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In the last RSA event of the year, Sam Leith and Philip Collins just gave a very entertaining overview of why rhetoric, the ancient art of persuasion, has contemporary significance. Sam introduced what he called the three musketeers of rhetoric: ethos, pathos and logos.

It quickly became clear that logos, the actual logical structure of one’s argument, is in many ways, the least important of the three. It is with ethos and pathos that audiences are won over, and without them, it is more or less impossible to wield the power of persuasion.

Ethos is appeal based on the trustworthiness of the speaker, needed to convince the audience that the speaker’s intentions are good and that they have sufficient expertise to be believable. Pathos is appeal based on emotion, whether stirring patriotism, anger, or pride.

It was because of a lack of ethos that David Cameron’s speech after the riots was not a success. The pathos wasn’t really there either, and the overall effect of his speech was affectively flat, leaving the listener unmoved and unconvinced. This is despite the fact that the speech itself was well written – there was nothing wrong with the logos, but on its own it simply doesn’t work. Philip mentioned a comment once made about Wagner’s music, that it’s better than it sounds. But in this case, despite its well-composed content, the speech was all artifice; Cameron came across as implausible and unimpressive.

Contrast this with Barack Obama speaking at the Tucson memorial at the beginning of this year. Ethos and pathos drip from every word. Obama’s oratory has a musical quality and the pacing and rhythm of his speech draws the audience along with him.  When asked by a member of the audience whose rhetoric we should be looking out for in 2012, Sam and Philip commented that there is no one to rival Obama, especially not in the UK.

It’s clear that getting the rhetoric right is absolutely vital in the world of politics, and speeches still matter. But rhetoric has relevance beyond politics. Slipping in a classic rhetorical device (the tricolon) in his own talk, Sam pointed out that we should care about rhetoric so as to understand it better, use it better and resist it better.

Resisting rhetoric in the face of the 3,500 adverts an average Briton is exposed to on a daily basis seems set to become an ever more important life skill. Those adverts represent just one of the huge demands placed on our attention in modern life. With more or less constant bombardments of messages from one kind of media or another, our appreciation for narrative and recognition of the influence of rhetoric are threatened. Like Sam says, taking time to pay attention to the rhetorical influences all around us is an important challenge of significance to us all.


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