantly, it participates in the ethos appeal, inasmuch as laughter is based on a set of common assumptions. As Edwin Rabbie argues in ‘Wit and Humour in Roman Rhetoric,’ ‘Jokes usually presuppose (even rest on) a significant amount of shared knowledge.

Ultimately, the three modes of persuasion are interconnected. It’s helpful not to think of them in a linear way but more like three overlapping circles. If you can create something with ethos, logos, and pathos peppered throughout, and tie it all into your audience’s belief system, you will have a very strong argument.

While Aristotle’s three persuasive appeals make appearances throughout the book, there is so much more to Words Like Loaded Pistols. Leith goes into depth regarding the five parts of rhetoric and the three branches of oratory. He also spend considerable time explaining the different figures, also known as the ‘flowers of rhetoric, which can be thought of as the literary weapons you can use in your war of words. If you have an interest in making your own presentations or speeches better, or in understanding the techniques a speaker is using when you are in the audience then this book is definitely worth the read. In the meantime check out our post on Wartime Rhetoric for some inspiration.