best practicesThe art of rhetoric: What you can learn from highly persuasive speakers

by TED Masterclass Team • August 11, 2021

You can’t always get what you want, but there is a way to increase your chances of a “yes.” We’re talking: persuasion.

Also known as the art of rhetoric, it’s a centuries-old practice that is still relevant today. TED-Ed’s video about rhetoric, written by Camille Langston, shows that this practice is present in many well-known speeches, including those of powerful politicians, such as Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill, and activists like Martin Luther King Jr. While it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to convey our ideas — and persuade others of them — using rhetoric isn’t a skill or a secret reserved only for oratory luminaries. You can master the language of persuasion, too. And it’s not as complicated as you might think (we promise!).

The three components of rhetoric

Langston simplifies the art of persuasion to three main components which are present in all persuasive endeavors: ethos, pathos, and logos. While ethos is important in presenting yourself as an authority of the point you wish to convey, pathos and logos center around the audience. Pathos works to tug at your audience’s heartstrings, whereas logos appeals to the analytical left side of the brain. This isn’t to say, though, that you should resort to smoke and mirrors to play with others’ emotions. Too often, people equate rhetoric to manipulation, which isn’t the aim of the craft.

In any rhetorical situation, it’s important to stick to the truth, even when you want to state an unpopular opinion. While this leaves your ideas at the whims of your audience’s different backgrounds and thought processes, using rhetoric can help you make a good case for your argument and perhaps convince others to see things in a new light. And if you aren’t successful, what might arise is an opportunity for conversation, in which you and your audience can arrive at an understanding.

Putting rhetoric into practice

All that said, how can you actually use rhetoric? Here are five tips on ways you can apply rhetoric, verbally or in writing, to level up your skills. With practice, you can present your point successfully and, maybe even get what you want.

  1. Introduce yourself. It’s crucial that your audience know why you are sharing your viewpoint. Are you a respected authority with the credentials to prove it? Or if you’re unable to quantify your experience, you can share personal stories, struggles or insights that contextualize why you arrived at your idea. This will not only lend you an air of expertise, but also show your audience that you’ve taken careful consideration of the matter at hand.
  1. Unlearn your prejudices. Whether you’re just beginning the process of preparing a presentation or applying the finishing touches, keep in mind that there are always multiple sides to a story. Try to pinpoint any blindspots you might have. It helps to put yourself in the shoes of people who might have opposing viewpoints and think about why they might believe something different as truth. You might also want to conduct research, or consult someone who can give you another perspective.
  1. Make your audience a top priority. The main intention of persuasion may be to get what you want, but it should never be at the expense of anyone else. While it might be difficult to please everyone, it’s important to consider how your viewpoint might affect your audience. Could your viewpoint give rise to any unwanted consequences? Or even convince people to believe that something harmful is true? Alternatively, ask yourself what’s in it for your audience when stating your opinion.
  1. Support your statement. There are many nuances to what might be considered as fact. But, in any case, ensure you have the data to support your claims. Use reliable statistics, figures, or charts, and avoid any jargon that might muddle your statement. Remember, your audience is a top priority, so you want to present your points with the utmost clarity. Otherwise, this might alienate your audience’s views from your own — which doesn’t make a good case for what you’re trying to say either.
  1. Leave room for compromise. Not all disagreements are bad, and if any arise from your statement, that’s okay. There’s always room for healthy discourse. That said, it’s important to create an atmosphere of safety, where your audience can air out concerns or questions that might’ve arised. And if you’re open to hearing other perspectives, even if they don’t necessarily conform to your own, you may actually come to a better conclusion in the end.

Whether you’re looking to persuade your colleagues, friends, or family, rhetoric will come in handy. Like any skill, though, it requires time and practice to master.

If you want to learn more, visit TED Masterclass. There, you can learn all the most important information about the art of rhetoric, among other communication tips.

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TED Masterclass Team

We're the team behind TED's official public speaking course, TED Masterclass. We want to give you resources that will empower you to share your idea or story.

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