Persuasion 1: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos

Ever been asked a “rhetorical question?”

Don’t answer that.

A rhetorical question is a question that a speaker poses but expects no answer.

What Is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is what we call the art of persuasion.  We get the term from the ancient Greeks who lived about 2,500 years ago.  Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates were the men who studied how people communicated and how we convince others to believe and to do things.

In general, we now call this persuasion.

Rhetorical Theory

Over the centuries, no one has really improved on the ideas from these ancient Greek men.  The methods they uncovered apply to people around the world and haven’t changed since then.

It’s funny that they call it the art of rhetoric and rhetorical theory, but I think I have an explanation for that.  “Rhetoric” comes from the word that means “speaker” – so it’s the unique way that a person would apply these techniques.  Therefore, rhetorical theory is the techniques that would be used.  If you think of a painter, for example, their title is artist, but they can use a variety of ways to create their work.

It starts with three distinct parts to communication (we covered this, but I’ll remind you.)

  1. The speaker
  2. The message
  3. The listener

The three parts must all be in place for communication (or persuasion) to be successful.

Cicero, a famous Roman who lived from ~100 -43 BC, created the Five Canons of rhetoric.

  1. Inventio (Invention or creation of ideas)
  2. Dispositio (Arrangement of the ideas)
  3. Elocutio (Style to attract your audience)
  4. Memoria (Memorization of the material)
  5. Actio (Delivery – including body language, vocal variety, etc.)

These continue to be the basis of almost all effective communication.

Each of these is critical to your success.  We’ll start with the three core techniques that you need to be persuasive: ethos, logos and pathos.

Ethos:  Characterizations

Ever talk to someone that you think is a liar?  You don’t trust them, do you?

Being honest is a character trait that we value.  When we believe that someone is honest, we have several positive reactions:

  • We trust that person.
  • We respect that person.
  • We are more likely to do what they ask.

This is why we parents always try to teach you to be honest.  We want to respect and trust you, which will lead us to us giving you opportunities when you ask for them.

Character is the word we use to describe the sum of a person or society.  It’s a kind of generalization that we make that considers the whole – all the good and the bad.  We might say that we live in a very consumeristic society.  We describe a person as having “good character” meaning they are honest and follow the rules of society, or having a bad character, such as someone who is a thief or a liar.

Ethos takes this into consideration in 2 ways.  First, it looks at the audience and assesses what they are, what they want to hear (or need to hear), or what values they have that the speaker needs to appeal to in the speech.  Second, it considers the speaker:  does the speaker have the knowledge about the topic from experience or education?  Are they credible?

Let’s make this simple:  who will you listen to talk to you about your teeth:  a dentist or the guy who appears to have lost a few of them – maybe in a fight?

It’s maybe not fair to presume that the toothless guy might not be an expert in teeth – maybe he’s a world-famous scientist who had a car accident and lost his teeth there.  You don’t know until you make the effort to know who is speaking.

This is a critical point.  Credibility isn’t always obvious.  Don’t judge a book by its cover.  Don’t assume that the speaker knows or doesn’t know the topic.  You have to dig a bit deeper to determine the speaker’s knowledge or expertise.

When you want to persuade someone about something, you have to establish that you are believable and what you are asking your audience to do is valuable to them.  This is the first step in being persuasive.


You want your parents to let you go to a basketball game at the local school with your public school friends.  What do your parents need to know about your friends and the venue to consider your request?

Logos: Be Reasonable

Logos is the word we get logic and logical from.  It’s actually the word that means word in Greek.  Am I using words to talk about words?

Well… yes.  Logos is about the logic and reason behind your persuasive request.

You can ask your parents to buy you the Brooklyn Bridge or Grand Canyon, but those things can’t be done.  They aren’t possible.  Simply nonsense ideas in the form of a request.

Consider the word reasonableReason-able.  There is a reason and someone is able to understand it and do it.

Logos is about the reasons behind the persuasive speech.  Why should something be done?  What’s the value of this act?  What good or bad will it produce?

Reason considers the facts of the situation and arguments and focuses on the logical results.

Let’s keep a special eye on results.  When you’re trying to persuade someone, the strongest tactic you have is to show them the results they want.


“Mom, I really want to go to that basketball game.  I know you have a lot of work you need to get done, so why don’t I take some of those tasks and do them for you?  Then you won’t feel so pressured to get things done.”

(Just a hint – don’t say “then you’ll have time do drive me.”  Moms hate that.)

Pathos Gets to the Heart of the Matter

This can be the most subtle of the parts of the persuasive speech or it can be the most obvious.  Consider Hallmark Card commercials.  Your mom probably tears up because they go for the highly emotional response center – love, family, happy events.  You don’t see commercials for sympathy cards too often.

Appealing to your audience’s emotions helps engage them.  You can give all the facts you want in the logos of your speech, but it’s the emotional hook that you have to use to pull people over to your side.  If you don’t attract their emotions, you’ll rarely convince them of anything.

Pathos comes from the word in Greek that means suffering.  Often our best persuasive techniques focus on helping to alleviate suffering in some way, even if it’s just bad breath.


You want to go to the basketball game with just your friends.  What could you say to your parents to make them want to leave you there alone?