Persuasive Storytelling: Ethos, logos and pathos

Storytelling is as old as time. Like many tools of rhetoric, we can trace its perfection back to the work of the Greeks. Let’s start with a familiar name: Aristotle.

Aristotle mastered the process of storytelling by leveraging a familiar three-part process: ethos, logos and pathos, or, translated roughly to English, credibility, logic and emotion. They’re called the Rhetorical Triangle.

The trick is balancing the three, finding the combination that works best for you. Let’s start with ethos.

Ethos is essential to consider when identifying your target audience and beginning to assemble your speech. Put yourself in our audience’s shoes. Would you listen to the person delivering the same speech if they had a resume on par with yours? I’m not suggesting that you have to have been educated at the best schools or worked in the best companies. But you should consider whether or not you have the right experience to speak on a subject to ensure the audience takes you as a credible messenger.

If your audience perceives you to be insincere, they won’t listen. Consider Obama once again: Did the audience at the 2004 Democratic Convention have any reason to doubt the story he told about his background and upbringing? Or that he was sincere in hoping to see an America that wasn’t divided into red states and blue states? As a newcomer at the time, he had yet to display any reasons for the crowd to doubt his appeals as sincere.

That’s a key first piece in establishing ethos. The people gathered to hear you need to believe that you’re approaching the story you’re telling from a place of legitimacy; otherwise, they’ll tune out or listen just for the entertainment value.

Next, we have logos. This is typically considered the appeal to logic. Remember, we’re talking about storytelling in pursuit of a persuasive outcome. The goal isn’t just to tell a story to someone because it’s funny or entertaining (though that can certainly improve its quality), but rather to move them from one position they may hold to another that you prefer. 

Just as ethos may indicate whether or not the audience believes you’re a credible, good-faith messenger, logos lives more in the realm of whether the argument you present is credible. And the two must work in tandem. Both you and your story must be deemed trustworthy.

Finally, pathos. Your audience takes you seriously as a storyteller, and believes that what you’re telling them is trustworthy. But do you excite them? Think back to Obama’s speech in 2004. It wasn’t just that the crowd liked this fresh, new face and that he had a compelling story to tell; it was also that he delivered it with vigor and a youthful excitement that roused his audience.

For some people, and in some circumstances, unchecked energy might actually be a detriment. Do you want to energize the crowd, or do you have something solemn to deliver? It’s all about knowing to whom you are speaking and what their expectations are. An overly emotional presentation could steal some of the legitimacy your ethos brings in the form of experience. Would an over-excited astrophysicist be taken seriously by her peers?

These tools of persuasion are nearly as old as history, and yet that is why they remain essential today. The way we communicate, the method, is changing at an ever-quicker pace. But the same fundamental rules apply. Whether the story you give is in the agora, millenia ago, or over Skype, in an office just this week, the entry-level skills are consistent. They’ve endured for a reason. They’re as important as ever.

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