How to Give a Persuasive Presentation

A merry soul by the name of Miss Khadim, who writes under the nom de plume: the Silent Soliloquy asked me last week to write something on how to give a presentation. Although what she asked was about instructive speech, I will focus today on persuasive speech and return to instructive speech in a forthcoming blog (hopefully next week).

Aristotle, who is commonly known as a philosopher, and you might be forgiven to think what might a philosopher have to say about giving presentations. But, as we shall see in this blog, Aristotle has great insight in this area; given that a presentation in other words is the act of persuading others to act or believe in a certain way; this is precisely what Aristotle is a master of – the art of persuasion – and his book entitled Rhetoric is the masterpiece that he produced on this topic.

There are basically three main strategies that one employs to persuade others. And the best words to describe these three strategies are the ones that the Greeks used. They are: ethos, pathos and logos.


The Greek word ethos represents a person’s character. The presenter must first present him/herself as possessing character that is fit for the purpose at hand. When facing an audience, your first job is to portray yourself as being someone who knows what they are talking about. You need to establish trust with your audience so that you come across as honest, reliable and likeable.  Ethos should always come first. Unless you have already established yourself as a credible speaker and made yourself attractive to your audience, you are unlikely to capture their attention nor persuade them to do anything. It is only after they are persuaded to trust you can they be persuaded by anything else you have to say.

There are many ways to do this. But it must come first. One way is by telling stories about yourself, which can be heightened if they produce laughter and the laughter is about you. You can do it by mentioning your association with others whom you praise for certain qualities that you hope your listeners will also attribute to you. You can do it indirectly by underestimating your credentials for the matter at hand, which your listeners may take as undue modesty.

One classic example of the role of ethos in persuasion  can be found in the speeches made by Brutus and Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’. These two great speeches are magnificent orations and the motive behind them is to move the listeners to take a course of action.


Let us set the scene. Julius Caesar has just been assassinated. The Roman citizens have gathered around his dead body, grieving for their loss, angrily demanding accountability. Brutus, who took part in the assassination, ascends the rostrum to address them:

“Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge. If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: –Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.”

The citizens all reply in unison. “None, Brutus, none.” Satisfied that he has persuaded the audience to believe that he was justified in the assassination of Caesar, Brutus allows Marc Antony to proceed. The crowd cheers Brutus at which he quiets them and implores them to listen to Marc Antony. Marc Antony ascends the rostrum and addresses them:

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.”

Both these speeches illustrate the role of ethos; albeit that Brutus’ speech is short whilst Antony’s address is long. Brutus, satisfied that he has done his job, only asks that they let him depart alone. He does no more to persuade them to any course of action. Antony on the other hand, is not so easily satisfied. He wishes to avenge Caesar’s death, and wants to see that Brutus is brought to trial and thus resorts to pathos and logos to arouse the mob against Brutus.

Ethos, as we have just seen, consists in establishing the credibility of the speaker. Pathos however,  consists in arousing the passions of the listeners, getting their emotions to run in the direction of the action to be taken.

Pathos is the motivating factor. And it makes its appearance fairly early in Antony’s speech. Antony reminds them all of the things Caesar did for Rome, things from which they benefited, and as he recounts these benefactions, he asks them repeatedly whether they can believe Caesar displayed self-serving motives or dedication to the public good. Antony asks:

“He hath brought many captives home to Rome

Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:

Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?”

He asks again:

“When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff

Yet Brutus says he was ambitious.”

Antony thus succeeds in changing the mood that Brutus had established. Citizens cry out in response: “Caesar has had great wrong”; “He would not take the crown; therefore ‘tis certain that he was not ambitious”; others proclaim their admiration for Antony: “There’s not a nobler man in Rome than Antony.”

Satisfied with what he has achieved: establishing his own good character and moving their passions in the direction he wants, Antony proceeds with the final blow by giving reasons for the actions he has sought to motivate.

Logos – the marshalling of reasons – comes last. Just as you cannot bring motivating passions into play, until you have first aroused favourable feelings towards your own person, likewise there is little point in resorting to reasons and arguments until you have first established an emotional mood that is receptive of them.

How does Antony in the concluding portions of his address commingle pathos and logos that he persuades in moving the citizens of Rome to take up arms against Brutus and his associates.

First of all, he very sneakingly, mentions Caesar’s will, and suggests that they will learn that they are the beneficiaries of the will. Antony speaks thus:

O masters, if I were disposed to stir
Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage,
I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong,
Who, you all know, are honourable men:
I will not do them wrong; I rather choose
To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you,
Than I will wrong such honourable men.
But here’s a parchment with the seal of Caesar;
I found it in his closet, ’tis his will:
Let but the commons hear this testament–
Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read–
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar’s wounds
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
And, dying, mention it within their wills,
Bequeathing it as a rich legacy
Unto their issue.

They beseech him to reveal the contents of the will. But before he tells them that every citizen of Rome shall receive 75 drachmas each, he launches into his final pitch that ignites their passions to the highest level :

“If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle: I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on;
‘Twas on a summer’s evening, in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii:
Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Casca made:
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb’d;
And as he pluck’d his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow’d it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolved
If Brutus so unkindly knock’d, or no;
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel:
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms,
Quite vanquish’d him: then burst his mighty heart;
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey’s statua,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell.
O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourish’d over us.”

This speech is the last straw. The citizens cry out for revenge against the assassins calling them traitors and villains. They are no longer honourable men. But Antony does not end there. He needed to be sure that he had won the day, and takes one more step to ensure his success. These final lines play with the ethos of Brutus compared with the ethos of Antony, it epitomises the reasons – logos – for the action to be taken and confirms the passions – pathos – he has already aroused:

“Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up
To such a sudden flood of mutiny.
They that have done this deed are honourable:
What private griefs they have, alas, I know not,
That made them do it: they are wise and honourable,
And will, no doubt, with reasons answer you.
I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts:
I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,
That love my friend; and that they know full well
That gave me public leave to speak of him:
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on;
I tell you that which you yourselves do know;
Show you sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,
And bid them speak for me: but were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.”

“We’ll mutiny!” the citizens roar. “We’ll burn the house of Brutus” they exclaim. It’s only then that Antony reveals that every citizen is the benefactor of Caesar’s will. That does it. They cry out “Go fetch fire…” “Pluck down the benches…”. Satisfied with himself, Antony retires saying to himself:

“Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt!”

And there we have it. Ethos, pathos and logos in play. Two things to bear in mind though to ensure the effective use of pathos.

First of all, you must recognise the human desires that are present within all humans – the desire for liberty, justice, peace, pleasure, honour – and that you can assuredly use these as motivating forces to ensure your end result, and recommend these with reasons that justifies it as a better way of achieving the desired result than some alternative course of action.

Secondly, sometimes persuaders cannot always count on desires that are generally prevalent. Sometimes, they must instil the very desire that they seek to satisfy with their product, policy or candidate. Sometimes people have needs that they are not aware of. It is the persuader’s job to awaken these dormant desires. This is what is done when there is the latest i-phone on the market. So too, is the case when there is a new candidate for public office.

With ethos and pathos fully in play, logos remains the winning trump (no pun intended!). In the use of logos there are a further few things to bear in mind.

Above all, you must avoid lengthy, complex arguments. The task to be performed is not to be convinced of something akin to mathematical reasoning. Effective persuasion aims at something much less – only a preference for one product over another, or one candidate over another. Hence the argument must be very much elliptical and condensed.

Rhetorical questions are another form of persuasive arguments and reasoning to employ logos.  Thus, for example, Brutus asks the citizens of Rome: “Who is here so base that would be a bondman?” adding at once: “If any, speak, for him have I offended.” Similarly, Antony asks: “Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?” And after reminding the populace that Caesar thrice refused the crown that was offered him, asks: “Was this ambition? ” Rhetorical questions to which only one answer can be given – Caesar was not ambitious. Here we have ethos, pathos and logos as used in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Although I have given a rather antiquated example, there are more common ones that we see all around us. Public relations offices, marketing and advertising all make the use of these fundamental principles of ethos, pathos and logos. Be it in the political arena, in the courtroom, a public ceremony, a sermon at the mosque or a household talk to the rest of the family –  all involve winning customers and followers with the practical purpose of getting them to adopt a recommendation being advanced.



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