Showing posts with label public speaking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label public speaking. Show all posts

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The art of persuasion: pathos, logos, and ethos

The art of persuasion is ancient

In this blog post, I'm going to talk about three high-level approaches to persuasion that people have used for thousands of years: pathos, logos, and ethos. Aristotle codified them, hence their Greek names, but despite their ancient origins, they pop up in modern sales methods, in the speeches given by politicians, and in preachers' sermons. Understanding these basics will let you craft more effective speeches and emails.

(Martin Luther King was one of the best rhetoricians of the 20th century. King used pathos enormously effectively in his 'I have a dream speech'. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Photographer: Rowland Scherman.)


Sadly, this is the weakest of the three, it's the appeal to logic; the use of fact and figures, and inference and deduction to make an argument. For example, if I were trying to make the case that the economy was great under my leadership, I might talk about high employment numbers, pay rise increases, and business growth. My chain of reasoning would be: the numbers are great due to my leadership, so you should vote for me. Let's look at a couple of real examples.

My first example is Winston Churchill's "Their finest hour speech" (you can read more analysis of this speech here):

"‘Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.’"

Note there are no numbers here, it's a chain of logic linking one idea to another, in this case, an if-then piece of logic.

John F. Kennedy also used logos. Here's an excerpt from his famous "We choose to go the moon..." speech:

"Within these last 19 months at least 45 satellites have circled the earth. Some 40 of them were made in the United States of America and they were far more sophisticated and supplied far more knowledge to the people of the world than those of the Soviet Union."

Note the use of numbers to make the point that the United States was ahead of, and more advanced than the Soviet Union. Logos isn't just about making cold scientific claims, it can be about bashing your opponents with logic. 

Margaret Thatcher was a master speaker, and she used logos to batter her opponents:

"If the Labour Government is no longer able to act in the national interest, is there no alternative to the ruin of Britain? Yes, indeed there is - and that alternative is here at Brighton today."

(Leader's Speech, Brighton, 1976)

The point is, logos isn't about a mathematical deduction, it's about creating a chain of arguments to lead the audience to the conclusion that your point is true. 

In sales situations, logos is used in several ways, for example, a salesperson might say something like: "Our solution costs less on a yearly basis than competitor Y but has features A, B, and C that Y does not."


This is an appeal from authority, the idea is that the speaker has some kind of position that gives them special knowledge. The most obvious example is the old quote: "Trust me, I'm a doctor". Speakers use this device a lot to establish credibility, for example, you might hear people talk about years of government service, or their qualifications, or their awards. 

One of the best examples of ethos I've come across is Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement address of 2005. Pretty much, the whole speech is ethos, establishing his credibility with the audience. Here's a small extract:

"I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4,000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30."

There are several ways speakers establish ethos. Sometimes, they talk about their education, or they talk about their experiences, or they talk about their awards. But how do you establish ethos if you have none of those things? The answer is, you can co-opt it from other people and organizations.

A salesperson might co-opt ethos by talking about the awards and success of their company or product, for example, "Product X was the biggest selling product in category Y, it's the industry standard." They also use external references from trusted sources. Gartner's magic quadrant analysis is widely used for a reason, it lends external credibility and is a great source of ethos. Success stories serve similar purposes too; you can use a quote from an industry figure to boost your credibility.


This is an emotional appeal to do something. It's is one of the most effective persuasive techniques, but it has to be used carefully; it's a blunt instrument that can undermine your argument. One of the clearest examples of pathos also illustrates the problem: "do as I ask or I kill this kitten".

I'm going to return to Winston Churchill and another of his famous speeches for my first example, here's a famous extract:

"I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”"

(Blood, toil, tears, and sweat)

Churchill's goal was to get the politicians and the people to join with him in an existential struggle against fascism. He used vivid imagery to illustrate the struggle ahead. If logos is the use of facts and figures, pathos is the use of adjectives and adverbs.

One of my other favorite speakers is Martin Luther King, here's an extract from his most famous speech:

"I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice."

King is using evocative language to appeal to his audience, to motivate them to appeal for change.

I've seen salespeople use pathos in a clever way when they ask a prospect what the success of product would mean for them. The crude example here is telling someone they would look good in a sports car. Less crudely, the success of a product could lead to promotions. This has to be artfully done, but I've seen it used very effectively.

Using them in a speech

Not every speech uses all the elements of persuasion, but many of them do. Let's imagine you're promoting your company's product at a convention and had a short slot to do it. Here's how you might use pathos, logos, and ethos.

Speech Commentary 
In 2020, Gartner placed us in the leader quadrant of their X magic quadrant for the fifth year running.
Ms A, Vice-President for Important Things at Big Company B said that Product Y was a game-changer for them.
She said, it reduced design costs by 20% and reduced time-to-market by 15%. Her experience is common, which is why we have the largest market share and we're growing more rapidly than any other company in the sector. We're becoming the industry standard. Logos.
But it's not just about money. Because we reduce design flow issues, we reduce low-level re-work and rote work, so we free up engineers time to be more creative and use their skills in more engaging and interesting ways. Our software enabled Dr S to design H, which won the industry design award and got him on the cover of Trade Publication. Pathos

This is a little crude, but you get the general idea.

Churchill, Kennedy, and King did not just make up their speeches. They knew very well what they were doing. Churchill and King in particular were master rhetoricians, adept at using words to change the world. Knowing a little of rhetoric can pay dividends if you're trying to be more persuasive.

Reading more

A lot of books on rhetoric are unreadable, which is odd given that rhetoric is about communication. Here are some of the ones I like:

  • Thank You for Arguing, Fourth Edition: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion - Jay Heinrichs
  • Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama - Sam Leith

Rhetoric for managers series

This post is part of a series of posts on rhetoric for managers. Here are the other posts in the series:

Saturday, June 6, 2020

(De)motivational speakers

I’ve heard motivational speakers give messages completely contrary to company values and I’ve heard a motivational speaker encourage people to resign. I’ve heard speakers that made me feel good to be a part of the company and I’ve heard speakers that made me think. 

It might seem like a good thing for a company to bring in a motivational speaker, but it needs thought as we’ll see. Let’s start with the bad because that’s always more fun.

(Motivational speaking, old school. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

At one company I worked at, we had a talk given by a mountaineer who had climbed Mount Everest. They vividly described the struggle of the team to get to the top; the cold, the physical demands, the oxygen deprivation. The expedition got close to the summit, but some of the team were struggling and it was difficult to move forward together. The leadership made the decision to leave some of the team behind and make for the summit with just a handful. The small group made it to the summit and took their pictures at the top of the world. They celebrated their glorious achievement and the speaker spoke movingly of the elation they felt. Then they started to make their way down, meeting up with their colleagues they’d left behind. The speaker told us how bitterly disappointed the people who were left behind were. The leadership had to carefully manage relationships with those they’d left behind to get everyone off the mountain and safely back to base camp. Once they were back at base camp, it didn’t matter anymore because everyone dispersed.

It was a great talk delivered well, but…

The company I worked for at the time had a big thing about teamwork and carrying everyone with you. It was all about the collective way forward. But the talk seemed to have a couple of underlying themes; you need a big team to get to the top and if people are holding you back, you cut them loose so the high performers can achieve their goals. It seemed to me that the talk was completely at odds with the company’s values. Was the company now advocating that we leave people behind? As I heard this story, I wondered about the people in the audience, did they all identify with the group that made it to the summit, or did they think they might be in the group left behind? What does it mean to work in a company where you might be left behind so others can get to the summit?

A different company I worked for was having some trouble retaining staff but wanted to grow. At a company meeting, we had a speaker who had sailed in a major race. The speaker was great, he spoke about his impoverished background, how he stumbled across sailing but loved it. He told us how he sacrificed a great deal to afford to sail and how after years of struggle, he qualified for a major sailing event. He told us how hard the race was and the deprivations he suffered during it. But he also told us how elated he was when he finished and achieved his life’s ambition. His closing message was, you should never be content with where you are and that you should stretch yourself to achieve new goals, do new things, and go to new places. But...

One of my colleagues turned to me and said “did he just tell us to leave the company and go somewhere else?” I said that he’d just told us we could do better elsewhere. Both of us left the company within six months to get better jobs.

Let’s turn to more positive speakers.

I had the great fortune to hear Mark Cuban and Adam Savage (from Mythbusters) speak at a company event for customers. They didn’t say anything that supported the company’s values but they didn’t say anything to contradict them either - they talked about their own subjects, Mark Cuban spoke about innovation and management and Adam Savage spoke about Mythbusters and what happened on set. It was great to hear them speak and great to get some insight into who they are. I left the event with a good feeling about the company - I was happy I’d had this experience and felt gratitude to my employer for providing it for me.

Recently, I heard a speaker talk about how their family had built a clothing company chain of stores around exemplary customer service. Their stores are extremely high-end, serving CEOs and others at the top of their professions. He told stories of associates driving to customer’s houses to deliver items, of clothing shipped out overnight across America so a CEO could give a TV interview looking his best, of tailoring services provided free to high-end customers to win their business. It was an awe-inspiring talk and fascinating to see how the family had consistently built their business. As you can tell, I loved the talk. I was fascinated by how well they’d aligned their tactical activities towards their strategic business goals; for me, it wasn’t about customer service, it was about aligning incentives and actions towards a clear end goal.

I’ve had the opportunity to think about the motivational speakers I’ve heard and the effect they’ve had on people. On the face of it, it seems like a great idea to bring in a compelling speaker, but as we’ve seen, it can go wrong. I recommend motivational speakers, but with qualifications.

  • Listen to them speak and hear the entirety of their talk. Does it support your company values? Is there anything in the talk that might encourage behavior you don’t want (leaving people behind, encouraging people to quit)?
  • Brief your speaker on your company values and ask them to avoid undermining them. Speakers can choose to focus on parts of their story, and they could choose the parts that support your values.
  • Understand why you’re bringing in a speaker and the effect you want to have on your audience. Bringing in celebrities is fun and makes people feel good. Bringing in business people can make people think. Bringing in people who have a powerful story to tell can be moving. But what’s your goal?
  • Reinforce the message by having an executive point out the pieces they want the audience to take away. Never leave it to the audience or the speaker to decide the takeaways.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

How to be more persuasive when you speak: using ‘catchphrases’

One of the most famous speeches in history used ‘catchphrases’ for incredibly powerful effect; you’ll know the speech by its catchphrase alone. I’ve seen modern American politicians use the same rhetorical technique to heighten energy and to unify and drive home their message. You can use it in your speeches too; I’m going to show you how and why.

Like many rhetorical techniques, this one relies on the considered use of repetition. Specifically, it’s the repetition of a phrase or sentence throughout a speech as a kind of catchphrase.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re an engineering leader and you’re trying to convince your team to take data security seriously. Using this technique, your speech might look something like this (catchphrase in bold).

If we lapse in securing our data, our company can be fined large amounts of money, putting our livelihoods at risk. By being secure, we prevent this from happening.

Security is our security.

If we have a data breach, our reputation will be sullied and it’ll be harder for us to win new business, with all that entails.

Security is our security,

Companies have suffered data breaches of employee data too, putting social security numbers and other personal information out on the web for the highest bidder.

Security is our security,

Speakers use this approach to draw the audience’s attention to a key theme again and again and again, they use it to unify and focus a speech. It drives the point home in a forceful, but elegant way.

My real example is by an influential African-American christian preacher. He repeats one of the most famous lines in rhetoric as a catchphrase again and again. You’ll know it as soon as you hear it – in fact, you already know the words. Here's the YouTube link to the appropriate section.

(Image credit: WikiMedia Commons, open-source)

Here’s part of his speech, the catchphrase is in bold.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

Martin Luther King repeats ‘I have a dream’ to bring the listener back to his point and to reinforce his message. ‘I have a dream’ – paragraph – ‘I have a dream’ – paragraph – ‘I have a dream’ - paragraph. He unifies his speech and drives home his point. (King’s speech is rhetorically interesting in other ways too; he uses a wide variety of techniques to make his points.)

I’ve done my homework on rhetoric and searched for this method in the books on techniques from antiquity. As far as I can tell, this technique is known as epimone. It's not one of the famous techniques and I think it's very underrated.

It seems to be used a lot in African-American christian preaching and has spread to American politics from there. (As an aside, I've looked for resources on the analysis of rhetorical techniques used in African-American churches, but I've not been able to find any good ones. If any one knows of some good analysis, please let me know.) I've heard a well-known American politician use it and I suspect we'll be hearing it more as we head into election season. Bear in mind that politicians use techniques like this deliberately because they know they work.

Here’s my recommendation for using this technique; if you’re trying to persuade or emotionally influence an audience, use it to hammer home your message and provide a simple unifying concept for people to take to heart.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

How to be a compelling speaker: creating applause and tricolon

You can learn how to be a compelling speaker and, with practice, you can learn how to trigger an audience to applaud when you make your points. The techniques to grip an audience were known in antiquity and have been used throughout history to great effect to further political careers. You too can learn these techniques and apply them in your talks.

In this blog post, I'm going to focus on one very powerful technique: tricolon. This is my absolute favorite of all the rhetorical devices. It’s almost magical how well it works – in fact, it’s closely related to something called an applause trigger that I’ll come to later. Tricolon has been used by almost all the major political orators of the last 50 years as we’ll see.

At its simplest, tricolon is a three-part list. Here’s an example:

Government of the people, by the people, for the people.
-Abraham Lincoln

(Image credit: WikiMedia Commons. Public domain.)

Tricolon is literally just a list of three phrases with similar grammatical and word structure. Here’s another example:

We can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.
-John F Kennedy

Putting your points in a list of three seems to elevate your argument and make it much more memorable. Three-part lists are everywhere for a reason. In western cultures, three seems to have a magnetic effect – for example, we give gold, silver and bronze medals; we say snap, crackle, and pop; and we learn of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, tricolon is so powerful, sometimes speakers even add ideas to lists to make three-part lists, or chop down lists of four to three.

Orators have figured out that by using three-part lists (tricolon) and managing their voice and gestures, they can sometimes trigger an audience to applaud. That’s what’s called an applause trigger. There are a handful of rhetorical techniques known to be applause triggers including tricolon, puzzle-solution, and two-part contrasts [Atkinson, Heritage]. It’s extremely hard to pull off an applause trigger and not every tricolon can work as a trigger, but it can be taught. A few years ago, I was at a talk on analytics and the topic turned to Microsoft PowerPoint. The speaker introduced his speech coach to make a point. The point was anodyne, but the speech coach phrased it as a tricolon, He increased the intensity of his voice to reach a crescendo on the last of his three points and the audience burst into a strong round of applause as soon as he made his last point. I knew of this technique at the time and I spotted what he was doing as he was doing it; it was really impressive to see him deliver his lines and get the applause he was looking for. Stop for a minute and think about this, a speaker got a strong round of applause by talking about PowerPoint. Do you think you could be trained to do something similar?

I know my audience for these blog posts is well-educated, intelligent, and perceptive. I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘how could something so straightforward and so simple and so easy work so well’? Because your doubt is valid, we’re going to do an exercise.

Barack Obama’s speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention ignited his presidential campaign. In the extract below, I’ve outlined the tricolon and you can listen to the audience's response. Watch the YouTube video and read the extract below - I've structured the text to highlight the tricolon.

When we send our young men and women into harm's way, we have a solemn obligation 
  1. not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they're going, 
  2. to care for their families while they're gone, 
  3. to tend to the soldiers upon their return, 
and to never ever go to war without enough troops to 
  1. win the war, 
  2. secure the peace, 
  3. and earn the respect of the world.
Listen to how Obama uses his voice as he goes through his tricolons. He manages to build up the audience reaction so they applaud at the end of his list. He clearly signals to the audience when it's time to applaud by his use of tricolon and his voice.

Of course, Barack Obama used this speech to propel him from senator, to candidate, to President.

My final example is, in my view, one of the finest political orators of the twentieth century. She didn’t get this good by accident, she was intensively trained and coached – which is an interesting story all by itself. The speaker is Margaret Thatcher. The occasion is her party conference in 1980. Let’s hear a brief burst of her using tricolon (1:34 on the audio on this page).

This week has demonstrated that we are a party united in 
  1. purpose, 
  2. strategy 
  3. and resolve
And later on (27:24):

Soviet Marxism is 
  1. ideologically, 
  2. politically 
  3. and morally bankrupt. 
If you have time, I recommend you listen to some of Margaret Thatcher's speeches regardless of whether you agree or disagree wither her politics. She was a master of rhetorical set pieces and she knew how to use tricolon and other techniques to trigger applause.

It's very hard to deliver a tricolon in a way that triggers applause, but even if you don't use it that way, it's still very much worth your while using it. It makes your arguments sound much more compelling.

In your writing and presentations, you can use tricolon to link ideas together and build an argument. For example, if I were the CEO giving a speech to rally the company, my theme might be the need to perform better than the competition.  I could just say:

The competition exists to take our market from us, we need to perform better than them.

Or I could say:

The competition exists to take our market from us, 
  1. we need to out-innovate them, 
  2. we need to out-deliver them, 
  3. and we need to out-sell them.
Which sounds better to you?


[Atkinson] "Our Masters' Voices: The Language and Body-language of Politics", Max Atkinson, 1984
[Heritage et al] "Generating Applause A study of Rhetoric and Response at Party Political Conferences",

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Presentation advice from a professional comedian

In 2019, I heard a piece of presentation advice I'd never heard before. It shook me out of my complacency and made me rethink some key and overlooked aspects of giving a talk. Here's the advice:

"You should have established your persona before you get to the microphone."

There's a lot in this one line. I'm going to explore what it means and its consequences for anyone giving a talk.

(Me, not a professional comedian, speaking at an event in London. Image credit: staff photographer at Drapers.)

Your stage persona is who you are to the audience. People have expectations for how a CEO will behave on stage, how a comedian will behave, and how a developer will behave, etc. For example, let's say you're giving a talk on a serious business issue (e.g. bankruptcy and fraud) to a serious group (lawyers and CEOs), then you should also be serious. You can undermine your message and credibility by straying too far from what people expect.

One of the big mistakes I've seen people make is forgetting the audience doesn't know them. You might be the funniest person in your company, or considered as the most insightful, or be the best analyst, but your stage audience doesn't know that; all they know about you is what you tell them. You have to communicate who you are to your audience quickly and consistently; you have to bend to their expectations. This is a lesson performers have learned very well, and comedians are particularly skilled at it.

If they think about their stage persona at all, most speakers think about what they say and how they say it. For example, someone giving a serious talk might dial back the jokes, a CEO rallying the troops might use rhetorical techniques to trigger applause, and a sales manager giving end-of-year awards might use jokes and funny anecdotes. But there are other aspects to your stage persona.

Let's go back to the advice: "you should have established your persona before you get to the microphone". In the short walk to the microphone, how might you establish who you are to the audience? As I see it, there are three areas: how you look, how you move, and how you interact with the audience.

How you look includes your shoes and clothing and your general appearance (including your haircut). Audiences make an immediate judgment of you based on what you're wearing. If I'm speaking to a business audience, I'll wear a suit. If I'm talking to developers, I'll wear chinos and a shirt (never a t-shirt). Shoes are often overlooked, but they're important; you can undermine an otherwise good choice of outfit by a poor choice of shoes (usually, wearing cheap shoes). Unless you're going for comic effect, your clothes should fit you well. Whatever your outfit and appearance, you need to be comfortable with it. I've seen men in suits give talks where they're clearly uncomfortable with a suit and tie. Being obviously uncomfortable undermines the point of dressing up - to be blunt, you look like a boy in a man's clothes.

How you move is a more advanced topic. You can stride confidently to the microphone, or walk normally, or walk timidly with your head down. If you're stressed and tensed, an audience will see it in how you move. By contrast, more fluid movements indicate that you're relaxed and in control. What you do with your hands also conveys a message. Audiences can see if you have a death grip on your notes or if you're using your hands to acknowledge applause. Think about the stage persona you want to create and think about how that person moves to the microphone. For example, if you're a newly appointed CEO, you might want to establish comfortable authority, which you might try and do by the way you walk, what you do with your hands and how you face the audience.

The moment the audience first sees you is where communication between you and the audience begins. How and when you look at an audience sends a message to them. For example, your gaze acknowledges you've seen your audience and that you're with them. Your facial expression tells the audience how you're feeling inside - a comfortable smile communicates one message, a blank expression communicates something else, and a scowl warns the audience the talk might be uncomfortable. You can also use your body to acknowledge applause, telling them that you hear them, which is an obvious piece of non-verbal communication between you and your audience.

In short: think about the seconds before you begin talking. How might you communicate who and what you are without saying a single word?

Where did I hear this advice? I've been listening to a great podcast, 'The Comedian's Comedian' by Stuart Goldsmith, a UK comic. Stuart interviews comics about the art and business of comedy. In one podcast, a comedian told the story of advice he'd received early in his career. The comedian was saying that after five years of performing, he'd managed to establish his stage persona within a minute or so of speaking. The advice he got was: "You should have established your persona before you get to the microphone."

A good presentation is a subtle dialog between the presenter and the audience. The speaker does or says something and the audience responds (or doesn't). Comedians are the purest example of this, they respond in the moment to the audience and they live or die by the interaction. If communicating your message to your audience is important to you, you have to interact with them - including the moments before you begin speaking. Ultimately, all presentations are performance art.