How we communicate in public says a lot about who we are as individuals. Before 300 B.C., Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about the art of persuasion and communication. Aristotle’s Rhetoric highlighted the Rhetorical Triangle involving three critical elements – ethos, pathos, and logos. This triangle is used by top CEOs and leaders around the world to create successful speeches, seminars, lectures, and workshops. In business, leaders use it to deliver work presentations and to impress others during group discussions.
Ethos or speaker’s credibility is one of the most important qualities of an effective speaker. It includes the trustworthiness of a speaker including their competence, character, and dynamism that keep an audience interested and engaged. Competence is based on a speaker’s experience, training, and skills. A moral character reflects whether the speaker is honest, authentic, ethical, and warm. Dynamism refers to a speaker’s energy, boldness, and enthusiasm. Some leaders that have ethos are Steve Jobs (Apple), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Oprah Winfrey (Harpo, Inc.) and Elon Musk (SpaceX; Tesla, Inc.). What other business leaders can you think about that have this element?
Ethos can be developed through a variety of ways, for example, by obtaining hands-on experience, earning credentials or degrees, or being a person of trust. However, once it is lost, it is very difficult to repair.
Jeff Bezos (Former CEO of Amazon)
According to Linkedin, Amazon’s previous CEO, Jeff Bezos, had enjoyed high levels of credibility for decades. However, his credibility was challenged with infidelity, ethical, and financial scandals. The media had devoted much energy in tearing apart his image. Ultimately, he resigned as the CEO of Amazon to fulfill a lower role as an executive chairman in 2021.
Travis Kalanick (Former CEO of Uber)
Additionally, according to The Guardian, Uber’s previous CEO, Travis Kalanick had endured many company scandals. These scandals were about defying rules and regulations, sexual harassment, bullying, and gender discrimination. These instances reduced his credibility and his ability to run the company effectively in the midst of the turmoil. This led to his resignation as the CEO of Uber.
CEOs have the most challenging job, in part because they need to maintain their performance, but also their ethos for the long haul. It can take years to develop their ethos, but one bad mistake can ruin a lifetime career.
Pathos or the emotional appeals used on an audience makes speakers memorable, long after the delivery of their presentations. A speaker can appeal to positive emotions such as joy, empathy, hope, and pride. Or, to negative emotions such as guilt, fear, sadness, and anger. CEOs and business leaders who use pathos effectively in their presentations can influence the perceptions of the masses. A leader can use a personal childhood story, show a sad video, or share a joke that is humorous.
Jim Whitehurst (COO of Delta; CEO of Red Hat)
The former COO of Delta and CEO of Red Hat, Jim Whitehurst, used pathos in his latest TED Talk. He shared a bizarre story about his personal experiences during the second week on the job at Red Hat. At a meeting, a junior engineer colleague challenged the decision of his superiors. He stated “how wrong it was” and that it was “the wrong direction to go.” This led to a huge argument. But, at the end of the meeting everyone walked out as if this behavior was normal. The junior engineering colleague kept his job. Jim noted that in other companies that he worked for, this engineer would have lost his job. And, this elicited much laughter in the audience.
Oprah Winfrey (CEO of Oprah Winfrey Network)
Oprah Winfrey has been widely known for her highly successful speeches in commencements, business conferences, and award shows. Her secret is being able to share her personal story, “from poverty to wealth.” She highlights experiences of being the first African-American woman to lead a successful TV show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, for 25 years, as well as for serving as a television producer. In her presentations, she uses pathos effectively. She has the ability to make an audience cry and laugh during the same speech. Her audience members identify and empathize with her story and personal experiences, which make her easy to relate to.
When leaders use pathos effectively, the audience will experience the intended emotions. However, CEOs need to be careful. Aristotle warns that if pathos is used ineffectively, it can spoil the message and make an audience doubtful and angry. A good example is when discussing sensitive topics like religion and politics.
Logos or the appeal to logic includes the use of facts, examples, and statistics. This appeal can be used by providing clever arguments, testimonies, and references. Logos works by engaging the mind of an audience via logic and reason.
Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook)
In Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk, she reasoned with her audience. She cited the following statistics. “One-hundred-ninety heads of state – nine are women.” “In the corporate sector, women at the top, C-level jobs, board seats – tops out at 15, 16 percent.” She used these numbers to support her main point. She suggested that the corporate world was headed in the wrong direction.
Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX)
Additionally, in a public interview in a TED conference, Elon Musk was asked. “How can an electric car that plugs into that electricity help?” And he used logos by stating the following:
There’s two elements to that answer. One is that, even if you take the same source fuel and produce power at the power plant and use it to charge electric cars, you’re still better off. So if you take, say, natural gas, which is the most prevalent hydrocarbon source fuel, if you burn that in a modern General Electric natural gas turbine, you’ll get about 60% percent efficiency. If you put the same fuel in an internal combustion engine car, you get about 20% efficiency.Elon Musk, Serial Entrepreneur, TED Conference Interview
In this quote, he effectively provided statistics and examples supporting his argument. In this fashion, business leaders can use logos by using credible statistics and facts to deliver credible messages.
Using Appeals Consciously
In sum, business leaders can adopt Aristotle’s Rhetoric Triangle anytime they need to speak in public, or at meetings. Aristotle argued that one appeal alone will not be sufficient to be an effective communicator. However, a combination of appeals would enable anybody to deliver powerful presentations. Leaders need to be conscious not to over-do or misuse any appeal for the wrong purpose(s). Or, the effects might backfire. Instead, leaders need to use the appeals in relation to their audience’s needs, and should strive to deliver clear and authentic messages.
Dr. Leslie Ramos Salazar
Associate & Abdullat Professor of Business Communication and Decision Management