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Ethos, Pathos, Logos: What Are They and How to Use Them

Ethos, Pathos, Logos: What Are They and How to Use Them?

You may have heard the terms ethos, pathos and logos at some point in your life, but what do they mean, exactly? All three are techniques of rhetoric, meant to persuade others toward a particular point of view. You’ll often see them being used in political speeches, commercials, content marketing perhaps, and even movies and literature.

Each technique uses a different approach to appeal to the audience and solidify the argument, whether you’re establishing: the character of the speaker (ethos), the emotional state of the listener (pathos), or the argument itself (logos).

In this article, we’ll look at these three methods in detail, and how to use each effectively.

The three traditional modes of persuasion

Greek philosopher Aristotle first defined these three methods in Rhetoric, where he writes:

Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, provided by the words of the speech itself.

Ethos is when a speaker or writer appeals to their authority as a means of persuasion. They use words to convince the audience of their reputation, virtue, intelligence, or even their professional qualifications. This way, the audience is more inclined to believe in the argument presented. Of course, in order to be effective, the speaker or writer doesn’t necessarily have to have these virtues, just appear to. This is something that can be deployed verbally or through writing, including content cowriting.

Pathos is the act of evoking emotions in the audience or readers in order to persuade. The speaker or writer uses words to manipulate people into feeling empathy, desire, anger, joy—virtually any emotion. To do so, they need to understand who they’re talking to and the greater societal context quite well.

Logos is the act of appealing to the logic of the audience or readers. Here, the speaker’s or writer’s effort is focused on the rational validity of the argument proposed. Usually, this comes together with the use of facts, data, statistics and other logical demonstrations. As with ethos, logos doesn’t necessarily have to be logically sound to be effective, but it does have to appear to be. This is also what makes it an essential part of any type of marketing.

These three techniques show up in all sorts of circumstances, from political speeches and courtroom debates, to advertisements, essays, marketing strategies and opinion pieces.

A good and memorable speech will utilize all of them together. For instance, a politician may establish rapport by mentioning her up-by-the-bootstraps childhood (ethos), speak about the unifying power of the country’s citizens (pathos), and then go on to explain how her election will bring about these ideals in practicality (logos). It's also not uncommon to see all three used in the same motivational quote, for example.

“Ethos”: Definition and examples

What is “ethos”?

Ethos is sometimes mistakenly defined as the speaker’s appeal to the audience’s ethics, but, in fact, it has more to do with the speaker’s own values or character. Near the beginning of a speech, the orator may use ethos to establish credibility by delivering a brief biography or selected highlights of their personal history. They may also use their voice, tone, gestures or vocabulary to further ground that they’re qualified to talk about the specific topic at stake. Essentially, it’s about trust.

Famous examples of “ethos”

Example 1: Advertising campaigns

Any advertisement that has a celebrity endorsement uses ethos. Michael Jordan and Nike, Matthew McConaughey and Lincoln automobiles, Oprah and Weight Watchers—all these are examples of leveraging the speaker's reputation as a means to prop up a product or service. This works because the celebrity is commonly seen to possess certain virtues that the brand wants to be associated with.

During the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama used ethos when she endorsed presidential candidate Joe Biden by reminding the audience of her own integrity:

Now, I understand that my message won't be heard by some people. We live in a nation that is deeply divided, and I am a Black woman speaking at the Democratic Convention. But enough of you know me by now. You know that I tell you exactly what I'm feeling. You know I hate politics. But you also know that I care about this nation. You know how much I care about all of our children.

In the 1975 film Jaws, Quint (played by Robert Shaw) delivered his famous soliloquy about the USS Indianapolis. The whole speech oozes with ethos, as Quint tells the story of his experience as a sailor in WWII to explain his vendetta against man-eating sharks:

You know that was the time I was most frightened. Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water. Three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.

How to use “ethos”

The next time you’re posting on social media, or give a presentation in the office, try using ethos. Talk about your past experiences and qualifications. Make sure your audience knows who you are, and why they should trust your voice. Actually, though you may not be aware, you use ethos quite often already. Any time you’ve asked a listener to trust in what you are saying, based on your character or expertise, you’re working with your ethos.

To use ethos effectively, you need to remember your audience. What do they need to hear in order to believe in you? What kind of background details can you give them? Keep in mind that ethos is highly relative, since the qualities that are expected in one field aren’t necessarily the ones another audience will value. Remember who you’re talking to and shape your argument accordingly. If you’re a car salesman trying to convince a customer, you can mention you’ve been in the business for 40 years and know what you’re talking about. If you’re applying for a job in a startup, mention your personal attributes that the interviewers might value: flexibility, ambition, and tech savviness.

Focus on what will really build up your character in the eyes of the audience and establish your authority. The more relatable and trustworthy you are, the more effective your speech will be. Equally as important, don’t mention the factors that will destroy your credibility and are unrelated to the topic at hand.

“Pathos”: Definition and examples

What is “pathos”?

Stemming from the Greek word for "suffering," "experience," or "emotion,” pathos appeals to the emotions of the audience. Aristotle believed that the orator could use their words to lead the audience to experience virtually any type of feeling. He thought that, in order to succeed, they should be constantly aware of three main factors: 1) the audience’s frame of mind, 2) how emotions vary from person to person, and 3) the influence the speaker has over the audience.

Famous examples of “pathos”

Example 1: Coca-Cola’s Taste the Feeling campaign

Pathos is common in advertisements today. Just look at the McDonald’s I’m lovin’ it and Coca-Cola’s Taste the Feeling campaigns—the emotion is in the slogan. Talking about Coca-Cola, in each commercial from the brand, the people in it are happy, young, generally loving life under the sun, accompanied by bright colors, buoyant music and an atmosphere of energy and positivity. The messaging implies that if you want to be happy, drink Coca-Cola. Pathos is the perfect choice as the other methods of persuasion fall flat. Not logos—there are not many logical reasons to drink sugar-packed beverages. And as for the company’s ethos—the consumers don’t necessarily care about the brand’s values or reputation. Pathos is the only way to sell the product. You’re probably craving one now.

Pathos often appears in the best and most moving political speeches, as in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous I have a dream speech:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights: 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘For Whites Only.' We cannot be satisfied and we will not be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

See how he uses repetition with “We can never be satisfied” to drive his point home. His words are chosen carefully to invoke emotion: “unspeakable horrors,” “heavy with fatigue of travel,” “stripped of their selfhood,” and “robbed of their dignity.”

One example in cinema appears in Requiem for a Dream, when an elderly housewife, played by Ellen Burstyn, appeals to her son to empathize with her sense of loneliness and emptiness:

I’m somebody now, Harry. Everybody likes me. Soon, millions of people will see me and they’ll all like me. I’ll tell them about you, and your father, how good he was to us. Remember? It’s a reason to get up in the morning. It’s a reason to lose weight, to fit in the red dress. It’s a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow all right. What have I got Harry, hmm? Why should I even make the bed, or wash the dishes? I do them, but why should I? I’m alone. Your father’s gone, you’re gone. I got no one to care for. What have I got, Harry? I’m lonely. I’m old. Ah, it’s not the same. They don’t need me. I like the way I feel. I like thinking about the red dress and the television and you and your father. Now when I get the sun, I smile.

Delivered with a wavering voice, the housewife’s sadness and fragility comes across in simple, modest language: “I’m alone,” “I got no one to care for,” and “They don’t need me.” She also uses rhetorical questions to communicate her sense of hopelessness: “What have I got?”

How to use “pathos”

Pathos is a very effective way to bring the audience over to your own perspective, but you have to be keenly aware of 1) the kind emotion you want to elicit, and 2) what truth you’re going to draw on to trigger that emotion.

You have to work backwards, in a way. Then, build a narrative to encapsulate that truth—you can’t simply plop the truth on a platter. Show, don’t tell. Look at all those skateboards in Coca-Cola commercials. They aren’t simply saying, “Coca-Cola will make you feel good.” They show people who feel good.

Moreover, pathos is most effective if used sparingly—you don’t want to be too sappy or forced. An audience can smell a faker a mile away. Don’t forget to use analogies, humor, surprise, body language, maybe even visuals if the forum is right.

Lastly, to take some tips from Aristotle’s own rulebook, here are a few more tools you can use with pathos to make it more effective:

  • Aposiopesis is the unexpected breaking off in the middle of a sentence. If you are speaking, then, all of a sudden, find yourself overcome with so much emotion that you can’t even finish your sentence—if used carefully, this will invoke empathy in the audience,

  • Paromologia is when you concede part of your opponent’s point. It has the double effect of making you appear honest and logical, while mitigating your opponent’s argument which ultimately, also creates a feeling of empathy in the audience,

  • Jokes are often memorable techniques for pathos. A speaker will seem more relatable, and even more intelligent than an opponent who employs only logos or ethos, even if that person’s argument is more sound. It can also be used to make the audience sit up and pay more attention to your point.

“Logos”: Definition and examples

What is “logos”?

Logos comes from the Greek term for “word,” and is a direct ancestor of the English term logic. Logos is the reasoned discourse, the logical demonstration—whether it’s inductive reasoning (drawing general conclusions based on factual evidence) or deductive reasoning (starting with an hypothesis and confirming it with logical reasoning). Data, statistics, facts, figures, and common sense are all tools of logos to convince your audience. It relies wholly on the strength of the argument itself, regardless of the emotions felt by the audience or the expertise of the speaker. An argument with logos should be able to stand up by itself.

Famous examples of “logos”

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius counsels his son Laertes to never give money to friends. His logic is that it’s often risky to combine debt with personal relationships, which can result in the loss of both money and friends. By the same token, borrowing can make you complacent, spend money haphazardly, and lose the habit of “husbandry,” that is, being thrifty and mindful of your own expenses.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be,

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

In 2012, Barack Obama used logos when discussing the 2008 recession in the State of the Union address:

In 2008, the house of cards collapsed. We learned that mortgages had been sold to people who couldn’t afford or understand them. Banks had made huge bets and bonuses with other people’s money. Regulators had looked the other way, or didn’t have the authority to stop the bad behavior. It was wrong. It was irresponsible. And it plunged our economy into a crisis that put millions out of work, saddled us with more debt, and left innocent, hardworking Americans holding the bag. In the six months before I took office, we lost nearly 4 million jobs. And we lost another 4 million before our policies were in full effect. Those are the facts.

He makes a clear case, explaining how irresponsibility was the direct cause of the loss of millions of jobs and increase in debt nationwide. He gathers his statements and drives his point home by stressing that, indeed, those are the facts.

How to use “logos”

Logos is a powerful tool, because it often stands on irrefutable hard data and statistics. It doesn’t need the charisma of the orator or the emotions of the audience to make a well-reasoned argument. That said, how the audience receives it is another topic entirely—dry facts can come across stilted if not cushioned by the speaker’s charisma.

To use logos most effectively, temper it with common speech that everyone can understand. If your topic is complex, use simple words to explain it. Don’t hide your beautiful argument behind complicated words, jargon or generalizations. Be as specific and concrete as possible, with examples, and stress the most important points.

One method you can use with logos is the syllogism, whether you combine two premises and draw the logical conclusion from them. The most famous example, from Aristotle himself, is: “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” In order to use this type of logic effectively, you should be keenly aware of the accepted premises shared with your audience. You can use what is deemed by your audience to be common sense or social truths to solidify a greater, more universal truth that you want them to accept.

Aristotle was also a fan of using logos in such a way as to guide the audience to reach the conclusion to the argument on their own. By suggesting the conclusion with logic, rather than stating it outright, the audience will be more accepting of your point. Simply put, they will feel more confident in the overall reasoning if they do the work themselves.

In a nutshell

To sum it up:

  • Ethos is the act of appealing to the speaker’s or writer’s authority as a means of persuasion,

  • Pathos is the act of evoking emotions in the audience or readers to make your point,

  • Logos is the act of appealing to the logic of the audience or readers.

Aristotle believed that logos should be the most important of the three modes of persuasion, but to really be effective, a speaker or writer needs to use all three. Ask yourself three questions: Does the audience respect you? Are you able to evoke emotions? Does your logic make sense? If you can answer ‘yes’ to all three questions, then you have a powerful argument.

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Wailana Kalama, UX Writer at Wix

Wailana Kalama, UX Writer at Wix

From Hawaii and now based in Lithuania, Wailana spends her free time reading creative essays on science, and working on a speculative memoir.

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