The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Logos, Ethos, Pathos

Part of a Series: The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook

Aristotle’s On Rhetoric was one of the first explicit attempts to analyse the methods of effective persuasion. One of his most significant insights was that effective persuasion depends on establishing a sturdy tripod of three components: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos. Describing each, he said:

Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds… Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible [Ethos]… Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions [Pathos]… Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question [Logos].

The importance of each of these legs of our persuasive tripod has been supported by modern psychological and cognitive research. Drew Westen, in The Political Brain, details the necessity of Pathos and Ethos, describing how people are swayed by their emotional response to a speaker’s argument and character. Numerous studies have shown the importance of presenting a clear argument supported by well-sourced evidence (Reynolds and Reynolds provide an effective overview of this research). The data is unequivocal: the best persuaders construct an argument that rests happily on all three legs, and if a single leg is too short, the whole argument is off-kilter.

Despite the clear consensus among professionals and researchers regarding the necessity of drawing on all three modes of persuasion, however, atheists, skeptics and Humanists often want to rely on Logos alone, thinking that an unadulterated logical argument should be all that is needed to sway the listener. This doesn’t work. Arguments which do not address Ethos and Pathos fail to answer two central questions which any reasonable audience will ask: who the hell are you, and why should I care? Only an argument which intelligently interweaves Ethos, Pathos and Logos will succeed.

But how do you do that? This post will show you how, using principles adapted from Prof. Gary Orren’s class on Persuasion at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Logos – The Message

Logos is your rational argument: your key points, your supporting data, your statistics, your analogies, your details. There are a number of ways you can improve your Logos:

  1. One sentence pitch. Create a one-sentence “pitch” which encapsulates the core of your argument. If you can’t capture the main thrust your argument in one sentence it’s probably too complicated.
  2. Three point outline. Outline the key points of your arguments as simply and clearly as possible. Three points is best – more and your audience will struggle to retain them.
  3. Analogy and Metaphor. A pithy analogy or metaphor can make an argument stand out. It’s best if a single metaphor can be extended throughout the pitch.
  4. Statistic + Story. For each point, identify one supporting statistic and one illustrative story. “Never a story without a statistic, never a statistic without a story.” – Prof. Gary Orren
Ethos – The Messenger
Ethos is your demonstration that you are a likable, trustworthy authority on the given subject, and that you are worth listening to and hearing out. It is also your demonstration that you share values with your audience.
  1. Establish your Authority and Credibility. This needn’t be a formal position of authority (although use one if you have it). You can gain authority through skills, experiences, association with authority figures or institutions, and use of data, arguments or stories that have credibility themselves.
  2. Liking. Consider the level of positivity and negativity in your message, humor (particularly self-deprecating humor), body-language (smiling, open expressions), your tone (not condescending, know-it-all), how well you listen etc.
  3. Listening. Find a way to demonstrate that you have listened to your audience. This affects your ethos because it shows that you care about what they have to say. Quote a member of the audience; mention you know they like a particular thing; demonstrate you’ve read their mission statement; acknowledge one of their main points against your proposal. Listen actively: ask questions; nod; keep eye contact; paraphrase the audience’s words.
  4. Humor. Make jokes! Humor is surprisingly versatile, and can work in almost any context if sensitively applied. A joke which embodies or illustrates a point is best. Jokes at your own expense demonstrate comfort and can therefore authority and credibility, surprisingly.
Pathos – The Audience
Pathos is the art of engaging your audience and their emotions, motivating them to care about the issue you bring before them. Effective use of Pathos also includes demonstrations that you understand and care about the audience.
  1. Personalize. Find ways to personalize your proposal. Show how it affects specific individuals in concrete ways. Telling one personal story adds power to a broad statistic: “Let me tell you about Bob, who lost his job when he revealed he was an atheist…”
  2. Emote. Demonstrate your own emotional commitment to the idea you are promoting. One way to do this is find a reading or story which moves you, and read it during your talk. People will pick up on your own demonstration of feeling. Or, express your feelings through your vocal tone and body language.
  3. Similarity. Find ways to demonstrate your similarity to your audience: “I too was raised in a Christian home”; “We  are both from London”; “As Red Sox fans, we understand”; “We’re all skeptics here”; “As a fellow Harvard graduate”; “We atheists have all faced discrimination”. Similarities relevant to the persuasive case are to be preferred.
  4. Commitment. People wish to be seen as acting consistently with their public commitments. Use this to your advantage. Either get the audience to make a commitment during your pitch – “Will you promise to consider my proposal?” – or reference public commitments they have already made: “Your own mission statement says…”; “You stated publicly that…”; “You’re always saying we should consider…”
Using these techniques you will craft a more balanced, more persuasive presentation which is more likely to sway others to your side!


On Rhetoric, Aristotle (translated by W. Rhys Roberts, Edited by Lee Honeycutt)
Evidence, in The Persuasion Handbook, Reynolds and Reynolds

About James Croft

James Croft is the Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and has been working on the Humanist Community Project since its inception. He is a Cambridge and Harvard Graduate, and is currently studying for his Doctorate in the philosophy of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist.

2 comments on “The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Logos, Ethos, Pathos

  1. Pingback: Desire Matters, Truth Matters More – Alex Gabriel and Jeff Cook on “Unbelievable?”

  2. Pingback: Logos, Pathos, Ethos – What is More Important? Why? | zachtok

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