5 Concepts You Need to Understand to Communicate Persuasively: Ethos, Pathos, Logos, Kairos, Topos

In life, we are often called upon to be persuasive. Sometimes we give formal presentations to propose new ideas to our boss; sometimes we create fliers to encourage people to come to a local concert; and sometimes we simply need to convince our neighbor that sharing the cost of a fence is worth the investment. Whatever the reason, being persuasive is a critical part of life if we want things to work out in our favor.

Since the time of Greek philosopher Aristotle, effective persuasion techniques have been a focus of higher education. You can’t graduate from college these days without having to take a course (actually, many courses) where you are required to make an argument and support that argument with evidence and examples. Because persuasion is such a critical component to survival in a very competitive world, it is worth taking the time to master persuasive techniques. In another post, I mention how important the five rhetorical canons are to developing good ideas and constructing arguments. In this article, I want to highlight five even more critical terms that lie at the foundation of all persuasive arguments: ethos, pathos, logos, kairos, and topos. If you can master these five concepts, you’ll be on your way to being incredibly convincing.

Ethos refers to your credibility. Whether you are creating a flier, giving a presentation, talking to your mom, applying for a job, or teaching a workshop, people won’t be persuaded by you unless they trust you. When it comes to communication, trust is built in a number of ways. It is your job to understand how, in each situation, to adapt your communication to the audience. What will make them believe you more? In written communication, you need to pay close attention to style, voice, organization, clarity, vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation. In oral communication, you need to pay close attention to confidence (and not over-confidence), movement, the way you dress, and the accompanying visuals you choose. In visual communication, you need to pay close attention to design details, functionality (if for a website, etc.), cultural awareness, and structural clarity. To improve your ethos, you always need to be cognizant of what you use as credible sources. Do you use a personal anecdote? Do you cite a celebrity? A scientist? In other words, who is the expert in the subject matter and why should the audience believe them? The more your audience trusts your sources (no matter who that source may be), the more they will trust you. A note of caution: ethos can be a difficult thing to acquire; sometimes it may take years to build a strong, credible reputation (think about your résumé or how your boss views your work) or several pages to develop a strong, credible argument. But ethos can be lost in an instant (think about all the companies that used Tiger Woods as a spokesperson for their products, then dumped him when the scandal broke out so that their own ethos wouldn’t be tainted; or think about how quickly you decide a website isn’t credible because it is designed so poorly). Make sure you don’t lose the respect of your audience for any reason or your persuasiveness may be lost entirely.

Pathos refers to emotional appeal. Think of the English words that use the root “path” (like pathology and psychopath and pathetic) and you’ll remember emotions. Reflect on a time when you were really moved by something. Did you hear a radio ad about children dying in Africa? Did you see a video about drunk driving where the driver told the story of how he killed someone? Or did you see a television commercial where a product just looked so cool that you knew you had to have it? When you use pathos to persuade somebody, you make them feel an emotion that moves them to action. How do you want people to feel? Angry? Excited? Passionate? Jealous? Cool? Needed? Scared? Recognize that feeling any of these emotions can cause people to act (sometimes in small ways, like being persuaded to clean a room because of being told that mice live in dirty places; and sometimes in big ways, like being persuaded to stop smoking because of seeing a woman who has lung cancer speaking through a hole her throat). Regardless of the method, pathos-based arguments can be very effective. As a word of caution, though: there are ethical considerations when causing people to feel and react, so be responsible about what you choose to use. Also, most people are savvy to when you are trying to touch their emotions and if you don’t do it right, you can look overbearing, silly, cheesy, or just plain obnoxious.

Logos refers to using reason. The English term that derives from logos is logic. Sometimes, we are persuaded simply by facts, like when our neighbor tells us that 75% of all lawns that die during the summer are from grubs, not lack of water. Such a statement causes us to reflect on our methods for caring for our lawn. Reason can be built into an argument through storytelling (like when you use an example of how your friend broke his arm skateboarding to convince your child that it is dangerous), through using statistics and other facts, or by listing a number of features (like when you by a smartphone because of all that it can do, rather than because how it looks). When using logos to persuade, be sure to find facts and information that matter to your audience and present them in a way that makes sense. For example, if you say that something is 15,840,000 feet long, that means little to most people because it is too large to comprehend. But if you say that something is twice the length of the entire United States from coast to coast, everything comes into perspective.


You may also be interested in: Giving Effective Presentations or How to Write a Proposal


Kairos refers to the opportune moment. People are often more persuaded at different moments in time than others. For example, people are often more likely to give to charitable organizations after they have seen firsthand or been involved in a disaster of their own. Think about when you were a child; did you ask your parents for things when you knew they were in a bad mood to begin with? Most likely, you waited for the right moment to ask. Kairos is all about finding the opportune time to persuade your audience. If you want to invite people to a party, but you invite them three months in advance, they may forget. If you invite them the day before, they may have other plans. As the saying goes, timing is everything.

Topos refers to a theme or convention. In literature, topoi (the plural form of the word) are used almost as metaphors for constructing a story (like if you were to say “James Joyce uses the topos of the Wandering Jew in his work Ulysses.”) When you present an argument, you might frame it in a way that will make clearer sense to your audience by using a trope, or metaphor, with which they are familiar. Another way to look at topos, though, is by following conventions or situating your communication within a certain theme or style. Do you need to change the way you talk with your friends versus the way you talk with your employer? Do you use traditional formatting on a résumé, or do you get creative? Topos is all about framing your communication within a situation that meets expectations or is more clearly understood because of how it is couched.

Recognize that as you use these five concepts to be more persuasive that you will likely use more than one of them at the same time and in some cases you will need to use all five. But as you pay close attention to how you are using these five concepts, you’ll become a much more persuasive communicator.


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