This week in Professional Communication and Presentation, we discussed the basics of rhetoric and persuasion. I don’t really fall too far from the rhetorical tree Aristotle and Cicero developed hundreds of years ago (with the exception of including Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification), partly because my class is only a month long and the three part structure of Aristotle’s appeals works well in this time frame, and partly because I want to impart on my students a very important truth: For the ancients, oration was a skill and art form that surpassed others–communication had immediate impact on the lives of Greek and Roman citizens, they tended to a presentation ecosystem before we’d heard of such a thing.
This cultivation of strong speech continued through much of human history–imagine Martin Luther King writing up his “I Have a Dream” speech and sending it by mail (much less impacting that way, no?). In recent times though, the study of oration has been diluted, to the point that we devote little time to considering how we structure our messages or how our audience will process and carry on our message. We devote even less time to studying the mechanism of persuasion and analysis of how others structure a successful message. However, in order to really practice and engage in persuasion, we must first understand how it works.
I will share with you a metaphor that helped me understand how rhetoric and the means of persuasion (ethos or credibility, pathos or emotion, and logos or logic) work. An argument is like the Starship Enterprise, flagship of the United Federation of Planets. The Enterprise is THE ship on which to serve. Its reputation is stellar, its technology state of the art, and its crew stalwart and brave. Your persuasive message is the Enterprise–it is a well-oiled machine, ready to take on any adversary, set to explore the dimensions of the human universe.
But, the Enterprise would be nothing without three figures (the original series would not be what it is without the interplay between these three)– Leonard “Bones” McCoy, chief medical officer; Spock of Vulcan, first officer, and James T. Kirk, captain. It is the dynamic between these three individuals that drives the show, provides the excitement, drama, and relevance. Without Bones, Kirk, and Spock, the Enterprise would be a wasteland of red-shirted crewment, doomed to die during the next away mission. In the same way, your presentation cannot function without the seamless interplay between ethos, pathos, and logos.
Bones: Ethos or the credibility appeal
Bones is the moral and ethical compass of this trio. He often protests Spock’s logic-driven decisions and tempers Kirk’s instinct-driven responses. Like Bones, ethos is all about authority. It is how your audience judges you. An audience should be able to determine if a speaker is trustworthy and reputable, knowledgeable, authoritative, and empathetic. A strong presenter develops ethos both through internal sources and external sources. Your external credibility illustrates knowledge and trustworthiness; internal credibility helps illustrate authority, reputation, and common ground or empathy.
External sources of credibility include experts, case studies, information from media sources, and data.
Internal credibility includes personal experience (want to know about skydiving? ask a skydiver.), shared values with your audience, reputation, and demeanor or behavior during a presentation.
Spock: Logos or the logical appeal
Spock, half Vulcan, half human, made the decision as a child to embrace logic and repress emotion. His decisions are based on precise calculations, the data available, and analysis of a situation. Like Spock, logos is all about logic and evidence. It is your way of fulfilling your audience’s need for factual evidence that is presented in a way that makes sense. Logos is “the proof in the pudding”. It stimulates your audience’s need to see in order to believe. Logos is about a clear and understandable message, and a specific evidence that your audience can connect to and understand.
Kirk: Pathos or the emotional appeal
Captain James T. Kirk, the leader of the Enterprise is a cunning, assertive, and passionate man, who often throws caution to the wind and does what seems irrational and rash. In the end though, Kirk’s actions, which turn out to be a blend of instinct, experience, and duty save the Enterprise (whether it is from a fierce Romulan commander or a super-computer bent on world domination). Like Kirk, pathos or emotion must be balanced by ethics and logic. Pathos is potentially the most ethically dangerous of the three appeals–humans are emotional creatures whose emotions can be manipulated and toyed with. However, pathos is also necessary. Your audience may see the logic of your message and may also see you as an authority in your field, but without that emotional core, they’ll ignore your message like they ignore most messages telling them to do this or not do that.
So, tend to each one of these appeals, devote time to developing the logic of your message, use emotion to humanize your logic, and show your audience you are worth listening to. You will surely go where no one has gone before!