Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Aristotle’s Rhetorical Situation

words as pistols

Words Like Loaded Pistols by Sam Leith, is an entertaining exploration of how people have taught, practiced and thought about rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama.

Before you let the title of this post put you off, let me explain what it’s doing  here. Lately I have been part of a  discussion about whether we should use Aristotelian concepts and terminology  as a tool for speech study.

Aristotle’s  ‘Rhetorical Triangle‘ (ethos pathos logos)  is  well known to many students. I think it’s great. The triad is  memorable, elegant, and usable.   I update it  to “The Three C’s”: credibility, connection, and content, and for me,  these have proven to be a  robust framework,   a clear and stable set of  principles for people  who are studying speeches, or learning to write and present speeches of their own.

One argument for caution with the Greek terms is that  – like a  2000 year game of chinese whispers,  time  has corrupted their original meaning.   I cannot read Greek, (thanks to the NSW schools system) so can’t judge this for myself, but one translation of  Aristotle’s On Rhetoric puts the basic idea this way:

Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself.

I think we are still doing as Aristotle suggested, but maybe some  nuances are lost, and it’s possible the concepts  have been simplified to the point of inaccuracy.

So how do we check out what Aristotle intended, and decide  how to use it these days?

I’m copying you an article originally published here  by  The Writing Lab at  Purdue University, (which, if you don’t know it, is a fantastic source  of language and writing  resources). Not only does it clarify  the meaning of  Aristotle’s  terms, it explains how they interlock to  make  a framework which supports any writer or speaker in any  ‘rhetorical situation’.

Importantly, as well as the three main ‘…thos’ prongs,  it emphasises the ancient greek attention to the purpose of  communication,  the setting, and  the attitude by which  a message is delivered.  Of course these are all crucial  for getting anything across to anyone.

And that’s the key. We should not focus only on the three  points  of Aristotle’s triangle, but   teach people to attend to  all six dimensions: credibility, content, connection, purpose,  setting, and attitude.

I’ll have to get back to you with a handy  way of remembering them, but meantime, here’s  an edited  version of what Purdue University’s Writing Lab has to say.


Rhetorical Concepts

Many people have heard of the rhetorical concepts of logos, ethos, and pathos even if they do not necessarily know what they fully mean. These three terms, along with kairos and telos, were used by Aristotle to help explain how rhetoric functions.

In ancient Greece, these terms corresponded with basic components that all rhetorical situations have.


Logos is frequently translated as some variation of “logic or reasoning,” but it originally referred to the actual content of a speech and how it was organized. Today, many people may discuss the logos qualities of a text to refer to how strong the logic or reasoning of the text is. But logos more closely refers to the structure and content of the text itself. In this resource, logos means “text.”


Ethos is frequently translated as some variation of “credibility or trustworthiness,” but it originally referred to the elements of a speech that reflected on the particular character of the speaker or the speech’s author. Today, many people may discuss ethos qualities of a text to refer to how well authors portray themselves. But ethos more closely refers to an author’s perspective more generally. In this resource, ethos means “author.”


Pathos is frequently translated as some variation of “emotional appeal,” but it originally referred to the elements of a speech that appealed to any of an audience’s sensibilities. Today, many people may discuss the pathos qualities of a text to refer to how well an author appeals to an audience’s emotions. Pathos as “emotion” is often contrasted with logos as “reason.” But this is a limited understanding of both pathos and logos; pathos more closely refers to an audience’s perspective more generally. In this resource, pathos means “audience.”


Telos is a term Aristotle used to explain the particular purpose or attitude of a speech. Not many people use this term today in reference to rhetorical situations; nonetheless, it is instructive to know that early rhetorical thinkers like Aristotle actually placed much emphasis on speakers having a clear telos. But audiences can also have purposes of their own that differ from a speaker’s purpose. In this resource, telos means “purpose.”


Kairos is a term that refers to the elements of a speech that acknowledge and draw support from the particular setting, time, and place that a speech occurs. Though not as commonly known as logos, ethos, and pathos, the term kairos has been receiving wider renewed attention among teachers of composition since the mid-1980s. Although kairos may be well known among writing instructors, the term “setting” more succinctly and clearly identifies this concept for contemporary readers. In this resource, kairos means “setting.”


Authors and audiences both have a wide range of purposes for communicating. An author’s purpose could be to instruct, persuade, inform, entertain, educate, startle, excite, sadden, enlighten, punish, console, or many, many others. LIkewise  audiences may seek to be instructed, persuaded, informed, entertained, educated, startled, excited, saddened, enlightened, punished, consoled, or many, many others.  Multiple purposes can co-exist on both sides of the experience.


Attitude is related to purpose and affects how a rhetorical situation unfolds. Consider if an author communicates with a flippant attitude as opposed to a serious attitude, or with drama as opposed to comedy, or calmly as opposed to excitedly. Depending on authors’ purposes, audiences’ specific qualities, the  context, and other factors, any of these attitudes could either help or hinder efforts to communicate.


Lastly, all rhetorical situations occur in specific settings, or contexts or environments. The  setting include  time, place,  and the community or conversation in which authors and/or audiences engage.

Time: It is fairly common knowledge that  people communicate differently depending on the time in which they live. They have different assumptions about the world and how to communicate based on the era in which they live.

Place:  Specific places affect the nature of the communication. At a rally, the place may be a hall or the steps of a national monument. In a  conference, lecture  or court case, the place is a  formal room. In other rhetorical situations, the place may be in print, in the pages of a publication. The place  shapes  the way communication takes place.

“Community” or “conversation” refers to  social interactions among authors and audiences.   Consider Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. The immediate community and conversation was the  Civil Rights Movement. But the enduring nature of Dr. King’s speech has broadened the setting to include many countries and many people who have since read or listened to it. Dr. King’s speech is an example of a rhetorical situation that is much bigger than its initial text and audience. Not many rhetorical situations are as far reaching in scope as Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Contributors: Ethan Sproat, Dana Lynn Driscoll, Allen Brizee Last Edited: 2012-04-27 10:29:16


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on 02/09/2013 by in Audience connection, Presenting a speech, Public speaking, Uncategorized and tagged , .

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.