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Rhetoric: How to Inform, Persuade, or Motivate your Audience

June 12, 2018 - Gini Beqiri

Persuasive speaking is needed in a wide range of situations; from arguing with a colleague, to haggling down a price, to performing a speech. Rhetoric is the key to developing this skill. In this article, we discuss how to use rhetoric for effective public speaking.

What is rhetoric?

Rhetoric is the study and art of writing and speaking persuasively. Its aim is to inform, educate, persuade or motivate specific audiences in specific situations. It originates from the time of the ancient Greeks.

Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men – Plato

Rhetoric is not just a tool used only in speeches, you use it in everyday life when, for example, you only disclose certain parts of your weekend to certain people.

Treatise of rhetoric

Aristotle stated that there are three types of persuasive speech:

  1. Forensic / judicial rhetoric – looks at the justice or injustice of accusations and establishes evidence about the past. It’s used mainly in a court of law.
  2. Epideictic / demonstrative rhetoric – praises or blames and makes a declaration about the present situation. It’s used in, for example, wedding and retirement speeches etc.
  3. Symbouleutikon / deliberative rhetoric – tries to get the audience to take action by talking about a possible future. Politicians often use this approach and Martin Luther’s “I have a dream” speech is a good example.

Rhetorical situations

To use rhetoric you must first:

  1. Analyse the rhetorical situation you are in – an effective speech is one that responds to its rhetorical situation (context)
  2. Identify what needs to be communicated
  3. Provide a strategic response using rhetorical tools

When you analyse the rhetorical situation think about the following:

The rhetor (yourself) – the person speaking to the audience. Your personal characteristics and beliefs will influence what you decide to say, such as:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Geographical location
  • Education
  • Previous experiences
  • Socio-economic status, etc

The audience – the people you are trying to persuade. Usually the same factors that affect the rhetor affect the audience. Think about what they already know. What questions or reservations might they have? What expectations do they have? Where should you conform to and stray from these expectations?

The setting – the situation which causes the need for your speech, for example, current events, location, time period, political situation etc. Where is the speech happening and when? How do these this impact you? For example, speeches may need to differ between countries.

The topic – needs to be relevant to the rhetorical situation you are in. How does your topic limit what you can do for the audience? Depending on your audience, what should you include or exclude?

The purpose – why are you saying this? Is it to:

  • Entertain
  • Educate
  • Persuade
  • Instigate action, etc
Using rhetoric in sales presentation

Five canons and three appeals

The five canons of rhetoric

The Five Canons of Rhetoric are tools for creating persuasive speeches:

  1. Invention – the process of developing an argument. For this you need to pick effective content and sort through everything you could say and decide what should be included or excluded. There needs to be a balance between what the audience needs to hear and what you need to say.
  2. Arrangement – once you have determined the content you must organise and order your speech to create the most impact, such as thinking about how long each section should be and what should follow on from one point etc.
  3. Style – deciding how to present your chosen arguments, including thinking tactically about how your audience will respond to your word choices. Perhaps include visualisation or other techniques to evoke emotions. (See rhetorical devices and tools)
  4. Memory – memorising your speech.
  5. Delivery – this includes your projection, gestureseye contact, pronunciation, tone and pace.

The three appeals

According to Aristotle, rhetoric rests on the three appeals: ethos, logos and pathos. They are modes of persuasion used to convince an audience.

  1. Ethos: your credibility and character
  2. Pathos: emotional bond with your listeners
  3. Logos: logical and rational argument

Ethos – the ethical appeal

Ethos consists of convincing your audience that you have good character and you are credible therefore your words can be trusted. Ethos must be established from the start of your talk or the audience will not accept what you say. In fact, ethos is often established before your presentation, for example, you may be the CEO of the company you’re presenting to so you’re already perceived as a specialist.

Characteristics of ethos

There are four main characteristics of ethos:

  1. Trustworthiness and respect
  2. Similarity to the audience
  3. Authority
  4. Expertise and reputation/history

Improve ethos

  • Ensure that people know about your expertise by promoting yourself, for example, ensure that people can easily access testimonials, reviews, papers etc.
  • In your introduction draw attention to your ethos.
  • Tell personal stories that show the audience that you follow your own recommendations because they are more likely to believe you on other points that cannot easily be confirmed.
  • Facts, stats and quotes should be up-to-date and from reputable sources, for example, between choosing from social media or Mind’s website to quote a statistic about anxiety, you would choose Mind’s website as this has high ethos which in turn increases your ethos.
  • Be unbiased by admitting that you and your opposition’s side agree on at least one matter. This highlights that you are credible because you are treating the topic with consideration and fairness.
  • Stick to your promises, for example, during the Q&A you may have agreed to find out an answer to a question and tell everyone – ensure that you do this to be seen as honest.

Pathos – the emotional appeal

Pathos is to persuade by appealing to the audience’s emotions. Pathos is more likely to increase the chances of your audience:

  • Understanding your point of view
  • Accepting your arguments
  • Acting on your requests

Improving pathos

  • Use analogies and metaphors – linking your ideas with something your listeners already know about and feel strongly about can trigger emotional responses. For example, “They are terrible” compared to “They are poisonous.” This will use the audience’s knowledge that poison is bad and therefore this issue needs to be dealt with.
  • Use emotionally charged words, for example, say “This brush is a life-saver” rather than “This brush is amazing.”. Another way to make a statement more emotional is to use vivid and sensory words which allow the audience to experience the emotion. For instance, “The smell of your grandparent’s house” will increase the recollection of, hopefully warm memories, and therefore will trigger certain emotions.
  • Ensure that the emotion you want to induce is suitable for the context:
    • Positive emotions, such as joy, should be linked with your claims.
    • Negative emotions, such as anger, should be linked to your rival’s claims.
  • Visual aids can sometimes be more powerful than words
  • Storytelling is a quick way to form an emotional connection
  • Match what you’re saying with your body language, face and eyes
  • You may target the audience’s hopes by describing a positive future situation if your proposed actions are followed

Logos – logical appeal

Logos is to appeal to logic by relying on the audience’s intelligence and offering evidence in support of your argument. Logos also develops ethos because the information makes you look knowledgeable. Logos is important because logical arguments are not easily dismissed.

Improving logos

Be comprehensive: Make sure your points and arguments can be understood

  • Use language that your audience will understand. Avoid jargon and technical terminology
  • Use figures and charts
  • Make the relationships between your evidence and conclusions clear
  • Use analogies and metaphors

Be logical: Ensure that your arguments make sense and that your claims and evidence are not implausible. Have a plan for dealing with opposing viewpoints that your listeners may already believe.

  • Ensure that the audience is involved by asking them engaging questions.
  • Talk about opposing views as this allows you to explain why your logical arguments are more reasonable.
  • Build your argument on the audience’s widely held beliefs – commonplaces. For example, a company’s main value and therefore commonplace may be “Compassion makes us the best company”. Use the audience’s commonplace like a fact and apply it to a new situation. So if you want to encourage your staff to join a committee, use their commonplace, for example, rather than your belief say: “This committee needs considerate and kind-hearted people.”

Be specific: Base your claims on facts and examples as your arguments will be accepted quicker than something nonspecific and non-concrete. The more easily the evidence is accepted, the more easily the conclusions will be accepted.

  • Facts and stats cannot be debated and they signify the truth.
  • Visual evidence, such as, objects and videos are hard to challenge.
  • Citing specialists and authorities on a topic increases the quality of your evidence and therefore your claims.
  • Tell stories, such as, case studies or personal experiences. The audience would like to hear your own stories if you’re a specialist, for example, “When I was excavating in Nottingham…”

There is uncertainty over which pillar is the most important – Aristotle thought that logos was vital but when used by itself it lacks impact. So ensure that you treat all three pillars with equal importance to succeed in persuading your audience.

Using rhetoric in office pitch

Rhetorical modes

Rhetorical modes are patterns of organisation used to produce a specific effect in the audience. They assist in increasing the speaker’s ethos, pathos and logos.


  • Telling a story or narrating an event.
  • Uses facts – what happened, where it happened, when it happened and who was there.
  • It helps put information into a logical order – usually chronological order.
  • Purpose: to evoke certain emotions in the audience.


  • Re-create, inventing or visually presenting a person, place, object, event or action through words
  • This helps the audience imagine what is being described
  • Use precise verbs and nouns and vivid adjectives
  • Using the five senses is especially useful
  • Purpose: to evoke certain emotions in the audience


  • Articulating your opinion about an issue – proving or contesting a point or view or an issue.
  • Consists of presenting the evidence.
  • Argumentation generally uses inductive arguments, deductive arguments or a combination of the two:
    • Inductive arguments- Forming generalisations from the evidence. For example: “All the theme parks I have been to have been safe. This is a theme park. So it must be safe.”
    • Deductive arguments – Forming conclusions from generalisations. For example. “I don’t like busy places. That shopping centre is really busy. So I won’t like that shopping centre.”
  • Persuasion is a type of argumentation with a call to action directed at the audience.
  • Purpose: the speaker tries to get the audience to agree with their opinion and in the case of persuasion the speaker tries to get the audience to take action.


  • Informing, instructing or presenting ideas objectively. Exposition can use the following techniques:


  • Using evidence to explain a general idea or statement.
  • The stronger your evidence, the more likely the audience will consider your points.
  • Usually used to support an argument.
  • Use evidence suitable for your topic and audience.
  • Figure out how much evidence you need to use to support your argument depending on:
    • How complex the topic is
    • The audience’s knowledge
  • Purpose: gives your statements/arguments more credibility and helps the audience understand more quickly.


  • Explaining what a word, idea etc means to your audience and/or to explain what it is not.
  • This is more difficult than looking up the term in a dictionary because you may be re-defining a common term or explaining a term that is commonly used incorrectly, such as, the word depression.
  • By reshaping what the audience thought a concept meant they can see and think about that concept in a different way.
  • There are multiple ways you can define something, it doesn’t have to be in a clinical way – you can use the rhetorical strategies discussed later.
  • Purpose: helps the audience see things from your point of view.

Process analysis

  • Explaining how a particular event occurs or how something is done or how something works, for example, how to sew, or how to move on from the death of a loved one.
  • This procedure is usually explained in clear steps.
  • Purpose: to provide clear information so the audience can fully understand – the more the audience understands, the more likely they will be persuaded.


  • Dividing one concept into smaller ones.
  • This can be helpful for you, the speaker, as it can provide the audience with an insight of how you view a concept.
  • Purpose: to help the audience understand a complex issue.


  • Often looking at a diverse group of objects and finding similarities.
  • The rhetor creates categories based on the similarities and gives each category a name.
  • Purpose: useful for organising complex issues.

Cause and effect

  • Examining the causes of a situation and the consequences of it.
  • Causes help you understand why something happened and effect helps you understand what could happen or what has happened.
  • Especially useful when the rhetor can show a cause and effect relationship the audience haven’t noticed before because this helps the audience see the situation in a different way.
  • Often leads to debates as it’s not always easy to determine this relationship.
  • Purpose: to determine how concepts are related to each other.

Comparison and contrast

  • Comparison looks at similarities and contrast looks at differences.
  • The more divergent the two things initially appear the more interesting it will be to look at the similarities.
  • Purpose: generally to show something is more superior to another, to show unexpected similarities or to help the audience understand a person, place, idea etc in relation to another.
Obama using thetoric in his speech

Rhetorical devices and tools, with examples

Rhetorical devices can be useful for assisting with the above modes of persuasion:

Adynaton – a type of hyperbole (exaggeration) in which the exaggeration is taken to such extreme lengths to suggest impossibility.

  • Example: “When pigs fly!”

Alliteration – the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of several words that are close in proximity to each other.

  • Example: “The dog dived deeply.”
  • Example: “Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe its Maybelline.”

Allusion – a reference to an event, literary work, person etc usually within popular culture.

  • Example: “It’s only £10, you’re acting like Scrooge.”

Anaphora – repeating a word or phrase in successive phrases.

  • Example: “As you know, we’ve got the iPod, best music player in the world. We’ve got the iPod Nanos, brand new models, colours are back. We’ve got the amazing new iPod Shuffle.” – Steve Jobs

Antanagoge – when a negative point is followed by a positive one to reduce the impact.

  • Example: “It’s expensive but it’s unbreakable”

Antimetabole – a phrase or sentence is repeated in reverse order.

  • Example: “It is not even the beginning of the end but is perhaps, the end of the beginning.” – Winston Churchill

Antiphrasis – a phrase or word that is opposite to its literal meaning to create an ironic or comic effect.

  • Example: Calling your friend Tiny even when they are 6 foot 5.

Antithesis – two opposite ideas are put together in a sentence for contrast.

  • Example: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong

Appositive – places a noun or phrase next to another noun for descriptive purposes.

  • Example: “Your friend Sam is waiting outside for you.”
  • Example: “The neurologist, a well-renowned expert in Paediatric Neurology, looked at the scans.”

Epanalepsis – repeating the initial part of a sentence at the end of the same sentence.

  • Example: “Today, I want it done today.”

Epithet – using an adjective or phrase to emphasises a person’s characteristics. Often, this adjective or phrase becomes linked to the person and can be used with their name or instead of their name.

  • Example: Eddie the Eagle

Epizeuxis – repeats one word in immediate succession for emphasis.

  • Example: “That film was great, great, great.”

Hyperbole – an exaggeration not meant to be taken literally.

  • Example: “I’ve got tons of work to get through.”
  • Example: “I’m freezing.”

Metanoia – correcting a statement you just made deliberately to strengthen or soften it.

  • Example: “This has made my day, no, my month.”

Metaphor – a comparison made by stating one thing is the other.

  • Example: “This cake is heaven.”

Metonymy – where something is referred to by the name of something closely associated with it.

  • Example: Referring to business professionals as “suits.”
  • Example: Referring to royals as “Crown.”
  • Example: Referring to a plate of food as a “dish.”

Onomatopoeia – words that are similar to the sound they describe.

  • Example: Drip, pop, buzz, bang

Oxymoron – a combination of contradictory words.

  • Example: Cruel kindness, definitely maybe, open secret

Parallelism – uses components in a sentence that are similar grammatically or in their construction, sound or meaning. It makes sentences flow better by adding rhythm.

  • Example: “The dog was barking, the bell was ringing and the children were shouting.”

Personification – The attribution of human characteristics to something non-human.

  • Example: “The traffic slowed to a crawl.”

Simile – compares one thing to another to make a description more vivid, usually uses “as” or “like”.

  • Example: “As light as a feather.”

Understatement – deliberately making a situation sound less important or serious than it is. You can use it for humour, to be polite or to remain modest over something.

  • Example: You won an award for a piece of artwork but you say “It’s no big deal.” (Modest)
  • Example: Your friend is worried about people staring at a stain on his T-shirt, you say “I wouldn’t have even noticed if you hadn’t said anything.” (Polite)
  • Example: You walk outside with your coat on and realise it’s very hot – “I may be a little over-dressed.” (Humour)

Criticisms of rhetoric

Some people believe that rhetoric is a type of lying or false behaviour and manipulation. However, even when you’re criticising rhetoric, you are engaging in an act of rhetoric because you are trying to get others to agree with you.

Rhetoric works well in many situations, such as, in business presentations, lectures etc. So rhetoric is a good tool but, like with other tools, it’s up to you how to use it effectively.