Your Talk: Credibility, Content and Soul
Founder and chairman of national charity Care for the Family, Rob Parsons is also a trained lawyer, an accomplished speaker and a prolific author, whose books have been translated into many languages. His latest book, The heart of communication, tells you everything you need to know 'to really connect with an audience.'
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested that the art of public speaking is essentially the art of persuasion, and that there are three distinct elements which should be at the heart of every speech: ethos, logos and pathos. Let’s consider them in turn.
Ethos is a Greek word meaning ‘character’. In the context of public speaking it answers the question, ‘Is this person worth listening to?’ or ‘What right do they have to give this talk?’ In other words, it refers to your character, ethics and believability. If you speak to the same group of people every week, you probably don’t need to remind them each time why it is worth their listening to you speak – they made up their mind on that long ago. And the same is true of many other speaking situations. In some cases, the audience have either already decided that you have the right to speak or perhaps they believe it just doesn’t matter: if you are giving the address at a wedding, nobody is going to want to know that you are an expert wedding speaker and that this is your twentieth engagement this year.
But in other situations, the element of ethos is absolutely vital. Taking time to establish your credibility – your character – helps put the audience in the right frame of mind to listen to you. The Apostle Paul knew that increasing his credibility with his listeners before and during his talks increased the possibility that they would accept his arguments. Sometimes he kept quiet about his credentials, but at other times he found it helpful to remind his audience of them; he knew that, for at least some, his background and experience would make a big difference.
Imagine that somebody is about to give a talk to a group of business people entitled ‘Handling Tensions in the Workplace’ – let’s call her Claire Hicks. It will help her considerably if the chairperson takes a little time to build her credentials. For example:
Our speaker today worked for many years in the City as an investment banker, then after her ordination she became chaplain to the London Chamber of Commerce. She is the author of Life Lessons from the Trading Floor. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Claire Hicks!
Ethos does not just achieve the goal of proving you have the right to speak – it can also help create empathy with the audience. Steve Jobs understood this. When he gave his famous commencement speech at Stanford in July 2005, he didn’t need to convince them that he was successful. What he was trying to establish was that those achievements had not come easily. He wanted to connect with those students – some of them from challenging backgrounds and with significant struggles ahead – at the start of their entrepreneurial journey:
Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was twenty. We worked hard, and in ten years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over four thousand employees. We had just released our finest creation – the Macintosh – a year earlier, and I had just turned thirty . . .
This is not an easy area to get right. Going over the top with an introduction can alienate an audience. That’s why you should never let a chairperson introduce you as ‘One of the best/funniest/most motiv-ational speakers’ they have ever heard. It makes those who are listening whisper under their breath, ‘Oh really? Impress us!’ – and it’s normally downhill from there. A friend told me the story of a man who was introduced like this: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it’s wonderful to have Brett Clevedon with us today. Brett made ten million dollars in oil.’ When Brett took the stage he looked as though he was struggling with something, but eventually he spoke. ‘I am grateful for that kind introduction, but it wasn’t me – it was my brother. And it wasn’t oil – it was coal. And he didn’t make ten million dollars – he lost it.’
On the other hand, the chairperson who says, ‘I’m not going to spend time introducing our speaker today’ often does nobody any favours. In those circumstances, you may have to do the credibility thing yourself. It’s a good idea to have a short piece you are comfortable with up your sleeve that you can then begin with. It should give people a sense of what you have done in the past but avoid making you look as if you are totally in love with yourself – perhaps something like this: ‘Thanks for the opportunity to speak to you today. For the past twenty years I have been involved in education/the third sector/the political arena/church leadership. I hope some of the lessons I’ve learnt down all those years will be helpful to you today . . .’
The second element of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion is logos – the attempt to convince an audience by an appeal to logic or reason. It means constructing a persuasive argument, organising your various points in a sequence with each point building on the previous one, and might involve giving facts, citing authorities on a subject, using historical and literal analogies, explaining a text or some statistics. For example, a business seminar might contain something like this:
The global economy faces serious challenges in this century. Its very nature – particularly its interconnectedness – has caused a number of problems. Many of these are relatively short-term, such as the recent recession following the banking crisis, and often self-correcting. Others, however, have long-lasting effects. The change in oil markets in the 1970s is felt right up to the present time. This table shows some of those ‘global shocks’ and their relative longevity.
Or perhaps in a church service:
In our autumn series on the theme ‘You’ve Got Mail’, we are studying some of the letters of the New Testament. Today we are considering Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Allow me to give a little background. It was written when Paul was in prison. We can tell that because of Chapter 1:8, ‘Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner’ and also Chapter 1:16, ‘Onesiphorus . . . was not ashamed of my chains.’ It was certainly written in Rome, but we are not sure exactly when. Paul seems to know that he is near the end of his life. That has led most scholars to believe that this was his second imprisonment and, if so, it was probably written around AD 66 – about thirty-five years after the death of Jesus.
We all learn in different ways and for many people the logical argument, the academic explanation, the evidence for suppositions will be very important, whether, for example, in apologetics, business, education or medicine. In teaching from the text of the Bible, a serious consideration of meanings of its original language, historical context and the writings of scholars we respect will help keep us from purely individualistic interpret-ations of the passage we are speaking about.
And that brings us to Aristotle’s last element of persuasion . . .
It is from pathos that we get our words ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’. Pathos is essentially an appeal to the heart – to the emotions.
On 4 June 1940, Britain was in one of the most difficult periods of its history. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers had just been rescued from the German advances and plucked off the beaches at Dunkirk. France had fallen, and just a tiny strip of water separ-ated a battered country from the most formidable of foes. The previous month, Winston Churchill had faced his cabinet and resisted intense pressure to come to a ‘peace settlement’ with Hitler. But now he was about to address the House of Commons. It was the darkest hour of the Second World War and he desperately needed to inspire the nation with the hope and courage to fight on.
He could have chosen at that crucial moment to make his appeal by using the element of logos – perhaps reading from reports of his generals or reciting statistics of resistance victory in occupied Europe. But when Churchill stood in the House of Commons on that summer’s day it was not to logic or reason that he turned, but to pathos – the emotions:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender . . .
Some say that short speech changed the course of the war.
Before we leave the Houses of Parliament on that auspicious day, if you listen to a recording of that speech you will notice that Churchill employed one of the most effective tools of pathos – pause. At times he took it even further by including moments of silence. As you grow in confidence as a public speaker, try experimenting with this – letting your words hang in the air for a moment before pressing on. The following is a letter I have recited hundreds of times at my events – I know it word for word. It was written to me many years ago by a woman:
Dear Rob, thank you for coming to our city with your seminar; I really enjoyed it. I was a disappointment to my father – he wanted a son. He never hugged me, told me he loved me, or praised me (I think maybe he thought praise would make me big-headed). I know he was a product of his generation, nevertheless my self-esteem is very low. I often feel guilty and very depressed . . .
Whenever I read this letter to an audience, I pause at this point and say, ‘And then she wrote this:
I am eighty-five years old.
I think that line is so moving that it deserves to hang in the air for a while before I start to speak again.
Silence is powerful. Henri Nouwen said, ‘Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning’, and at times there can be incredible pathos in simply saying a phrase followed by a short silence to let it sink into an audience’s hearts: ‘Tomorrow doesn’t have to be like yesterday’, ‘Don’t be afraid’, ‘Don’t lose heart.’
I sometimes hear speakers say, ‘I don’t want to appeal to people’s emotions – that’s too shallow.’ But emotions are part of the way we are designed. Do you not think that Jesus was appealing to the emotions as he told the story of the father running down the road to welcome home his prodigal son?
Ethos, logos and pathos – but which is the most important?
The answer depends on your audience and what you are hoping to achieve in your talk. I used to teach commercial law to postgraduates who were about to become solicitors. There wasn’t much need (or opportun-ity!) for pathos in those lectures. No, the element I needed to utilise, first, was ethos – I had to ensure the students trusted my credentials. And, second, I used logos – they needed sound academic material that would help them pass the impending examinations.
The lecture hall makes it easy to make those choices, but I had a much more complicated tussle with my public speaking style some years later.
Remember Aristotle’s three pillars of public speaking: ethos, logos and pathos.
Take some time to establish your credibility.
Construct a persuasive argument, organising your various points into a sequence with each point building on the previous one.
Don’t be afraid to touch people’s emotions.