How exactly do messages persuade?

18 Sep

In the past week, we learned many ways in which messages can persuade us. Writers can convince the reader of a certain topic or idea through their angle of vision. They do this by stating their point of view directly, selecting some details while omitting others, and only choosing words and figures of speech that will be beneficial to their argument. They emphasize some points and de-emphasize others – a clever, shrewd tactic that even we use on a daily basis.

Writers also persuade through appeals to logos, ethos, and pathos – terms coined by our very own philosophical genius Aristotle. Logos is the appeal to reason: a writer makes good use of it when he asserts his thesis in a clear and concise manner, providing a good deal of evidence and reasons to support it. All the claims that a writer makes should be supported with examples, illustrations, studies, statistics, or something in between. Ethos is the appeal to the character and ethics of the writer. He should prove credibility, be familiar with the subject matter, and show integrity and self-understanding. Pathos is known as emotional appeal – directly affecting the audience/readers. Whatever sympathies, values, beliefs, and emotions that the writer personifies are meant to sway the audience. This could be through different tones, emotional descriptions, figurative language, etc.

If you look back in time and study historical events, you will find that there has always been a powerful rhetorical speaker behind every successful revolution. Martin Luther King Jr., notably regarded as the “king” of rhetoric, gave speeches that would give you chills and new level of motivation and insight. He was an extraordinary thinker – his words served a purpose – and he made sure that the audience would take with them a new outlook on life. So how did he go about doing it? Simple rhetorical strategy. In his speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King exemplified rhetorical mastery, using logos, ethos, and pathos to unify his fellow African Americans through the nonviolent movement in Memphis, Tennessee.


In this speech, King appealed through logos in a variety of different ways. With a career of ministry under his belt, King alluded to several biblical stories (“…I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, of rather, across the Red Sea, throught wilderness, on toward the Promised Land”). He referred to the U.S. Bill of Rights in asserting that blacks were given freedom of assembly, freedom of press, and all the same freedoms as white people. He even gave examples of companies (Coca-cola and Wonder Bread) who were unfair in their hiring policies. King urged blacks to boycott these products in making a difference.

Furthermore, King used ethical appeal in his speech, in order to convince the audience that he was open-minded, trustworthy, and noble. The entire point of his speech was promoting his good character – he wanted equality for blacks. He wanted to end segregation, but without using any violence. He presented ideas of boycotting, protesting, and other forms of peaceful resistance. By his appeal through ethos, millions of people around the country were affected and craving change.


Martin Luther King used emotional appeal as the final touch in his speech. As he did in other speeches, King came up with inspirational words to live by – he used certain phrases and word choice that would directly tug at people’s heartstrings (“The masses of people are rising up. And wehrever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free'”). King used a motivational, determined tone in which he expressed confidence in the future of blacks. He used constant parallelism. In the end, the audience was captivated – and persuaded – to take control of their lives and seek freedom together.


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