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Dancing with words: The UK Speechwriters' Guild International Speechwriting Conference, London, 16 May 2013

Aristotle's Three Musketeers: ethos, logos, pathos

These are some notes based on my session at the International Speechwriting Conference, held in London on 16 May 2013.

Download Three modes of appeal

Spring-conferenceThanks as ever to the redoubtable Brian Jenner of ESN and the UK Speechwriters' Guild for making it all happen.

I'm also running The Essentials of Speechwriting for ESN in London on 13 March 2015. You can book here.


Meanwhile, here are some highlights of the session.

Any speech is made up of three key elements:  speaker, speech and audience.  Aristotle suggested that speakers persuade audiences using three modes of appeal, based on those three elements. 

  • Ethos persuades by the appeal of the speaker’s personality or character.
  • Logos is the appeal to reason through the quality of the argument in the speech.
  • Pathos appeals to the audience’s emotions.








Ethos, according to Aristotle, consists of three qualities.

  • virtue  [arête]
  • practical wisdom  [phronesis]
  • selflessness  [eunoia]

You can build these qualities into the speech at any point, but they have particular power at the beginning of the speech.

Angela_merkel_germany_2012_10_12Virtue.  Show that you share the audience’s values.

You could do this by:

  • explicitly stating those values;
  • giving practical examples of how you live the values;
  • relating your values to your personal history;
  • talking about what others have said about you (modestly);
  • explaining how the audience's values have influenced your own; or
  • showing how the values have even weakened you or created a flaw in your behaviour (self-deprecatingly).

Practical wisdom.  Demonstrate that you are sensible and knowledgeable.

  • Don't play the expert.  Instead, show how your practical experience has benefited others - especially people the audience knows or respects.
  • Bend the rules.  You’ll gain a lot of ethos from showing how flexible and adaptable you can be.
  • Play the mean.  Express the issue as a question of two opposing extremes, and then rescue the situation by suggesting a common-sense, middle way.

Selflessness.  Demonstrate objectivity, benevolence and self-sacrifice.

  • Show how hard it was to come to your current position.  And what it cost you.
  • Talk about personal sacrifice.  The greater good trumps self-interest.
  • Act hesitant.  Play uncertain, lacking in confidence, not entirely sure that you're right.  Ask the audience to support and help you.  Speak plainly.

Spock-mr-spock-12756094-500-556Logos uses argumentation to persuade.  Rhetorical logic is like proper logic, but kind of looser.  Aristotle:  “Rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectics.”

  • Where dialectics uses the syllogism, rhetoric uses the enthymeme.
  • Where dialectics uses induction, rhetoric uses the example.

Whoa.  Clarification required.

An enthymeme is an argument based on a shared assumption, rather than a universally agreed truth.  That shared assumption is often called a warrant: it gives you the authority to link your reason to the case you're making.  (You'll find examples in the downloadable notes.)

Structure your argument carefully in the form:

[A] because [B].

Find the warrant that links [B] to [A]; the assumption or value that you think your audience shares.

Look for warrants in:

  • common language  words or phrases the audience uses frequently
  • contrary views: whatever the audience dislikes or hates, is the opposite of the shared value you're looking for
  • commonplaces:  whatever you can identify as a core value or idea in your audience reveals a potential warrant

Look for vivid examples.

  • Key facts (with emotional or visual appeal, preferably)
  • Comparisons (simple either/or pairs)
  • Stories (the suspense and aroused curiosity will generate greater belief)

Make sure that you are arguing in the correct tense. 

  • If you want to allocate blame or guilt, use the past tense.
  • If you want to show what kind of a person someone is, or appeal to an audience’s sense of identity or community, pick the present.  
  • And if you want to inspire them to action, shift to the future. 

(This is one of Jay Heinrich's ideas, and I think it's brilliant.  I'm sure Jay will be the first to admit, of course, that it's not really his idea; it's a splendid reformulation of the classical model of deliberative, judicial and epideictic rhetoric.)

1-19-Martin-Luther-King-ftrFinally, pathos seeks to persuade by arousing (or calming) the audience's feelings.  Emotions provoke motion; hence the name.  The pathetic appeal should be directly linked to the action you want your audience to take.

Arouse or relax?  Do you want to stimulate an emotional response, or lower their emotional arousal? 

To stimulate emotion:

  • Look for beliefs.  Amplify them.
  • Tell stories.  Develop the sense of suspense.
  • Speak simply.  The audience will immediately distrust fancy language.
  • Manage your vocal tone.  Find the tone that fits.  Play the ‘spontaneous’ card: interrupt yourself, correct yourself, make the words seemingly hard to find.

To calm emotion:

  • Go passive: use passive verbs or deliberately avoid allocating blame.
  • Overplay your own emotion.
  • Level the three key vocal features: volume, pitch, pace.
  • Use humour.

Create rapport.  Mirror the audience’s language.  Include them in your thinking (We all know that...; like you, I’ve often found; I’m sure there’s not a person here who hasn’t at some point...)

Don’t announce the emotion.  They’ll resist on the spot.  Take the audience by surprise.

Task or relationship?  Where does the audience like to invest their feelings?  Scientists tend to invest in research results; nurses in the welfare of their patients; business folk in the bottom line; and so on.  Find your emotional examples from among the audience’s emotional investment banks.

And here, once more, is the full set of notes from which this post is taken.

Download Three modes of appeal


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