PodiumWise | Tips for advanced presentation skills

When Aristotle wrote about the primary types of persuasion he included “ethos”—convincing by character of the speaker.  In other words, the audience is persuaded, at least in part, because of who is delivering the message.  At a leadership conference I attended earlier this year, I witnessed both the power of ethos and the potential downside of depending too much on it.

One of the speakers was a well-known leader and best-selling author.  As you might expect, the meeting planners scheduled him for the last afternoon.  They wanted the anticipation of his appearance to build—and it did.  When he took to the stage, he couldn’t start speaking until a long period of enthusiastic applause died down.

As his talk proceeded, it became increasingly clear that he was less prepared than most of the other speakers.  It sounded a lot like he was winging it, stringing together material he had talked about before.  The result was what I considered to be an uninspiring, mediocre performance.  And yet, because of who he was, he received a standing ovation.  He didn’t deserve it.

I couldn’t help but think afterward that this gentleman was resting on his reputation.  He was counting too much on ethos for his persuasiveness.   He was not putting in the hard work needed to craft a message which includes supportive facts (logos) and thoughtful appeals to audience emotions (pathos).

I’ve seen this same phenomenon in the business world.  Leaders who have proven themselves and risen high in the ranks feel confident that their status and reputation alone will carry the day.  The result is a forgettable speaking performance that I suspect they would not have been satisfied with earlier in their career.

I once heard that ethos is being strengthened or weakened every day in a person’s career.  Taking it for granted when you speak certainly is not strengthening it.

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