Ethos, Pathos, Logos: a skirmish with ancient history

Article published in the Institute of Sales Management "Winning Edge"

Aristotle created his seminal work, “On Rhetoric”, over 2,300 years ago. It included his theory of the three persuasive appeals – ethos (credibility), pathos (emotion) and logos (logic). This work is still regarded as the bible of public speaking, but the three appeals can be applied to any form of communication.

Whilst we often talk about emotion being the keystone of the early stages of the business development lifecycle, and logic being the keystone of the proposal phase, all three appeals apply equally to proposals – they play to the emotional and logical aspects of buying and the need to provide proof to be convincing. So, let’s explore each of the three appeals and how we can bring them to life on the page.



Although ethos is the Greek word for ‘character’, we typically associate it with ‘ethics’ and think of trust. Indeed, by ethical appeal, Aristotle means convincing our audience we are believable, reliable and trustworthy by showing our character.

If we dig a little bit deeper, we find extrinsic and intrinsic ethos. Extrinsic ethos is your undisputable experience and authority. It is also your reputation, created by what others think and say about you. Intrinsic ethos is the impression you create through your communication, for example whether you show care, consideration and commitment.

An often quoted speech that demonstrates ethical appeal is Barack Obama’s Democratic Presidential Candidate Acceptance Speech on August 28th 2008. It exudes authority and conviction.

"I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future."

It is easily possible to create an impression through text. Think of the different styles of, say, Geoffrey Archer and John Steinbeck, or The Sun newspaper and The Times.

Here are some simple steps to improve the ethical appeal of your business writing:

  • Use authoritative language: take responsibility by using ‘will’ and not ‘would’; use the active voice; be clear and concise - avoid fluffy wording.
  • Write objectively: show your customers you are fair and unbiased – you are seeking to solve their problems not just sell for the sake of it.
  • Include evidence of your expertise or pedigree: use case studies, customer testimonials and third party reports. Make these relevant and quantified; find the closest matches, explain what you did, how you did it and the result.
  • Ensure your spelling and grammar are accurate: this shows care and attention to detail - an example of the excellence of your deliverables.

If you are tempted to think that long, complex words and sentences make you seem more intelligent, think again. Fascinating research by psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University proved that people who write simply are thought to be smarter and more trustworthy. George Orwell perhaps worked that out years ago when he said: “Never use a foreign word, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”



Pathos, the Greek word for both ‘suffering’ and ‘experience’, is all about emotion. Think about empathy – seeing things from the other person’s point of view. We want our audiences to convert to our way of thinking, but we also want to show that we understand their way of thinking. We need to cleverly create a meeting of emotions so there is mutual empathy.

Take Winston Churchill’s Preparation for the Battle of Britain Speech delivered to the nation on June 18th 1940:

"What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over: the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: This was their finest hour.”

Stirring stuff. Churchill needed the British people behind him as the war continued, so he painted pictures of the future, which roused the emotional response of wanting to remain independent and be champions for the world. Ways to move your proposals toward such a performance include:

  • Acknowledging the customer exists: mention them first and at least as much as you mention yourself (I am constantly amazed how many proposals never mention the customer).
  • Appealing to your customer’s self-interest and identity: show you understand their objectives and requirements (both project and personal); paint a picture of a journey to a better place together; think how to alleviate their negative emotions such as frustration, fear and anxiety.
  • Expressing (appropriate) feeling: try an emotional tone; use vivid and sensory language; include examples, stories or analogies that evoke emotion.
  • Mirroring your customer: structure your proposal in accordance with their instructions; capture their style; use the same language, words and spellings; write to the same level of sophistication – avoid being clever (remember those simplicity points).

And a word of warning. Although starting your document with “We would like to thank you for this opportunity” or “We are delighted to present our proposal” may sound like stellar examples of pathos, such phrases can sound sycophantic and self-centred, so avoid at all costs. Focus on your customer and not you – re-read the Churchill speech and you’ll see he doesn’t once mention himself, but he gets what he wants.



Logos is the Greek word for ‘word’ or ‘reason’. We automatically associate it with ‘logic’, which is all about how we make sense of things. Hence, Aristotle’s logical appeal is about convincing an audience by use of reasoning.Tony Blair’s Rethinking Leadership for Development Speech from October 19th 2011 is a straightforward delivery of facts and figures that makes a powerful point:

"To take just one example, Free Healthcare had been knocking around as an idea in Sierra Leone for decades. And there were even donor resources available to support the reform. Including very generous backing from DfID. But until the government lined up the political will –a clear lead from President Koroma –and the basic systems to manage the reform nothing happened. Once those things were in place the reform happened at speed. With great results: since Free Healthcare for mothers and young children was introduced almost three times as many under-5s were treated in government health facilities than during the previous 12 months, leading to an 80% reduction in child deaths in hospital from malaria, thereby saving thousands of lives."

Some of you may now be thinking that this appeal is easy, it’s just a question of listing out all your features. Unfortunately, this is often how proposals end up. For a better end result, try:

  • Linking features to benefits: translate what the feature will do for the customer – what outcome or result will it deliver. And quantify this wherever you can in terms of money, time or other relevant measure. That is the true value you are bringing.
  • Constructing balanced arguments: cite parallel cases or analogies; ‘ghost’ (disadvantage) your competition by setting out different designs or approaches with the pros and cons of each.
  • Support features and benefits with evidence: use past examples and statistics to provide proof. Use these throughout your proposal as part of your narrative.

Final checks and balances

If you follow this advice, you should get a good balance of the three appeals throughout your proposal; balance of both quantity and position. It’s fine to weave all three together or focus on one for effect like some of our example speeches. To check your balance, one tip is to highlight the appeals in different colours. There will be some overlap – evidence in particular can support all three, and clear writing should pervade.

If you’re short of time, focus on your executive summary, key opening and concluding paragraphs, and strategic and high scoring sections.

Finally, try reading it out loud. Put your best ‘world leader’ hat on and see if you can impress your colleagues with your compelling oratory in the Aristotle style.

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