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. Feel those goosebumps when Mr Rogers speaks in this short film!

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 1: 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?

Class Activity 2: I am prepared to die

In 1964, at a trial for his anti-apartheid activism, Nelson Mandela delivered this speech, most famous for the powerful coda at the end when he declared, ‘I am prepared to die.’ Read this speech, then explore Mandela’s themes; what does he say about:

  • Dignity
  • Humility
  • Perseverance
  • Resilience
  • Altruism
  • Sacrifice
  • Rights
  • Poverty
  • Justice
  • Education

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:

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.

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: Nelson Mandela’s Speeches

Actor Lucian Msamati reads Nelson Mandela’s speech ‘I am Prepared to Die’, first given on 20 April 1964 from the dock of the defendant at the Rivonia Trial.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison because of his fight against apartheid, the system of oppression maintained by the violent white racist regime in South Africa. He smashed the apartheid system and brought democracy to South Africa, creating a rainbow nation where people of all colours, castes and creeds, can live side by side. He came to be considered the ‘George Washington’ of South Africa; father, architect and leader of a new nation.

His life is an example of peace and forgiveness. When he came to power in 1994, instead of preaching against the apartheid government who imprisoned him for so long, he called for reconciliation. He taught love over hate, forgiveness over rancour, and peace over revenge.  “It is possible to forgive one’s enemies,” he said.

Here is a collection of four of Nelson Mandela’s most famous speeches, constituting a Body of Work. They span his life from activist to president, including: his famous ‘I Am Prepared To Die’ speech from 1964; his inauguration speech; ‘Sport Can Change the World’; his warmly received retirement speech from 2004. While seminal choices, these speeches only scratch the surface of Nelson Mandela’s contributions to politics, society and equality. With a little wider research you can discover more about this important and impressive speaker who, with the help of his powers of oratory, truly changed the world.

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

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Nelson Mandela’s speeches would make ideal texts to use in this assessed activity. You can explore the Field of Enquiry of Politics, Power and Justice with a particular emphasis on the Global Issue of ‘How individuals and societies act in the face of injustice.’ During his 27 years in prison, Mandela became an icon of the injustice of the apartheid system. He was the global face of the anti-apartheid movement. When the calls to free him were finally answered in 1990, the country was on the verge of civil war. White people still controlled the economy and South Africa’s vast natural resources; Black people, who’d been oppressed for generations, were tired of waiting for change. Yet, at his inauguration as president in 1994, Mandela resisted the temptation to seek revenge for the injustices he and his country had faced – instead calling for national reconciliation and forgiveness.

An extract from one of Mandela’s speeches could be paired with any number of literary texts that explore the themes of justice and injustice, revenge or reconciliation. Speak to your teacher about your plans; or give thought to the ideas in the list below:

  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – in Act 4 Scene 1 Portia delivers a powerful speech to try and persuade Shylock to be merciful – yet Shylock insists on having his pound of flesh.
  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – you could explore Doolittle’s character, both in Act 2 and Act 5, and see what he and Higgins have to say about the deserving and undeserving poor, and the justice of Doolittle’s entitlement to a little piece of what Eliza’s got.
  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare – the Kanun demands eye-for-an-eye justice in the land of vendettas that go on forever. An extract from this text could provide an excellent counterpoint to Mandela’s speeches.
  • The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy – perhaps The Devil’s Wife would be a good choice to pair with Mandela’s speeches. By adopting the voice of a convicted murderer, Duffy covertly persuades the listener to change the way they think about a woman who was widely condemned as evil.

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