Nutshell: From Aristotle to Obama: how to create presentations that pack a punch

Written by
Future Talent Learning

Published
09 Feb 2021

09 Feb 2021 • by Future Talent Learning

Aristotle’s three modes of persuasive speaking form a framework that can help us to master public speaking and win the hearts and minds of our audiences.

In 1963, civil rights activist Martin Luther King delivered his iconic “I have a dream…” speech, calling for equality and freedom for black Americans – and setting the bar pretty high for effective public speaking. While King was almost certainly born with the innate passion and charisma required to move and inspire an audience, his impact was surely enhanced by practice. 

“It’s believed that King gave 2,500 speeches in his lifetime,” writes Harvard University’s Carmine Gallo in What it takes to give great presentations. “If we assume two hours of writing and rehearsals for each one (and in many cases he spent much more time than that), we arrive at the conservative estimate of 5,000 hours of practice. But those are speeches. They don’t take into account high school debates and hundreds of sermons. King had easily reached 10,000 hours of practice by August of 1963.”

There’s really no such thing as the all-powerful, charismatic presenter who just turns up on stage and does his or her stuff. We shouldn’t be fooled by how easy some people can make it look, even Martin Luther King. No matter how competent we are at presenting, there is always room for improvement. And for those of us who are not natural presenters, it’s a skill we can learn. Which is just as well, as presenting well can be integral to individual and personal success, especially in business. Doing it well enables us to get our messages across clearly and confidently to different stakeholders, reducing miscommunication. Doing it brilliantly allows us to persuade and influence, motivate, galvanise and lead.

For that, we need to be aware of the factors that make for a powerful presentation, and how we can use them to best effect.

A framework for presenting 

The power of a well-delivered, well-structured and convincing presentation is not new. Understanding and deploying the components of persuasive speaking have a long history. And that’s what we’re looking to do when we present: persuade. Once again, the ancients provide a prototype that still resonates today: Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion – ethos, pathos and logos – offer a practical framework that can set us on the path to presenting success.  

Aristotle identifies and explains his “modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word”:

  • Ethos depends on the personal character of the speaker – what we bring through our personality, experience and credentials.
     
  • Pathos is about putting the audience into a certain frame of mind – how we can make an emotional connection with them. 
     
  • Logos is based on the proof, or apparent proof, provided “by the words of the speech itself” – what we want to say and how we’ll structure and present it; our reasoning, if you like.

If it was good enough for Aristotle, how might we use his thinking in our presentations today? 

So far, so good. But when it comes to creating and delivering a presentation ourselves, it’s useful to think about how these classic methods of persuasion might be used in practice.

Author and consultant Florian Mueck suggests that we look at the three modes in a slightly different way to help us make sense of what they mean. For Mueck, Aristotle’s three modes break down into five dimensions, with logos being exclusively content-driven, but ethos and pathos having two dimensions: a content and a delivery side.

That means that we need to be aware not just of what we say but also of how we say it if we want to establish that credibility and make an emotional connection.

Ethos/credentials

Under Aristotelian thinking, ethos is the most powerful element of communication. While logos (logic or knowledge) is important – people will believe in you only if they understand what you are trying to say – and pathos (passion) is persuasive – if people can connect and engage with your message they will consider you more favourably – it is ethos (character) that makes you credible in front of an audience.

Ethos boils down to a sense of purpose; to calmness, authenticity, credibility and warmth (trust builders), and to authenticity (a match between inner and outer worlds). While it involves charisma (“the gift of grace”), it is not just about surface charm, but is tied directly to ethics.

For our audience to believe in us, we must persuade people of our competence and character: our credentials. With public speaking, there are three types of credibility: 

  • initial credibility: our credibility prior to our presentation, based on our credentials, reputation and level of renown.
  • derived credibility: credibility we develop while delivering our speech, based on our professionalism and the quality and delivery of our presentation. 
  • terminal credibility: the credibility we have gained or lost after delivering our speech – the lasting impression people have of us as a speaker. 

The aim is to build on any initial credibility by delivering a well-prepared and artfully delivered speech, and to finish with enhanced terminal credibility. 

One swift way to boost initial credibility when presenting is to highlight our relevant expertise – Mueck’s content dimension of ethos. Drawing on our personal experience and reflections to support our points and arguments demonstrates authenticity and allows our credibility and credentials to shine through. We need to leave the audience in no doubt about why we’re doing the presenting and why they need to listen to us.  

Establishing that credibility when presenting can be a tough gig. Research suggests that audiences form an impression about our competence within 30 seconds. It’s best to be forewarned and forearmed. That’s where Mueck’s delivery dimension kicks in. Alongside those credentials, we need to demonstrate our gravitas, that poise and self-confidence that signals credibility and authority. And we need to be conscious of how our non-verbal signals can enhance our message or undermine it completely, whether through eye contact (or not), the right (or wrong) gestures and how we use our voice (paralinguistics).

Without that credibility, it’ll be much harder to get our message across.

Pathos/emotion

Because decisions are so often made emotionally rather than rationally, Aristotle’s pathos, the ability to move people emotionally, is a crucial element of persuasion, that all-important factor in delivering a message successfully. 

We know that communication is about establishing shared meaning. If we can create and deliver content that connects and resonates, not just intellectually but also emotionally, we’re much more likely to get our message across as a result. The American writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou hit the nail on the head when she said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

That’s why storytelling is such a powerful tool in our presentation toolbox, guaranteed, if done well, to tick Aristotle’s pathos box.

Starting a presentation with the unexpected (perhaps a shocking fact or provocative question) or an (appropriate) personal confession can help to build connection, as can injecting a shot of suspense with the help of mini-cliffhangers and a well-placed dramatic pause. Trying to tell jokes can fall flat if we are not naturally funny or our audience is not inclined to laugh, but a little gentle self-deprecation, the occasional raised eyebrow and a familiar story with which our listeners can identify goes a long way.

Interactivity is also important: run quick polls (hands up or via tech); give people dilemmas to consider and ask the audience questions.

Gallo encourages us to consider “wow” moments, introducing something novel or unexpected to pique interest. In a 2009 TED Talk, Bill Gates released live mosquitos from a jar on stage to help engage his audience with his fight against malaria. It created, according to Gallo, “an immersive experience that played on their [the audience’s] emotions”. The human brain is easily bored. Overused, gimmicks run the risk of being clichéd or distracting but, used well, the right prop can add real impact.  

Whatever we say to engage our audience’s emotions, we need to balance this pathos-based content with an eye to delivery. Mueck talks about a triangle of coherence, that happy state when our content, voice and body language are all in alignment when we’re presenting.

If we’re communicating something poignant, speaking loudly and quickly or banging the lectern for effect is likely to undermine what we’re saying. If we want to rally the troops, looking at the floor or speaking quietly and slowly is unlikely to do the job. Practising our coherence will reinforce what we’re saying and maximise its impact.

Logos/reasoning

And so to logos, the rationale behind our argument. This, for Aristotle, is “the proof provided by the words of the speech itself”. According to Sam Leith’s Words Like Loaded Pistols:

“If ethos is the ground on which your argument stands, logos is what drives it forward: it is the stuff of your arguments, the way one point proceeds to another, as if to show that the conclusion to which you are aiming is not only the right one, but so necessary and reasonable as to be more or less the only one.”

Or, in other words, a well-structured and logical argument is essential for the case we’re making.

In A Modest Book About How to Make an Adequate Speech, writer and performer John-Paul Flintoff suggests that we “invent” what we want to say by asking six key questions:

1. Who are we talking to?

Colleagues? Strangers? Existing or potential customers? A mix? Do we know them and do they know us (what’s our relationship)? Understanding (or researching) the demographics of our audience will help us to pitch information at the right level and to know when to avoid (or occasionally embrace) jargon.

2. What do we intend to talk about?

Think about what your audience needs or what they’re hoping for. Most people will be thinking WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) when they’re listening.

3. What are we talking about?

We’ll probably think about answering this in terms of the subject matter. But before that, we should think about purpose – what do we want to achieve – before then building an argument and evidence base.

4. Where will we be speaking?

5. And when?

Location and timing will impact on what we say and how we say it. Presenting to a small group of colleagues in a familiar meeting room will be a very different experience to taking the stage at a bigger, unknown venue.

6. And, finally, bearing in mind the answers to questions 1-5, how?

At this stage, we can start to select our content and structure it properly. Tools such as Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle can help us to get this structure and argument right.

Elements that strengthen arguments include data, facts, survey or research results, quotes, charts, diagrams and demonstrations; the onus is on us to ensure that they are accurate, up to date and from reputable sources. Using slides as visual aids can support our theories, but beware the all-too-familiar ‘death by PowerPoint’. Try making only one clear point per slide, avoid visual clichés, and keep graphs or charts streamlined and simple. Clarity and legibility are all. With ideas that are complex or unfamiliar, analogies, metaphors and practical examples can aid understanding.

Carmine Gallo reminds us of the concept of pictorial superiority, the idea that a picture really can be worth a thousand words. He quotes molecular biologist John Medina who sees our ability to remember images as one of our key strengths. Medina claims that, if asked to recall a piece of information after three days, we’ll remember 10% of it; with a picture, that percentage leaps up to 65%.

We do need to keep it simple, though. Overcomplicating what we say, or loading a presentation with too much detail, might make our audiences switch off. For Gallo, it’s no coincidence that some of the most memorable speeches and documents in history are among the shortest, including The Gettysburg Address (272 words), John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech (under 15 minutes), and the Declaration of Independence, which “guarantees just three unalienable rights”.

While we can never have too much ethos (credibility), levels of pathos and logos will vary, according to audience type. For example, an informative presentation to an audience of academics is likely to have more logos, less pathos; a short speech at an awards ceremony will be weighted the opposite way around. Thinkers have also viewed the UK’s Brexit referendum in terms of this pathos–logos continuum, with the Brexiteers’ pathos-led campaign resonating much more strongly with voters than even the most rational of the logos-based arguments that underpinned the Remain campaign. 

Despite Aristotle’s bold claim that ethos is the most important element of communication, we won’t get far if we can’t marshal the argument – the proof – that logos implies. However we choose to marshal our thoughts and hone our argument, we have to get our facts straight and know how best to communicate them to others. 

Ethos, pathos and logos in action

Knowing about Aristotle’s framework is one thing; using the elements in the right way and at the right time is quite another. It helps to look in detail at a master of the art in action.

Barack Obama is often held up as an exemplar when it comes to public speaking, whether for his poise, a judicious use of pauses or his use of ethos, pathos and logos. In 2013, when he was American President, Obama spoke about the use of chemical weapons in the civil war in Syria and his decision that the US would – if necessary – respond with targeted air strikes; hardly an easy message to deliver. Speaking from the White House – itself a signal of ethos-boosting credibility – the speech is eloquent, clear and convincing.

Obama opens by making appeals to pathos when he describes the plight of “men, women and children lying in rows, killed by poison gas. Others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath. A father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.” It’s an image that calls for a strong emotional response from his audience, in terms of both persuasive content and unequivocal delivery.

The speech then moves on to logos, when Obama outlines the evidence for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. He argues that the use of chemical weapons is clearly against international law, and that a failure to respond would only encourage others to follow suit. The argument is used to explain the logic of air strikes: as a warning to both the Syrian regime and the rest of the world.

The next section of the speech is pure ethos, opening with “That’s my judgment as Commander-in-Chief”. He also talks of being the leader of the world’s oldest democracy, of taking the decision with the US Congress: “I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress. And I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.” That’s a call to ethos that’s not just about himself as President, but about the strength and resolve of America’s elected representatives more generally.

The speech is a masterclass in the power of ethos, pathos and logos to deliver a clear message that balances credibility with emotional engagement and a clear, logical argument. 

On the ground: how to build our own presentations

Fortunately, few of us will ever be called on to defend US military action, but next week’s sales presentation or big company announcement might feel just as daunting. We might fear that no one will listen, that the audience won’t like us or what we’ve got to say. Or we might be worried that we’ll lose our thread, let our nerves get the better of us or forget to make our key points. What if someone asks a question we can’t answer?

Presenting – like other forms of two-way communication – can be tough because we can never entirely control how our audience will react. But there are things we can do to plan, prepare and rehearse that will cut down on the uncertainty and give us the confidence we need to project that credibility. And remember: the best presenters always prepare and practice, no matter how effortless their presentations might seem. You can bet that Barack Obama didn’t just turn up and extemporise about the war in Syria.

Jean-Paul Flintoff offers a five-point process for building our own presentations around a core of ethos, pathos and logos.

First we need invent, identifying the purpose of our presentation using those key questions identified above.

Flintoff calls his second stage arrangement, where we’ll marshal our old friends ethos, pathos and logos to craft and structure what we want to say. He encourages us to focus on what he calls “Really Interesting Proofy Evidence Stuff”, creating an outline or summary of the main argument and how it’ll be supported.

The third stage is all about style, what the ancients called rhetoric. This is where we need to hone and refine the ideas encapsulated in that outline and think about how we’ll present them. That might be coming up with a killer opening line; how and when we’ll vary pace; what we’ll emphasise; when we’ll use metaphor or analogy or introduce visuals, props or video. At this stage, we should also think about rehearsing, either on our own or asking a trusted colleague for feedback.

Stage 4 is the memory phase, finding ways that will help us to recall what we want to say on the day itself. We might create a mind map as a visual prompt, or rely on short-form notes. Flintoff reminds us that the very act of writing something down (by hand), or creating that mind map, will help us to understand information and remember it.

The final stage is delivery, when we finally put all of the preparation into practice. This is where our fears and nerves can really kick in, so it’s essential to be prepared and to focus on the how of delivery as well as that well-crafted content, those ethos and pathos factors.

As we move through this five-step process, we might keep in mind Flintoff’s “Ten steps to making the very best speech you can”:

  1. Start with a single sentence about what we want to achieve.
  2. With that outcome in mind, analyse our audience, and their expectations.
  3. Consider location and timing and how they might affect us and our audience.
  4. Think of stories that encapsulate our purpose and the “ooh” (or wow) moments that contain a key lesson or revelation.
  5. Make notes about your feelings around the presentation and your preparedness for it. Listing our fears will help us manage that uncertainty.
  6. Write an outline, then fill it out and polish it up to a script.
  7. Cut everything that doesn’t help us to achieve our purpose. Rehearse and refine. Memorise the overall structure and specific or key phrases.
  8. On the day, get there on time.
  9. Instead of focusing on ourselves, remember that we’re there to meet our audience’s needs and expectations.
  10. If anything goes wrong, slow down. We need to trust ourselves and our audience to cut us enough slack to recalibrate and move on.

Presenting is a fact of business life. And when we step up into leadership, Aristotle’s central theme of persuasion becomes even more important if we are to engage others and bring them on board with what we want to achieve. Understanding the power of ethos, pathos and logos, and how they can be used in combination, can help us craft presentations that make the connection we need and create the shared understanding that drives communication.

In an era packed with information, filled with distractions, it can be increasingly challenging to get our messages across in a clear and convincing way. Learning how to blend a healthy dose of logos with just the right quantity of pathos and a whole lot of ethos is a route to influencing the hearts and minds of our audiences. They will ensure that our words are not just heard, but are remembered and have the power to inspire and persuade. 

 

Test your understanding

  • Outline Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion.
  • Explain why Aristotle considers ethos to be the most important mode.
  • Describe Jean-Paul Flintoff’s five-step process for creating a presentation.

What does it mean for you?

  • Consider a presentation you’ve delivered recently. Did it include ethos, pathos and logos factors? How were they balanced? Analyse what you said and how, and reflect on areas where you might have done more to connect with your audience.

 

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