Presentation tips: lessons from the ancients

“What, presentation tips from my Gran?!” No. Not quite. Presentation tips from the ancient Greeks: specifically for this post, from Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.). The philosopher has some handy presentation tips for us that have survived remarkably well down the years. To influence and persuade an audience, he said, we need to achieve the winning combination of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Those words sound so familiar: they show up in much contemporary vocabulary. So, in this context, what do they mean?

Ethos – is about credibility with our audience; the reasons why they could and should respect what we have to say. This might be based on our expertise, track record, qualifications, experience and achievements. It’s also about our integrity: ever heard a credible speaker, who knew their stuff, but something just didn’t connect with you? I know I have. And that was probably due to a lack of integrity, or Ethos. Rather than blandish your track record about at the beginning, you can gain credibility subtly through the examples and anecdotes you use to bring your presentation to life. As Aristotle said, “Character may almost be called the most effective means to persuasion.”

Pathos – what Aristotle was advising here was all about empathy with our audience. We need to make an emotional connection and inspire our audiences through their feelings. Not all speakers can do this: we’ve all sat through dust-dry – but worthy – presentations where the speaker might as well have phoned it in. And then there are those who shamelessly overplay it. We humans can spot a fake so take care with this – it must be sincere. Which, if you align your Pathos to Ethos, it will be. If you know one or two people who will be in your audience, ask them to help you with some steers about what they like, enjoy, expect and absolutely hate about presentations. If you don’t know anyone, get some introductions and contact them. The brief phone chats I had with three senior members of an audience prior to a talk to a totally new group paid off many times over.

Logos – we need to appeal to our audience’s minds as well as their hearts if we are to win them over, and that’s where Logos comes in. Good speakers have a strong grasp of the facts and figures and use them to support their case. It may only require a few ‘killer’ stats to make the point. I’ll never forget the UK’s Ambassador to China telling us that his host country is building 45 airports the size of London’s Heathrow. The figure was so eye-watering and unbelievable that I had to write it down.

So next time you’re addressing a group – whether a major presentation or a small informal meeting – and you want to persuade them of your point of view, take Aristotle’s advice. Run the Ethos, Pathos, Logos ruler over why your audience should listen to you, what you’ll be saying and how you’ll be saying it, and gain an ancient advantage. I’ll give Aristotle the last word, “It is not once nor twice but times without number that the same ideas make their appearance in the world.”


You may find this post useful: ‘Presenters: what’s your most important visual aid?’ 

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’


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Image credits:
Aristotle – @EnginKorkmaz-Depositphotos
Ancient Greek man cartoon -@sararoom-Depositphotos
Ancient Greek philosopher- @Nihongo-Depositphotos
Ancient Greek reads scroll- @dedMazay-Depositphotos.

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