On The Compleat Speaker

I would like to state at the outset that I am not writing in this entry a review of the book The Compleat Speaker, by someone long associated with Toastmasters.  As I enjoy reading about rhetoric and speaking as well as practicing the art myself, I may get to that particular book at a later time.  What I wish to do today, at least briefly, is to provide an overview of what is necessary for one’s speaking to be complete and balanced, not lacking in any essential part.  I’m not dealing with the technical aspects of speaking or the organization that is necessary, which depends a great deal on how long one has to speak and the audience to which one is speaking and the expectations that they have, but rather the sort of approach that one must take as a speaker to be a complete speaker in whatever genre of speech that one is giving.  Obviously, far more could be said and this is only a brief overview, but it is still worth saying, however briefly, so that we can understand what a speaker must bring with them to engage effectively with an audience.

There are three elements that a speaker must bring when engaged in rhetoric.  The same is true for a writer whose writing has obviously rhetorical aim, but in speaking these aspects are all the more important because there are elements of tone and body language that are present in face to face interaction (or watching someone on television) that are not present when one is reading something that one has written.  We will, in deference to the Greeks, whose writings on rhetoric form the foundation of the Western tradition of rhetoric, use the three terms logos, ethos, and pathos as a way of describing the three essential elements of speaking that must be present for a message to achieve its maximum effectiveness.  To put it very briefly, logos is the logical aspect of rhetoric, making sure that one is making the right argument and that one has a grasp of the knowledge and evidence to make one’s case.  Ethos is the ethical aspect of one’s speaking, the character that one is appealing to for the audience as well as the ethical content of the speaker’s life and personal example.  Finally, pathos is the emotional side of the argument, the appeal to the emotions of the audience, and as people are more deeply moved by emotion than by logical appeals alone, having an emotional appeal is of vital importance in encouraging a change of belief or behavior in the audience.

It is clear that there are serious problems that result when one is missing or deficient in one of these elements of speaking.  For example, if one lacks logos, then one’s message will be massively defective in that one will not know what one is talking about, and so the change that one seeks to make in one’s audience will be a change for the worse.  This happens frequently when people do not know anything about morality or economics and seek to encourage people to behave in ways that have perverse consequences because they advocate laws or positions that fail because incentives do not line up with intentions in the absence of firm understanding about how people behave in reality as opposed to one’s ideal mental image.  Likewise, a deficiency in ethos may mean that someone says what is right but lacks character and integrity and is therefore a hypocrite whose message suffers because it lacks the grit of being a message that is lived by the speaker.  We may admit that a hypocrite is right, but we will not take what he or she has to say very seriously.  And if someone lacks pathos, what they say may be logically correct but may not answer the real heart of an issue, or why some sort of injustice or trial bothers us so deeply on a personal level.  However much we may prefer to be logical and rational, it is important when we are dealing with others that we show ourselves to be compassionate and understanding, being able to deal with matters of the heart and not only of the head.

How, then, do we improve in such matters?  To improve in logos, what we need is better understanding about what we wish to talk about.  We must become more knowledgeable about reality so that we are able to better respond to it, and our knowledge must be broad because there are many interactions and implications between different aspects of knowledge.  What is learned in one domain frequently has consequences in other domains.  To improve in ethos we must improve our own character and integrity.  We must live more closely according to our standards, and to have both the appearance and the reality of being people whose word is reliable and who are people of honor.  This may take a long time to build and is quite fragile to the outbreak of folly and human frailty.  And to improve in pathos we must be people who are compassionate enough to listen to others and to discover the pain and suffering of their existence, and to have lived long enough and well enough that we are able to convey our own experience and how it has allowed us to build a sense of empathy with our audience, so that they know that we are human beings who share the same concerns about honor and face and who are sensitive to the dignity of those they are dealing with.

It is admittedly true that not all public discourse that one is involved in will draw upon all of these elements equally.  When we are giving a technical talk, our logos will be of the highest importance.  When we are laying down standards for a family or for an institution, our ethos will be the element of most importance in establishing our credibility as a moral authority.  Likewise, when we are comforting someone who is going through a terrible trial or who has lost a loved one, the sense of pathos will be of the highest importance in providing encouragement and succor.  But we will only be able to handle these situations to the extent that we are complete speakers, and to be complete speakers we must be complete people, lacking neither knowledge, character, nor compassion.  Our speaking is not in isolation from who we are as people, but we bring our own knowledge and experience and character with us when we engage in speaking, and our speech does not exist on its own either, but comes with a context that we bring with it.  Let us therefore be sure to make sure that context is the best one possible to convey truth and to encourage positive change in those with whom we interact.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to On The Compleat Speaker

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    This is an excellent and timely blog. It gets to the heart of the difficulty that politicians experience in their rhetoric because of their lack of at least one of these three essential components. The country is divided in the area of logos (each side doesn’t think that the other knows what it’s talking about), which leads to the lack of pathos for their suffering. Certainly ethnos is a severe issue when it comes to politicians in general.

    This three-pronged truth is how the rulers of tomorrow will reach others in counseling and leading. We have to be what we say. Christians will never reach their destiny if this is not the case. We go through our struggles now in order to learn authenticity, transparency and character. God has to be able trust us as we can trust Him. These three areas sum it up; we must know what we’re talking about, lead by example, and show compassion through our shared experiences–thus bringing fullness to our obedience to God. This provides clarity and makes sense to those who listen.

    • Yes, that was precisely the point I was making, pointing to where contemporary politicians and speakers fall short because of questions of reason, ethics, and compassion. Hopefully it is something that we can all work on in our own public communictions.

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