Readers, Writers, Texts

Speaking to Elephants: Rhetorical Devices in Speeches

The Power of Persuasion explains ethos, logos and pathos for you… and will teach you why you should ‘speak to the elephant’ first.

All speeches contain three basic ingredients: ethos, pathos and logos. These are the terms used by the ancient Greeks to describe the different ways a speech appealed to an audience. Ethos refers to the trustworthiness of the speaker: it is what gives the speaker the right to stand before an audience. Ethos can be understood as a process of establishing credit with an audience, and building confidence in the listener. Pathos is any part of the speech that appeals to our emotions (the word shares a root with pathetic, sympathy and empathy). Whenever speakers remind you to be patriotic, make you smile or frown, or make you feel guilty they are appealing to your emotions. Logos is the part of the speech that appeals to our sense of logic and all good speeches do this. Statistics, arguments with sound premises, and examples of reasoning are all indicative of a logical approach to winning over the audience. 

You can think of a speaker as an artist or craftsperson and ethos, pathos and logos as the framework upon which the artisan works. The artist will also carry around a tool bag of rhetorical devices – paints, tools and other kit – to be used to a greater or lesser degree, whatever is judged best to bring out the beauty of the artwork. Read a selection of the articles below to hone your own knowledge of these rhetorical tools, and how to recognize and appreciate them in speeches you study:


Class Activity: telling your hyperphora from your anaphora

Use the cards below to play a matching game. Review the devices on the screen, then print out the cards and scatter them over a table. Can you match the name of the technique to the example from a famous speech?

Learner Portfolio

Take an issue that is important to you; for example, an environmental issue, volunteering, the importance of exercise, a school issue. Write a one-two page speech in which you employ the rhetorical devices from this section to persuade your reader/listener of your point of view. For maximum effect, once you have finished, read your speech out loud to your classmates as if you are an activist or political leader.

For inspiration, and if you like to study aurally, you can listen to the speeches in this excellent collection before you write your own.

Areas of Exploration Guiding Conceptual Question

There is no doubt that language use varies between text types and literary forms. The context of a text, the purpose of the writer, and the audience for which it was written will all effect the language of the text. Using the resource below, you’ll discover how Martin Luther King Jr’s background, his persuasive intention, and his knowledge that many of his listeners might be illiterate shaped the language he used in his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech:

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: speeches

“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare invade the borders of my realms; to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtue in the field.”

Queen Elizabeth I of England, at Tilbury, 1588

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below is an archive of ten speeches. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of Persuasive Speeches, including identifying ethos, logos and pathos. Add the texts to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:


Body of Work: The Obamas’ Speeches

Obama is completely addicted to what technical rhetoricians call anaphora, which is what politicians always do. It’s where you repeat a word or a phrase at the beginning of the sentence, so you build up a whole rhythm. He says, “I’m going to be a President who’s going to do this, a President who’s going to do that…

He also builds very musical sentences. He never says something in one term when he can say it in two. And that’s called syndeton, which goes: We’re talking about homes and jobs, people and places, fish and chips…

He also does — which I wish I knew why it was so effective, neurologically — but he does what’s called the group of three, which is called the tricolon. “Blood, sweat, and tears,” which is actually a misquote from [Winston] Churchill … The human brain wants things to go into groups of three for some reason. It’s hugely rhetorically effective to use groups of three, and Obama does it all the time.

… If you just look for grouping of three phrases that rise up in import and significance as you get to the end. So things fall into groups of three, balanced pairs, the syntheton thing. There are a lot of parallelisms, lot of antithesis, one thing and the other.”

Sam Leith, Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric From Aristotle to Obama (above)

When the Obama era came to a close in the United States, much was made – and rightly so – about his abilities as an orator.  Websites and newspapers were ranking his top speeches, comparing them to J.F.K., Lincoln, and F.D.R. in American history. Much less was said about Michelle Obama’s powerful voice in those eight years; but this oversight has recently begun to be rectified. With the publication of her top-selling autobiography (Becoming) and a continuing public presence, the media is beginning to appreciate her skill as a wordsmith too.

Here you can find a collection of six of Barack and Michelle’s seminal speeches delivered between 2004 and 2016. You can study the transcripts and listen to the speeches by clicking the links inside this Body of Work. (NB If you decide to use this collection for your Individual Oral you should use either Barack’s or Michelle’s speeches – not both – as your Body of Work must consist of texts by the same named author.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

IB Language and Literature Guide

Either Michelle or Barack Obama’s speeches (but not both) would make ideal texts to use in this assessed activity. They connect very well to a variety of Global Issues such as Beliefs, Values and Education or Politics, Power and Justice. You could pair them successfully with a number of extracts from your literary texts, particularly when writers have characters speak powerfully in plays or when a character promotes a particular viewpoint. Alternatively, you could study the themes and issues brought up in these speeches (for example, fatherhood, motherhood, black history, aspiration – there are many more) and present them alongside similar issues in a literary work of your choice. Speak to your teacher about your ideas; the list below is not exhaustive:

  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – in Act 4 Scene 1 Portia delivers a powerful speech to try and persuade Shylock to be merciful.
  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – when Doolittle uses every rhetorical trick in the book to get money out of Higgins in Act 2.
  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare – the Kanun doesn’t speak, but Gjorg is still persuaded to follow its tenets. Compare and contrast the rhetorical features of Obama’s speeches with the way Gjorg is persuaded in this literary work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s