Ethos, Logos, Pathos: The Three Modes of Persuasion

Tuesday, June 2, 2020
Christopher Sirk
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Modes of Persuasion

Leaders need to prove they are worthy to lead. To do so, they need to convince people of their vision.

Take Steve Jobs’s well-known “How to live before you die” speech at the Stanford Commencement Address in 2005. In it he told people to do what they were passionate about. Life is not so long, after all.

Why was Jobs’ rhetoric so effective?

The short answer: It appealed to the full range of human responses. Ethos, logos, pathos.

Way back in the 4th century B.C.E., the ancient philosopher Aristotle understood the power of these 3 modes of persuasion. In his book Rhetoric, he defined these 3 Greek words.

Ethos, Logos, Pathos are modes of persuasion used to convince others of your position, argument or vision. Ethos means character and it is an appeal to moral principles. Logos means reason and it is an appeal to logic. Pathos means experience or sadness and it is an appeal to emotion.

Ethos

Ultimately, ethos is all about trust. 

It’s about establishing the speaker’s credibility, so you can believe what they say. And it’s about presenting an argument with ethical appeal. Indeed, the word “ethics” is derived from ethos.

To get people to listen, the speaker needs to be seen as an experienced and moral figure. They must appear both intelligent and trustworthy. Effective use of ethos makes the audience feel the speaker is a reliable source of information.

Ethos forms the bedrock of any rhetorical argument.

Examples of Ethos

Say you read an article about climate change written by a scientist. They have a doctorate from a prestigious institution. Many awards and years of experience.

You should be inclined to trust what they are saying is at least worth reading. And you may well find some merit in their argument.

On the other hand, think about those times you go against your better wisdom and “read the comments” on YouTube.

We might listen to someone we consider amoral or under-informed out of fascination. But we won’t see them as on the level. We won’t buy what they’re selling.

That is because they lack ethos. And ethos appeals to our fundamental need for credible authority.

Take Steve Jobs’ aforementioned “How to live before you die” speech. In it, Jobs crafts a powerful appeal to ethos in two ways.

Firstly, there is the fact of his incredible success. Jobs played instrumental roles not only at Apple, but also NeXT and Pixar. 

These broad entrepreneurial achievements are mentioned in his speech. They give him an air of unimpeachable credibility. 

But even more important is the way he tells the story of his humble origins and unorthodox path to success. 

Jobs speaks about dropping out of college and studying calligraphy. How none of this made much sense at the time from a practical perspective. But later on, it helped him work on font design and branding at Apple.

Then he moves on to speak about the ups and downs of his professional experience. How he was fired from Apple. How he moved between companies, never settling. 

We see that he has been successful, despite dealing with adversity. And despite some of his decisions that seemed suspect at the time.

Jobs furthers his authority on “life” by talking about confrontation with death. He describes his pancreatic cancer diagnosis and recovery, and how death helps life by being its antithesis. 

The experience validated his choices, because it reminded him that change is inevitable. You will die someday, and nobody knows when. So you should do what you’re passionate about now, while you can. 

He drives this home by saying “your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

Jobs tells a story that builds up a trustworthy persona. By bringing himself down to the level of the audience, he becomes relatable. By speaking of unorthodox success, he becomes credible.

Logos

Logos is about presenting a logical argument. Or at least the reasonable simulation of one.

It focuses on the details of the message presented to make it credible. It shows the speaker is informed about the subject matter at hand.

Logos appeals to our need for things to make sense. We want facts, figures, structure. We want data from credible sources to back up what is being said, so we can believe it.

With that in mind, logos can be argumentative. There's the potential for exploiting the logical fallacies of competing ideas.

A logical appeal can gain strength by undermining competing ideas.

Examples of logos

Aristotle himself gives a great example of logos at its most fundamental level.

“All men are mortal.

Socrates is a man.

Therefore, Socrates is mortal.”

This is a syllogistic argument. That is to say it’s a three-line logical argument based on deductive reasoning.

The conclusion appears sound based on the premises. Never mind that one of the premises might be a fallacy. The structure is logical.

A contemporary, obvious example of logos is seen in politics. Politicians routinely cite statistics to back up their political agenda. These facts and figures declare the urgency of their policy.

Logos sometimes comes in the form of literal analogy. A one-for-one “if A then B” comparison.

For example, one could say the prohibition of alcohol failed in the 1920s, so it will also fail for marijuana. While this type of logic might be simplistic, it can have a big rhetorical impact.

Pathos

By generating an emotional response, pathos appeals to pity, anger, and/or fear. All those powerful feelings.

The use of pathos is effective because humans are emotional beings. Crafting a story with emotional appeal tugs at the heartstrings. Pathos show the power of the spoken word to incite human togetherness, be it negative or positive.

Pathos creates empathy with the speaker’s point of view. That’s why it’s so important to imbue rhetoric with an emotional tone.

Examples of pathos

Anecdotes are one common example of pathos. Conveying the inner experience of an everyday event, the speaker puts themselves on the same level as their audience.

Consider when someone tells a story about airport security or flying Economy in the middle seat. Dealing with tight economic times. Speaking about childhood turmoil or the death of family members.

These are all super relatable. So of course, politicians and public figures use anecdotes to affect pathos all the time.

Let’s return to Steve Jobs’ 2005 speech. Besides the earlier noted ethos, one also finds plenty of pathos.

We see it when Jobs talks about his upbringing and formative college years.

He was adopted by working class parents. His unwed biological mother couldn’t take care of him. But she made sure his adoptive parents would send him to college.

When he got to college, he felt guilty for using his parents money. They had sacrificed and saved, yet he had no idea what he wanted to do. So he dropped out. 

To make ends meet, he returned coke bottles for the deposit. He sat in on college classes he was truly interested in. He slept on the floor of his friend’s dorm room. 

In the end, it all worked out.

Jobs ends the story with the following emotional appeal:

"Believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leaves you off the well-worn path. And that will make all the difference."

Most people understand being broke. Being scared and confused. Being guilty. 

So the story appeals by stirring empathy. The mythical Jobs was always human, after all. He’s dealt with the exact same issues as the audience he addresses. 

Jobs tells the audience to trust their “gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” It can be scary to follow passion, but it’s important to do so no matter what. His hardship ended in success, after all.

Later in the speech Jobs mentions how he was fired from Apple. The company he spent most of his adult life building. 

Of course, he was eventually re-hired. When he gave this speech, he was the CEO of Apple once more.

But mentioning this event makes Jobs look humble. Everyone can relate to failure. 

After hearing the college dropout and Apple firing stories, we can identify emotionally with Jobs. All this pathos make us more likely to accept his rhetoric.

Another means of conveying pathos is through humor. Consider the satirical comedy of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert or The Daily Show.

Comedians Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah use jokes to present political arguments. They poke fun at the opposition by making them the punchline. And they work with the emotions of audience members.

When they get a laugh, it shows their rhetoric is working. The audience is theirs.

Kairos

And then there’s kairos. Just to make things interesting.

Kairos means “opportune moment.” It reflects the importance of setting and time.

Ethos, logos, and pathos each have their virtues. But Aristotle also tells us we also have to consider “right place, right time.” And right means of expression to reach your audience too.

Rhetoric exists within a particular context. It thus lives or dies based on how appropriate it meets the demands of its moment.

Presented to the wrong audience, the prettiest speech will be immediately forgotten.

Serendipity is not to be taken lightly. Nor is the fleeting nature of time, and the difficulty of “striking when the iron is hot,” so to speak.

To take advantage of kairos, it may even be necessary to engineer new conditions before making your rhetorical appeal. For example, if you’re running a business, you might want to wait until a customer has become loyal before hitting them with your up-sell message.

Kairos is undoubtedly the most slippery piece of Aristotle’s rhetorical puzzle. But the basic takeaway is digestible enough—examine your situation carefully before acting.

Consider your timing and the way you’ve organized your rhetoric. Make sure to accommodate context, and adapt if need be. Think about the changes that might take place in the time between crafting your text and presenting it.

Persuading you to persuade

Red, green, and blue make up all the colors of the rainbow. In the same way, ethos, logos, and pathos make up all the rhetorical appeals that are possible.

And understanding rhetorical strategies is important. Whether you’re in social media marketing, or working as a spokesperson for a nonprofit. It provides a window into how leaders lead, and why people listen.

The means of persuasion are few. The applications are many.

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