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Leading your audience to a certain conclusion is an art in itself – a classic art. This is how pathos, logos and ethos improve your film and video projects.

The rhetorical triangle connects three concepts from the world of classical rhetoric – pathos, logos and ethos. Any project – be it creative, entrepreneurial, or informative – relies on these three means of persuasion to get its point across and lead the audience to a conclusion or set of conclusions. These conclusions could be something like a feel for this story, or decide to purchase this product, or believe that the moon landing was a fake.

Even if you didn't take these concepts into account when developing your movie or video projects, they were there, lurking beneath the surface, classifying what you did.

Rhetoric, the discipline in which we find these means of persuasion, is more interesting than it sounds. Let's take a moment to define the terms and how they work. Some examples in action are right under your nose.

The rhetorical triangle

The creators of Mr. Robot used Ethos to guide observant viewers to a “realistic” or “believable” conclusion about how they were telling the story – a key to narrative success for stories of this kind – by understanding the code used by hackers throughout the world maintained series exactly. This instills trust for the showrunners and employs logos to enhance the authority of the story itself (Image via USA Network).

First, fun facts for your next dinner party: the rhetorical triangle – or "rhetorical appeals" or "means of persuasion" or even "rhetorical tetrahedron" (!) – comes from rhetoric, Aristotle's famous 4th century treatise before Christ. In it he lays down some basic rules for the art of persuasion (rhetoric). Add grammar and logic and you have the three ancient arts in discourse that guided the development of ancient Greek law, politics, and poetry. The influence of ancient Greek law, politics and poetry on the development of Western civilization is. . . Good . . . a post for another time.

The three “appeals” of the rhetorical triangle work independently and collectively to create compelling arguments that lead the audience to specific conclusions. The short breakdown is as follows:

  • Pathos represents your audience and the attraction of your project to their emotions.
  • Logos represent your project itself and your project's appeal to reason (things that make sense).
  • Ethos represents you and your credibility or trustworthiness as the creator of a particular project.

Socrates with Bill & Ted from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Socrates taught Plato who taught Aristotle, who gave us the basics of rhetoric (and the need for this post). Collecting current historical figures for your high school presentation would be an excellent application of the ethos. Image via Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (Warner Bros.).

So the rhetorical triangle is talking about you, your project, and your audience – and how the whole relationship either works or doesn't. We don't create content in a vacuum (the “rhetorical tetrahedron” is more in context if you want to read). So how we script, create ads, and appear on social media is a constant back-and-forth shift, which we emphasize at which point in the content experience.

Let us first look at pathos.


Pathos is simply manipulating the audience. You appeal to people's emotions by presenting material that evokes certain emotional responses: fear, sadness, anger, etc. The use of pathos in content creation depends on the audience's ability to engage in your message, story or story To put display in it. One of the clearest examples of all time is Sarah McLachlan's famous ASPCA commercial (which even she cannot see).

The sad, trembling animals. The haunting sounds of the piano. Desperate need to reach through the screen for some hugs and scratches. That is pathos in action. The goal here is to get people to decide to send some money to the ASPCA. Pathos isn't the only tool at play here, but it's so obvious that it's easy to spot. This video asks a simple question, "Do you think animals are cute and wish they hadn't suffered?" If the answer is nothing more than a resounding yes, the video's counter-question is simply "What kind of person are you?"

The video makes you sad, so it appeals to you, the audience (see how it works?) To feel guilty, sad, or angry enough to follow the unspoken equation of the entire experience: if you give us money, has this won’t happen. And guess what: it worked. This ad campaign grossed $ 30,000,000 in the first two years alone.

Atreyu and Artax in the swamp of sand in The NeverEnding Story

The scene in which Atreyu loses his beloved horse Artax in the swamp of sadness is still a shockingly brutal dose of pathos to build empathy between Atreyu and the audience. Image via the NeverEnding Story (Warner Bros.).

Ultimately, however, the severity of this call resulted in unintended consequences. People would go where they just couldn't see the ad and mute the television or change channels. Sure, you felt bad about it, but not as bad as watching the commercial again. It's safe to say that for most of the time after the ad was saved, you didn't go back and decided to send in more cash. So rhetorical failure.

How you use pathos to lead an audience to a specific conclusion takes a steady hand and a little subtlety if you want it to work for the majority of people most of the time. Ease your emotional stimuli for your audience. Even if your goal is simply to "make people think my movie has a sad ending," don't just push them off an emotional cliff unless you are ready to be called upon to be emotionally manipulated. That's okay because we manipulate emotions. However, if you're trying to develop a reputation as a skilled filmmaker who understands the nuances of the human condition and how to capture it with a camera, you might not be just making films about sad animals.


Logos is all about information. In the interplay of the rhetorical triangle, Logos is your project itself – especially how much (or how little) sense it makes. Numbers, dates and "facts" (let's be flexible with this term for a minute) are the name of the game. If you're writing an ad to sell chewing gum sticks and your script has a line like "Scientifically Proven to Strengthen Your Teeth," your logical pull here is stronger than a script that has nothing to say about science. Neither of these scripts is wrong or right; However, the one with the science behind it creates a more compelling logical pull that brings us one step closer to the desired conclusion: buy chewing gum.

Stephen Colbert coined the term

Stephen Colbert famously introduced us to the mutability of facts when he found "Truthfulness". (Image via Comedy Central.)

Content creators get creative with the "facts" of a logical appeal. It's easy to shorten some dates, form a quote, or otherwise manipulate the truth to make them say what you want in your project. Your audience won't always have time to review your data and validate your facts. (How do you know you paid for the study the science produced about stronger teeth?) This means there is room for. . . Creativity in shaping the world in which your project lives. Should you be blasé about your facts? We can't say that, but it's definitely a reality of the creative world.

It's easy to see how this could play out when writing an ad, creating a documentary, or directing a corporate video. But what about the purely narrative script? What does it even mean to talk about data when we talk about a movie? Let me give you an example.

The company from the Kelvin timeline.

I look at the Enterprise from the 2009 Kelvin timeline Star Trek and only see one spaceship, but not everyone does. . . (Image via Paramount).

When the Kelvin Timeline Star Trek franchise hit the market in 2009, I was hooked. I'm a huge Star Trek fan and I'm not that great at iterations. I mean, I think the Klingons in Star Trek: The Next Generation look light years better than they did in the original series. I think they look even more authentic in Star Trek: Discovery (whatever that means – they're fictional, but a sense of authenticity is logos at work). (Because of this, I'll probably never get invited to Star Trek parties again.) So what's the takeaway? I'm a pretty basic Star Trek fan.

But not all of them are.

A close friend of mine, arguably a much bigger fan than me, was furious when Star Trek came out in 2009. He just absolutely hated the design of the Enterprise. I looked at it and I saw. . . A spaceship. He looked at it and couldn't understand where the engineering was going or how it would fit. The authenticity (the "facts" of this ship) was a toast to him, so there was no logical attraction. And then it got weird with transporter physics and the world building of that film fell apart for him. The appeal to logos didn't work.

Apollo 11 appeal to logos

Every documentary, despite the journalistic veneer, leads its audience to one end or another. Documentaries are full of appeals to logos, but Apollo 11 takes it to the next level. The entire film is nothing but facts and evidence with no narrative intervention. (Image via CNN Films.)

So there are rules that you establish with your audience based on what type of film you are making, what the audience is used to seeing in that sense, and what laws seem to govern the universe. If you break these rules because of poor writing or production design, you're less likely to lead your audience to the outcome they want – which is probably a good movie in that sense.


Ethos is credibility. This is one reason your audience should be listening to you and not that person there. Anything that proves (or appears to prove) that you know what you are doing or what you are talking about is an appeal to ethos. For this reason, over-the-counter drugs or products are often labeled with a doctor's note. After all, they're doctors. Who can we trust when we can't trust them? Oddly enough, the same goes for celebrities. Many people naturally consider celebrities to be more accurate or informed about everything just because they are famous. This mentality says that famous people are better than un-famous people. So the idea is more like famous people.

Celebrities create an "ethical appeal".

Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Quentin Tarantino, and Margot Robbie are good examples of high-profile Hollywood stars who create an "ethical appeal" when they sign up for a project. (Image via IMDb.)

In the world of storytelling, that's a good reason why we spend what we spend on famous actors and directors. The studios come up with the rhetorical argument that we should give them our money to see the latest what they did. We generally like to hold onto our money and there are plenty of movies to choose from. So here's why we should listen to you. It's a bit of a self-continuing circle. A director who has made successful films in the past is likely to do so again. Therefore, paying them big bucks to sign up for a project is a worthwhile investment for a studio. It adds credibility to the project so now famous actors are more likely to sign up and we're more likely to pay the money to see the movie because wow, look at all of that ethos!

But you may not have the budget to run J.J. Abrams on your passion project. There are other ways to build credibility. It is very likely that your audience knows nothing about you, your crew, or the project. If they watch your movie, it's either because you marketed it properly, someone recommended it, or it's just plain stupid luck. Good luck in the latter scenario – not much ethos can do for you here. In the first two cases, however, your project has a good reputation: the reputation you built with your trailers, your social campaign, and even the title you chose. If you keep what you promised and show that you know your way around a camera, crew, and set, your audience will have plenty of reasons to put ethos into your operation. Animation photography and cool camera stunts are tempting, but if they don't land, neither will your movie and you have a credibility problem, not an advantage.

Make sure you include the reasons people came to see what you did. And when it's online and you see a Like, Subscribe, or Link, that ethos is in action.

All three in action

To close this circle, let me return to the ASPCA video with Sarah McLachlan. It's no easier to see now than it was two minutes ago, but give it a try to discuss. . .

Now we have already referred to the use of pathos. It's bright so we don't have to get back to the subject. However, I said earlier that there is more going on here than just an appeal to pathos – and now you can see what I am talking about. Sarah McLachlan is a very well known celebrity and her music is widely known. By layering her music as the soundtrack and signing her up as a speaker, the ASPCA not only brought an instant ethical incentive to their campaign, but also brought it into this particular video with the music. And by the time you've managed to get through that period successfully (go on, try again …) you will have noticed that before we even see McLachlan or hear them sing a note, we have an appeal to Logos with the information received that "Every hour an animal is beaten or abused." So someone did some research. We later hear that it only has to be $ 18 a month to save an animal, which in turn means that someone put some numbers together and figured that out for us.

So we see a combination of one, two, and three strokes in action with this video that shows you how different projects it takes to tune these three dials differently. Documentaries will weigh a bit on the logos to begin with, but they can add to the appeal on Ethos with recognizable storytellers. Social media videos don't leave much time for appeals to logos. Instead, focus on the pathos and ethos. And if you're making a corporate training video, shoot all three – you'll need all the help you can get.

Are you looking for more information on creating successful video projects? Check out these articles.


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