Academic Argument

Rhetorical Strategies: Building Compelling Arguments

Rhetoric pertains to how authors use and manipulate language in order to persuade an audience.

To be rhetorically effective (and thus persuasive), an author must engage the audience in a variety of compelling ways. We can classify these as Logos, Pathos, and Ethos.

Logos: Appeal to Logic

Logic. Reason. Rationality. Logos is brainy and intellectual, cool, calm, collected, objective.

Logically sound writing often includes many examples to support a point – and those examples come from citation of credible data and statistics, reference to sound theories, reference valid research conducted by credible organizations.

Logical appeals rest on rational modes of thinking, such as

  • Comparison : you compare one thing (with regard to your topic)  to another, similar thing to help support your claim. It is important that the comparison is fair and valid – the things being compared must share significant traits of similarity.
  • Cause/effect thinking : you argue that X has caused Y, or that X is likely to cause Y to help support your claim. Be careful with the latter – it can be difficult to predict that something “will” happen in the future.
  • Deductive reasoning: you start with a general claim/example and then use it to justify a in a smaller claim
  • Inductive reasoning: you use several specific examples or cases and use them to make a larger generalization
  • Exemplification: use of many examples to support a single point

Pathos: Appeal to Emotions

Pathos is deeply human – an author using pathetic appeals wants the audience to feel something: anger or pride or joy or rage or happiness. Pathetic appeals rest on emotion-based modes of communication . To engage the audience on an emotional level, the author may

  • add expressive descriptions of people, places or events that helps the reader to feel or experience those events
  • include vivid imagery of people, places or events that helps the reader to feel like he or she is seeing  those events
  • share personal stories that help the reader feel connected to the person being described
  • use vocabulary or sentence structure that revolves around a particular emotion: sadness, happiness, fear, joy, anger, disgust, horror.
  • try to include any information that will evoke an emotional response from the audience. This could involve making the audience feel empathy or disgust for the person/group/event being discussed,  or perhaps connection to or rejection of the person/group/event being discussed.

Pathos-based strategies are any strategies that get the audience to “open up” to the topic or to the author. Emotions can make us vulnerable, and rhetors can use this vulnerability to get the audience on his or her side.

Ethos: Appeal to Values/Trust

Ethical appeals have two facets.

One the one hand, an ethical appeal taps into the values that the audience holds, for example, patriotism, tradition, justice, equality, dignity for all humankind, self preservation, or other specific social, religious or philosophical values (Christian values, socialism, capitalism, feminism, etc). These values can sometimes feel very close to emotions, but they are felt on a social level rather than only on a personal level. If an author can evoke the values that the audience cares about in his or her argument, then he or she has a chance of persuading that audience because the audience will feel that the author is making an argument that is “right” (in the sense of moral “right”-ness).

This sense of referencing what is “right” in an ethical appeal connects to the  moral character of the speaker/author. The author may draw attention to who he or she is as a way to engage the audience (i.e., “Because I support this – and you all you trust me because we share the same values! – you should, too”). If an author can present his or her moral character, one that the audience trusts because they (author and audience) share values,  then he or she has a chance of persuading that audience. In this sense, the audience will feel that the author is the right person to make this argument and should therefore be believed.

In building ethical appeals, we see authors

  • referring either directly or indirectly to the values that matter to the intended audience
  • using reasoning or logic that relies on these values
  • using language, phrasing, imagery or other writing style common to people who hold those values – tapping into the discourse community of people with those values
  • doing anything else that shows the audience that the author understands and shares their values