It’s called the rhetorical triangle, and it goes back thousands of years. Aristotle famously theorized what he called the three artistic proofs, or appeals, back in the 300s B.C. Ethos, logos, and pathos are just as relevant today as they were then. But most people do not know that there is a particular way of sequencing these appeals. I’ll be discussing how to develop and sequence these appeals over the course of three articles. This is article 1.
Ethos is the appeal to trust. A person who is credible, authoritative, confident, and well-intended has strong ethos.
Logos is the appeal to logic. A person who uses reliable evidence and reasoning has strong logos.
And pathos is the appeal to emotion. A person who knows how to get the audience to feel certain ways has strong pathos.
Think about it for a moment. Most of us do not remember what we were taught in elementary school or even last week, but we almost certainly recall whether or not we trusted the person who was doing the teaching, and we almost certainly remember how that person made us feel. In other words, if you think logic (logos) should be enough to persuade your audience, then you’re missing the rhetorical boat.
But it’s not enough just to know that all three of the rhetorical appeals are important. What most people do not know is that these appeals are best used when arranged in a certain order.
Ethos should come first.
We do not listen to people we do not trust. That is why it is essential to establish ethos with your audience upfront. To do this well, consider the following tactics:
- Offer them a compliment. Thank the audience for showing up on time. Acknowledge an award they recently won, or a particular skill or benchmark they have achieved, or an indispensable role they play in the organization.
- Show them that you care about the topic. Do not be insincere. If you can tell your audience in a genuine way that this topic means something to you, and that you have their best interests at heart, they will be much more inclined to trust you.
- Tell them you know something about the topic. You do not need to brag or offer a list of credentials, but there is nothing wrong with telling your audience that have real experience with the topic, that you’ve spent some real time studying this topic, and that you have some things to share.
Logos should come next.
Once you have persuaded your audience to trust you, it is essential that you live up to that trust by providing messages that make sense based on evidence and reasoning. To do this well, you must have a clear message in mind, and you must back it up with sound logic and reasoning. Consider the following tactics:
- Use dependable evidence. Specifically, make sure your evidence is reliable, recent, and relevant. I discussed these principles in detail in a separate blog, but they merit a reminder here.
- Use varied forms of evidence. Audiences love numbers and studies and charts and graphs, but they also get bored if they hear too much of the same sort of thing. Diversify the types of evidence you use by also including testimonies from experts or relevant events from history or even your own personal experience if it applies.
- Use strong reasoning. Listing a bunch of evidence is great, but explaining that evidence to the audience is an underrated skill. A good communicator will use analogies to help the audience understand evidence, or they will show how the evidence reveals important cause-and-effect relationships, or they will show how the evidence reinforces the main point of the message.
Pathos should come last.
The rule of primacy and recency is important. As I said above, people tend to remember what they feel more than the facts they learn. So send your audience off with some emotional impact. Here are some tactics for doing so:
- Remind them of their values. What are your audience’s underlying values and how does your message reinforce them? Telling your staff it’s time for recertification is one thing, but what values does recertification support? That the worker cares about their craft? That the worker wants to provide the best service to the customer and community? That civilized communities are built on a commitment to high standards of care and skill? Make these larger points.
- Tell a story. No matter how often research reaffirms the power of storytelling, people forget to tell stories. Stories trigger emotion, build connection, and increase desire. If you can end your message with a story that is brief, relevant to the topic, and carries a little emotional weight, you will be far more persuasive. Here’s how to tell a good one.
- Visualize the outcome. Maybe you want to convince your audience to adopt shelter animals, and maybe you’ve proven that doing so is easy, affordable, and good for the owner’s quality of life. But you might also help the audience visualize a world where roughly a million animals per year are saved from euthanasia and hundreds of thousands of people are finding therapeutic outlets through pet ownership.
Knowing and using the three appeals is a timeless skill for any communicator. In order to maximize your use of these appeals, however, you should know when and where to emphasize each one.
You can certainly make any of the appeals at any point in your message. You should not hesitate to use some pathos in your introduction and some logos in your conclusion and some ethos in your body. Go for it! But ethos should be the dominant appeal early in your message. Logos should be the dominant appeal in the body of your message. Pathos should be the dominant appeal at the end of your message.
In the next few articles, I am going to discuss each of the three appeals individually, showing how to make the most of each appeal, and providing some analysis of a famous presidential speech to illustrate my points.
Ben Crosby is a professor of rhetoric and a communication skills consultant. He teaches courses in public speaking and presenting, argumentation and debate, technical and professional communication, persuasion and selling, and the history of rhetoric.
His work is regularly published in his field’s top academic journals and conferences. He is also the author of Presentations as Performance: A Professional’s Guide to Better Speaking.
Ben’s areas of expertise are Public Speaking, Presentation Skills, Argumentation, Sales Training, and Professional Writing.
In his free time, he spends time with his wife, Rebecca, their four kids, and their cat, Arza. He is an avid Utah Jazz fan.