Public Speaking and Persuasion in a Post-Truth World

Christopher Witt —  November 22, 2016

persuasionThe US presidential campaign dragged on seemingly forever. And it was–even by political standards–ugly, dirty, and mean spirited. I’m glad it’s over.

I wish I could draw some positive lessons about public speaking and persuasion from either of the candidate’s speeches, but I can’t. I was largely uninspired by Clinton’s speeches. I was appalled by Trump’s rhetoric.

What concerns me most–as a citizen and, more specifically, as a speechwriter–is how frequently and effortlessly misinformation, distortions, and flat-out lies were asserted, only to be refuted (by those pesky little fact checkers) and then repeated.

It’s no surprise that the Oxford English Dictionary selected post-truth as the international word of the year for 2016.

Post-truth: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

“Appeals to emotion and personal belief” have always played a key role in persuasive public speaking. Over 2,500 years ago Aristotle identified three proofs of a persuasive speech:

  1. Ethos: The character and knowledge of the speaker
  2. Pathos: Appeals to the audience’s emotions, interests, and imagination
  3. Logos: The clarity of the message’s logic and the evidence put forth to support it

In this recent election pathos was the clear winner. Ethos and logos were almost nowhere to be found.

In future posts I’ll examine why pathos was so dominant. I’ll draw some lessons about the use of pathos in public speaking and persuasion. And I’ll point out why in non-political arenas pathos, divorced from ethos and logos, is not only ineffective, but calamitous.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

2 responses to Public Speaking and Persuasion in a Post-Truth World

  1. Typically thoughtful and incisive commentary from Mr. Witt. I’d like to point him to Sebastian Junger’s book “Tribe.” Junger writes, “Human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money and status.” What’s been lost in America is the feeling that every American is necessary to every other American, and that we can find common ground in a constructive effort to create a better, more just and abundant society. My sense is that one “tribe” in this election was driven by rage, grievance and toxic fake “evidence” to destroy the other tribe and bring back a wholly imagined “golden age” by empowering a strongman who will (somehow) roll back 50 years of settled civic progress. I’ve never been more despairing about the state of our politics, and more scared of our future. I look forward to Chris’s next post.

  2. Thanks for your insights, Rich. I’ll look into Junger’s book.

    I think we underestimate the depth of people’s rage. And, of course, I look at rage through a classical Greek lens. Rage isn’t just intense anger. It’s anger based on the perception that 1) something we rightly possessed (e.g. white privilege, male superiority) 2) has been unfairly taken from us 3) by someone we consider inferior (e.g. minorities, women).

    Enraged people don’t just want the return of what they lost; they want revenge–they want to hurt–to humiliate–those who took it from them.