Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

The rhetorical triangle updated

triple vennAbout 2300 years ago, Aristotle wrote down the secrets to being a powerful speaker. Aristotle said the  three keys are ethos, pathos, and logos. We know these now as ‘the rhetorical triangle’ or the ‘three pillars’ of public speaking.

It was a robust  formula, and  still  today these three are  the foundation skills that pop up in any speaking  or sales trining program.

Let’s think of them as “the three c’s”: Credibility, Connection, Content.

  • Ethos is the credibility (or character) of the speaker. You are plausible because of who you are, your position, background, or what you know.
  • Pathos is the emotional connection to the audience. Another term for it is rapport. With their emotions engaged people are motivated to follow or agree with you.
  • Logos is the logical argument – or content.

One of the issues you need to manage is which of the ‘three Cs’ is best for the job at hand. This varies depending on the occasion and the relationship you have with your audience.

If for example, you are an expert on something, when you speak on that subject you are basing your presentation on ethos. (note however that the presentation itself may be laden with logos – facts and information logically presented). Perhaps you belong to a certain group and by speaking in public you help raise money for this group. That’s ethos. When you tell your kids “Because I say so!” that’s ethos.

Motivational speakers, politicians and sales people depend heavily on pathos. When you leave a presentation feeling inspired, galvanised, changed, ready to act or to buy something, your emotions have been engaged. It’s the key to all successful ‘sales’, whether you’re selling an idea, a product a policy or yourself.

Logos is going to dominate when the primary aim is to transfer information. Professional and business settings, teaching, lectures, conference papers and certain professional interchanges (pilot to cabin crew, surgeon to theatre nurse, client to broker, client to lawyer), require you to convey clear, well structured, logical information without much else.

Every day you are unconsciously shifting gear, changing from one mode to another and blending and adjusting these different approaches according to the situation. Different types of speeches have different types of content, but you will find that you need to have all three types mixed in there somewhere, if you are going to do well.

Looked at a different way, you need to consider whether you want your communication to be primarily informative, persuasive or entertaining. The ‘ingredients’ in the ‘recipe’ will change accordingly. It’s shown here as a venn diagram because in reality a blend of all three qualities is what you almost always need to use.

Inform, clarify

Informative communication reveals or clarifies something.  The aim is to convey the facts – not much more.  Purely informative speaking is quite rare.  If you give procedural instructions,  announce sports or election results, or read a list of names, that’s informative speaking.

In informative speaking it’s important that you are aware of what the audience knows already, and make that your starting point. Your job is to move them through to a new level of awareness by building on the information they already have.

The big danger is the dryness of the material. Facts facts facts ….. It’s easy to find yourself in Dullsville, and then people don’t listen. The challenge is to present your information in a way that is stimulating and engaging. For this you’ll need to include some elements from the other two realms. Numbers need to be given a context, the audience needs to be told what it means and why they should care.

Persuade, motivate

Persuasion means to convince, alter a belief, or get someone do something you want them to do.  Parents and managers speak persuasively almost all the time.  Requests, instructions and directions that get  people  doing what you want are the stuff of your life.  Persuasion is the magic ingredient in any case where you want your listeners to change their thinking and behaviour. To be persuasive you need to provide a compelling reason for people to follow you.  Emotional appeal and logic will be your tools.  You need:

  • Facts – the truth of the situation (statistical evidence, costs, timing, data)
  • Values  – reasons and a justification as to why this is the best or the right thing to do
  • Policy – an idea of what action to take, which solution is best and how it can be justified.

There is a considerable body of research and literature about the art of persuasion.

Entertain, engage

By ‘entertain’ I don’t mean standup comedy. Entertainment in this context means ‘enjoyable’.  You need at least an element of entertainment in a speech to relax the audience, make them feel well disposed to you and  create rapport.

A memorable speaker can be the highlight of a special occasion. These occasions usually honour something or someone, or mark a change in someone’s life, an achievement, or the beginning or end of something.  These occasions emphasise the identities and values that unite the people present and make them part of one group.  The speech is a way of saying ‘there are things that we share’.

These speeches should delight an audience. Use your personality, your life experience and your sense of humour to make everybody in the room feel good. Be sure to use the language that your audience expects and understands. Avoid jargon and in-jokes except if all the members of your audience understand it. Use jokes but only kind ones never make fun of anyone.  Find the human-interest angle.  Tell a story whenever you can.


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