Aristotle defined rhetoric as “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion” (37). In other words, if you want to be persuasive you have to be both tactical and tactful. You have to find the method that works for your specific audience.
Aristotle also argued that there are three primary ways to make a persuasive appeal. He called these logos, ethos, and pathos. These three rhetorical appeals are at the heart of communication, and on this page we’ll explain how they work.
Ethos is the appeal to the authority and reputation of the speaker or writer. Let’s say you want to know more about what it’s like to be a female CEO in corporate America. Would you trust a man to tell you? Or let’s say you want to read a compelling argument against the death penalty. Would you read an essay written by a serial killer on death row?
We want the author or speaker to have credibility. Unfortunately, establishing ethos is much more difficult for writers than for public speakers. If you’re giving a speech you can give plenty of visual cues that reveal who you are and why you should be believed. Your clothing, your gestures, your body language—all these things influence your audience. If you’re a general speaking to the press, those medals pinned to your chest will do a lot of persuading.
For a writer it’s more difficult to create a sense of ethos. One strategy is to draw attention directly to your credentials. Your book might have a bio on the dustjacket. You might also describe your experience in relation to the subject matter:
While doing post-doctoral research on the effects of marijuana on college students …
Having been forced to wear a school uniform myself, I can tell you …
However, a more subtle way to establish ethos is to let your writing style draw a portrait of your personality and character. Compare the following statements:
Photo radar is just a cash cow for the police. They say they care about people’s safety, but they just want your money.
While photo radar may be abused for monetary gain, it is an effective strategy for enforcing traffic regulations.
I understand why people dislike photo radar. They feel as if the police is spying on them, as if their constitutional right to privacy has been violated.
The first sounds like a rather opinionated person, the second seems like the voice of a police spokesperson, and the last one may come across as empathetic and understanding. We know nothing about the biography of these speakers, and yet we do get a strong sense of ethos.
So as you establish a sense of ethos in your writing, think about sentence structure and tone. Your writing style can make you seem fair-minded, thoughtful—cool even. It can also make you seem smug, affected, or obsessive. Present yourself in a way that inspires trust, and then your audience will believe almost anything you have to say.
Pathos is the appeal to the emotions. Anytime your writing has an emotional impact you are dealing with pathos. Consider the following two statements:
I think we need to provide more mental health instruction.
I lost my daughter to suicide.
Which statement pulls at your heartstrings? The second one of course.
You can appeal to people’s emotions in many ways. You can make them cry, you can make jokes, you can show outrage. Even the most seemingly objective writing styles will contain some element of pathos. A science textbook, for instance, may instill feelings of awe and amazement at the beauty and complexity of the universe.
Don’t listen, then, to people who argue that all emotional arguments are truly pathetic. Pathos is a legitimate form of persuasion.
Logos is the appeal to logic. Anytime you build a case by presenting logical reasons (causal explanations, syllogisms, etc.), you are using logos.
Here are two examples of logos in action:
The rise in violent crime that lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s can be explained by higher levels of lead in the atmosphere. Since leaded gasoline has been phased out, crime levels have plummeted.
Cats should not be allowed to roam the neighbourhood. A study conducted in Lemmington, Michigan, showed that when cats were kept on a leash or indoors, the song bird population rose by 23%.
Not every attempt at logic will persuade. Sometimes the writer may be guilty of a logical fallacy. In other cases, the logic may be sound, but the reader may not trust the source (ethos) or may find the reasoning cold and heartless (a lack of pathos).
It’s always best, then, to think of all three rhetorical appeals as different pieces of the puzzle. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive strategies. Use them in any combination that fits the rhetorical situation.
Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse. Translated by George A. Kennedy, Oxford UP, 2007.