The building blocks of compelling arguments

Do you get convinced by spreadsheets with inarguable and objective facts? Imagine a talk where the presenter lists facts, from behind a lectern, at a comedy conference. It is hard to picture this would sway the listeners. What does it take to create a compelling and convincing talk?

5 min read


By Håvard Hvassing


December 23, 2020

Consider the following talk, commenting on the Covid-response

When Dr. Michael J. Ryan starts talking, we believe him. We trust what he is saying. He doesn’t list facts or numbers, but his very being, his tone of voice, his demeanour and his authenticity, all of this works to his advantage to create a compelling argument.

We believe him, even though most of us has never heard of him before, let alone heard him talk or know about his credentials as a world health official.

"The purpose of presenting or giving talks, is to convey a thought or opinion for the listener to take to heart."

In order to create compelling arguments and convince the audience, the presenter must seem credible. Credibility comes from competence on the subject, his/her perceived moral character and the good will of the listeners.


Ethos is the perceived moral character of you as the presenter, in the eyes of the audience. Consider Dr. Michael J. Ryan. Even before you started watching the above video, you start making an opinion about the person talking. We look for identifiers and markers by instinct. The person in the above video is introduced as Dr. Michael J. Ryan, he is wearing a blue shirt and a dark suit. What he is about to say is in all likelihood important, as the banner at the bottom states, in capital letters, that this is breaking news. He is sitting in front of a blue backdrop with the WHO-logo.

This introductory ethos, all that we ascribe to the presenter, is a part of your argument or your talk. The listeners will have preconceptions based on how the conference introduces you, your title, your employer, and so on, so forth.

There are many ways to establish ethos, such as describing your years of working within the field, the number of hours volunteered, or personal experience with the issue at hand.


Next you need your logical appeal, all that can be counted, measured and otherwise perceived to be true. Here you are turning to sense and reason. This involves taking your audience with you on a journey to see the same facts and truths as those you hold, helping them see your way of reasoning.

When Dr. Michael J. Ryan says "you need to react quickly", he is basing that on the learnings from dealing with the Ebola outbreak. He is effectively saying that what worked the last time will also work this time. He is able to do this because of his credibility as a source, his ethos, but also because he begins with saying "what we have learned from the Ebola outbreaks is that…".

For this to work, he needs the audience to remember the Ebola epidemic and the consequences of that. It requires that the audience shares a frame of reference and has at least some knowledge about the current state of the Ebola outbreak.


Pathos is the appeal to emotions and where you move to action. Creating will to act. This works to balance out the logos-part, requiring you to appeal both to reason and to emotions.

When people are talking about winning the “hearts and minds”, pathos is the heart. Stirring emotions about the subject at hand, in order to encourage action. Be it to act fast or dare to be wrong.

There is little doubt that Dr. Ryan is passionate about the topic at hand.


The setting of the presentation, the meeting, the talk. The time and place of it all. Kairos is about being aware of the rhetorical situation you are in.

A press conference, as in the clip above, is an entirely different setting from an informal meeting with a new client. This matters, and has great impact on what your listeners are expecting, and what they are willing to accept.

This also means that you are able to deliver your talk with good rhythm and in tune with your audience.

Dr. Michael J. Ryan, starts the clip above with running through a list of bullet points in fast order.

  • You need to react quickly
  • You need to go after the virus
  • You need to stop the chain of transmission
  • You need to engage with communities […]
  • You need to be coordinated
  • You need to be coherent

Before changing pace (about 43 seconds in)

"Anyone who is involved in emergency response will know this [short pause] If you need to be right before you move [longer pause] you will never win."

The change in pace underlines the importance of what he is about to say. There is no doubt that what comes after the short, first pause, will be important. As listeners, we edge to the front of our seats, awaiting what comes next.

While this can seem daunting and like many things to consider, remember that your credibility is one of the most important factors in all this. As we have seen in the example above, the process of establishing credibility begins before uttering a word, or even entering the stage.

Being authentic and with a genuin passion for what you are talking about is probably the best advice to create compelling arguments and a convincing talk.