What Makes a Speaker Persuasive?

In his treatise on rhetoric, when Aristotle set out to express the factor that makes a public speaker most persuasive, he elected an element not many of us would choose. To Aristotle, a speaker’s most powerful weapon is not logos: it is not his unanswerable logic, argumentation, insightful content. It was not the eloquence and rhythm of his words. Nor was it pathos: someone’s passion, emotion, intensity of expression, full range of body moves.

Instead of logos and pathos, Aristotle chose instead ethos: the speaker’s character. For him, more important than what was said, or how intensely it was said, was who said it. A speaker’s character is his or her most persuasive trait. His ethos, comprised for Aristotle of wisdom, virtue, and goodness toward the audience, is what speaks loudest to the people who hear his words.[1]

I confess that I felt surprised, even disappointed, when I came upon Aristotle’s choice some years ago. True, if a speaker’s life does not match his words, the most eloquent of speeches won’t get a listening. But provided he is a decent person, I thought, and nothing could be held against him, clearly logos and pathos were much sharper arrows. Aristotle should just listen to Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream, and notice his choice of metaphors, the rhythm of language and repetition, his use of songs and scriptures to ground his argument, and the bursting, passionate delivery of his rising words – until he reaches a stirring climax with “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last” – to realize that ethos is no match for logos and pathos.

But as Aristotle’s observation remained in the back of my mind, and I came to listen to numerous speakers over the years, I grudgingly and slowly gave in to Aristotle. The master philosopher was right also on this one. And what convinced me of Aristotle’s choice for ethos was this: think of a good speaker you heard a while ago. You may remember a couple good insights; maybe a carefully constructed sentence, if he was really able and repeated the sentence at key points. You may remember a moving story or a passionate delivery.

But what stuck? What addresses you still? It is not words or emotions: it is the speaker’s soul. The questions that remain over time are: how good was that person? Did her humility lower my barriers, and did her benevolence attract my heart, so our personalities could meet? How much did she penetrate into me? Was there a communication of spirit? More than the delivery of a message, was there an encounter? Like Aristotle pointed out, it is the speaker’s spirit that communicates the most. Words may inform our minds, emotions may move our hearts, but we are permanently
transformed only if a speaker’s character is compelling, and a piece of his soul penetrates into ours.

I’m an avid speech listener. I will pay almost whatever cost to go hear the best speakers, and to savour that multiplicity of words, emotions and spirit packed beautifully into a few moments. I search across history to find and read the most compelling rhetoric ever articulated, trying to imagine what it was like to be there and listen, feeling the speaker’s soul project forward and move through the audience. I confess I have even prayed a couple times for God to let me experience in a dream what it was like was to sit under George Whitefield, as he swept whole cities and countries with his eloquence in the eighteenth century. But nothing makes my heart beats faster than to imagine myself among the crowds that once filled the beaches and hills of Galilee, as word got around that a prophet was in town, next to people who walked for weeks to hear him speak, and to relish Jesus’ words, and feel the gravity of his personality, and be infused by his spirit, and press through the crowd, until I could get a glimpse of his eyes, and go home with a piece of that soul in mine.

René Breuel

[1] Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric (New York: Penguin, 2005), book 2.1.5-9



6 responses to “What Makes a Speaker Persuasive?

    • Thanks, Anson! Great tip too, it seems an interesting book indeed. I saw a video by Duarte recently, where she analyzed King’s rhetoric in I Have a Dream. She was really good.

  1. You are so right – as was Aristotle! I’ve listened to much, but when the speaker’s character is such that his spirit communicates to your soul, it is unforgettable.

    • You’re right, Sandra, it seems that someone’s soul sticks with us in a way words or emotions don’t. This is a very good reason to cultivate our character and spirit, eh?

  2. I think that for Aristotle the character of an orator is of prime importance but perhaps not in the ways we usually think. It wasn’t personal morality that was the prized dimension of skillful oratory so much as it was the proper execution of a persona (“mask” in Latin). “Person” in this sense–-literally “that which is sounded through” (per-sonar)–-is not an essence or ego or the irreducible human self. Rather, it’s a role one plays. An orator’s powers, then, are not tied primarily to his or her own ethical character (though ethics aren’t unimportant), but to inhabiting a role that persuades, moves, inspires, and transforms others. This can help us appreciate the remarkable oratory of someone like MLK, Jr. without placing on him the impossible burden of sainthood.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful contribution, Debra! The concept of persona is indeed key in ancient rhetoric and drama. I agree also that we should not hope to view a speaker’s character through idealist lenses of sainthood, but realize that the persuasiveness of someone’s character derives from their expression of humaness, of personality.

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