Aristotle’s Theory of Rhetoric Is the Key to Giving a Good Speech
It’s all about that logos, ethos, and pathos, baby
In his definitive work, Rhetoric, Aristotle wrote that a good speaker must have three things under control: the argument (logos), the presentation (ethos), and the audience (pathos). This is just as valid today as in ancient times.
Aristotle and, later, the Romans Cicero and Quintilian, established a complex five-point plan for writing brilliant speeches, which essentially boils down to this: Good preparation is everything.
Aristotle considered rhetoric to be not a tool to convince the audience but an art form that could help present a persuasive argument. Because people with good ideas are often poor speakers, he provided them with a toolbox full of rhetorical resources. You might say that Aristotle was the first person to prepare academics for their TED Talks and keynotes.
These are the tools:
- Anaphora: Repetition of a word or phrase; typical in political speeches: “I demand justice. I demand understanding. I demand…”
- Inversion: Reversing the usual word order, such as in “Infinite is his sorrow” (instead of “His sorrow is infinite”).
- Irony: Saying one thing when you really mean the opposite; for example, “I really enjoyed being stuck in that traffic jam.”
- Rhetorical questions: Questions that make a statement; for example, “Would you like shiny, glossy hair?”
- Analogies: “Life is like a box of chocolates” (banal), or “He was as confused as a comma at the end of a sentence” (creative).
- Antithesis: A contrasting thought to produce tension; for example, “He was beautiful, strong, and… unhappy.“
In practice, the same rules that apply to speeches are also true of workplace presentations: Read through your text aloud several times. (One full sheet of legal paper is about four minutes of presentation.) Remember to integrate pauses. Look at your audience. Breathe deeply. And use Aristotle’s tools for great rhetoric, even if you’re addressing not the Lyceum but a conference room of your peers.
Ultimately, a good speech is one that induces the listeners to change their minds, while giving them the feeling that this change of opinion is their own decision.