Rhetorical Appeals: An Overview

Since Aristotle's time, rhetoricians have posited that effective persuasion hinges on three central appeals: logos (logic), pathos (emotion), and ethos (the speaker's credibility and character). A fourth appeal, Kairos, underscores the significance of timing — emphasizing that the right message must be delivered at the opportune moment for maximum impact.

Successful writers write to win. Whether a writer wants to achieve a particular grade on a paper, persuade a specific audience to adopt an argument, or obtain an interview with a company, a writer writes with a purpose that they aim to fulfill. Using rhetorical appeals, particularly in persuasive writing, is a powerful way to persuade an audience.

Rhetorical appeals work.

  • For example, in “Reductions in smoking prevalence and cigarette consumption associated with mass-media campaigns,” authors Karen Friend and David T. Levy examine state and local mass-media anti-tobacco campaigns that endeavor to change social norms, knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs regarding smoking. Campaigns like this one use persuasive rhetorical devices appeals to produce measurable effects. Consequently, Friend and Levy’s study of campaigns in California and Massachusetts found that, in conjunction with a well-coordinated tobacco control program, the campaigns led to a reduction in net smoking prevalence of approximately 6-12% (92).

    These results unquestionably reduced smoking-related diseases and deaths, an important feat given the fact that, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), tobacco use is currently the leading preventable cause of death in the United States (“Tobacco-Related Mortality”).  

Related Concepts: Argument; Rhetorical Stance; Tone

Identifying Rhetorical Appeals

Writers may employ four rhetorical devices, or appeals, in their persuasive writing:

  1. Ethos
  2. Logos
  3. Pathos
  4. Kairos.

Jimmie Killingsworth provides necessary background information about these appeals by explaining that, in the Rhetoric (1.2.2), Aristotle defines what contemporary society has come to call appeals (pisteis) by dividing them into two categories:

  • “one called ‘entechnic,’ ‘artistic,’ or intrinsic’;
  • the other ‘atechnic,’ ‘inartistic,’ or ‘extrinsic’” (qtd. in Killingsworth 250).

Elaborating, Killingworth notes that the artistic category, the proper concern of rhetoric according to Aristotle, includes ethos, pathos, and logos” (250).

Before turning to examples of how to use these appeals, it will be worthwhile to understand their definitions.


As Emily Lane, Jessica McKee, and Megan McIntyre point out, logos relates to “the consistency and clarity of an argument as well as the logic of evidence and reasons.” An argument that offers substantial evidence, including supporting statistics, will appeal to the rationality and sensibility of its audience members.


Writers can also use pathos, or emotion, to help the audience connect with the writer’s argument.


Ethos refers to efforts on the part of the speaker or writer to convince the audience by demonstrating their credibility. Writers and speakers to display their credibility by explaining how their credentials, expertise, and/or experience make what they say or write noteworthy.


Furthermore, as Kate Pantelides, Megan McIntyre, and Jessica McKee explain, kairos, entails “knowing what is appropriate to do in a given situation…saying (or writing) the right thing at the right time.”

Using Rhetorical Appeals

Identifying these appeals in persuasive writing is a valuable skill to learn. Understanding how to use these appeals in your persuasive writing can prove to be an even more powerful ability to develop. To begin, several ways to appeal to logic exist. Consider the structure and quality of your argument. Asks writers to consider these questions:

  1. “Does your conclusion follow from your premises?
  2. Will your audience be able to follow the progression?
  3. Does your argument provide sufficient evidence for your audience to be convinced?”

To improve the quality of your argument, consider:

Fallacious Logos

Additionally, as Lane, McKee, and McIntyre recommend in their article regarding logos, maintain consistency in your argument, and avoid fallacious, or faulty, appeals to logic. For example, in “Fallacious Logos,” they provide an overview of several false appeals to logic, including the false dilemma, which assumes that there are only two options when there are more.

Writers may employ several methods to appeal to pathos. Read “Pathos” to explore several suggestions which include:   

  • Referring to other emotionally compelling stories.
  • Citing stark, startling statistics that will invoke a specific emotion in audience members.
  • Showing empathy and/or understanding for an opposing view.
  • Using humor, if appropriate.  

However, in your efforts to appeal to the audience’s emotions, avoid relying on faulty appeals. For example, “Fallacious Pathos” points out that using emotional words that evidence does not support leads to the argument by emotive language fallacy.

In pondering how to effectively employ rhetorical devices and aptly avoid fallacies, writers need to consider the relationship among the rhetorical appeals. For instance, if you just focus on logs you may have a really logical, well developed argument, and yet it if the reader or listener has decided you are not a credible source — if they reject your ethos — then they are likely to ignore all of your hard work and logical reasoning.

To demonstrate your credibility, try:

  • Referring to relevant work and/or life experience.
  • Citing your relevant awards, certificates, and/or degrees.
  • Providing evidence from relevant, current, and credible sources.  
  • Carefully proofreading your work, and asking a few other people to so as well.

Additionally, follow McKee and McIntyre’s advice in “Fallacious Ethos.” McKee and McIntyre provide specific examples of fallacious ethos.

Conversely, appeals to kairos can help you make use of the particular moment (Pantelides, McIntyre, and McKee). Ask yourself if you can capitalize on any of the audience’s sense of urgency. However, avoid false appeals to kairos. Read “Fallacious Appeals to Kairos” to learn more about this topic.

As this article has argued, good writers write to win. As such, rhetorical appeals underlie much of the successful persuasive writing in society, whether in the form of written arguments, television commercials, or educational campaigns.

As previously discussed, some thoughtful, strategic anti-smoking campaigns have reduced smoking-related diseases and death. Additionally, Ariel Chernin observes that a large body of literature proves that food marketing affects children’s food preferences (107). Similarly, appealing to logos, pathos, ethos, and kairos in your persuasive writing can help you achieve your goals. Approaching rhetorical appeals from the inside out—from the perspective of the writer—one can note their effectiveness in persuasive writing, and one can write to win.

Rhetorical Appeals: A Checklist for Writers


Strategies for Use: structure of argument, definitions, relevant examples, facts and figures, causal statements, statistics, an opposing view

Reflective Questions:

  • Are the main points of my essay sequenced logically?
  • Does my writing define key terms with which the audience may not be familiar?
  • Does my writing provide credible, documented facts to support any unstated assumptions? To learn more about unstated assumptions, see “Logos.” Does my writing include at least one causal statement? Read more about  causal statements in “Logos.”
  • Does my writing provide examples to illustrate its main points?
  • Does my writing cite relevant, current, and credible statistics?
  • Does this piece address at least one opposing view?


Strategies for Use: anecdotes or other narratives, images or other forms of media, direct quotations, empathy, humor

Reflective Questions:

  • Does my persuasive writing include an appropriate anecdote or narrative that evokes a commonly held emotion? To learn more about writing narratives in essays, read “Employing Narrative in an Essay.”
  • Does my persuasive writing engage non-textual media, such as images, to evoke emotions in the audience? Is the use of such non-textual media appropriate for my genre and purpose? Review “Pathos” to learn more about using non-textual media in persuasive writing.
  • Does my writing include at least one quote from an individual who has been influenced by the issue my writing addresses?
  • Does my writing demonstrate empathy for the opposing view’s concerns?
  • Does my persuasive writing use humor if it is appropriate for the genre and purpose?


Strategies for Use: references to related work or life experience; references to certificates, awards, or degrees earned related to the topic; references to the character of the writer; use of credible and current sources; references to symbols that represent authority

Reflective Questions:

  • Does my writing include references to my related work or life experience if appropriate for the genre, and do the references avoid the first-person point of view, unless the genre calls for it (e.g., a cover letter for a job and/or assignments in which the first-person point of view may combined with the third-person point of view). To learn more about how to avoid using the first-person point of view, read “Avoid First-Person Point of View.”
  • Does my persuasive writing refer to certificates, awards, or degrees earned that relate to the topic? If so, are these references appropriate for the genre and, if necessary, do they avoid the first-person point of view?
  • Does my persuasive writing rely on documented, credible, current evidence to support its claims, thereby reflecting my good character as a writer?
  • Do the experts cited in my writing have credentials, awards, and/or degrees that relate to the topic?
  • Have I used an appropriate tone, voice, and persona in this piece? To learn more about these terms and their use in writing, see “Consider Your Voice, Tone, and Persona.”
  • Have I proofread my persuasive writing several times, and have I asked two or more people to proofread it as well? To learn about specific proofreading strategies, read “Proofreading.”


Strategies for Use: the use of deadlines or goals; a call to action, including the call to “act now”; references to “current crises” or impending doom

Reflective Questions:

  • Does my writing explain the immediate significance of the topic?
  • Does my persuasive writing invite the reader to set a goal related to the topic?
  • Does my persuasive writing incite and/or invite action, especially immediate action? Read “How to Write a Compelling Conclusion,” particularly the section titled “The Call to Action” to learn more about this technique.
  • Does my writing refer to current crises regarding the topic through credible, current, and relevant sources? Review Kairos for an example of this method.
  • Does this piece convey the potential short- and/or long-term consequences of not adopting my evidence-based argument?

After checking your persuasive writing for these rhetorical appeals, ensure that your writing does not rely on any fallacious forms of these appeals as well. Review “Fallacious Logos,” “Fallacious Pathos,” “Fallacious Ethos,” and “Fallacious Appeals to Kairos” to learn more.

Recommended Reading

Works Cited

Chernin, Ariel. “The Effects of Food Marketing on Children’s Preferences: Testing theModerating Roles of Age and Gender.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 615 (2008): 102-18. JSTOR. Web. 5 July 2016.

Friend, Karen and David T. Levy. “Reductions in smoking prevalence and cigarette consumption associated with mass-media campaigns.” Health Education Research: Theory and Practice 17.1 (2002): 85-98. Web. 3 July 2016.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. “Rhetorical Appeals: A Revision.” Rhetoric Review 24.3 (2005): 249-263. JSTOR. Web. 5 July 2016.

Lane, Emily, Jessica McKee, and Megan McIntyre. ”Logos.”  Writing Commons. N.p., 16 April 2012. Web. 2 July 2016.

—. “Fallacious Logos.” Writing Commons. N.p., 16 April 2012. Web. 2 July 2016.

Lee, Kendra Gayle, Jessica McKee, and Megan McIntyre. “Pathos.” Writing Commons. N.p., 16 April 2012. Web. 2 July 2016.

—. “Fallacious Appeals to Pathos.” Writing Commons. N.p., 16 April 2012. Web. 2 July 2016.

McKee, Jessica, and Megan McIntyre. “Ethos.” Writing Commons. N.p., 16 April 2012. Web. 2 July 2016.

—“Fallacious Appeals to Ethos.” Writing Commons. N.p., 16 April 2012. Web. 2 July 2016.

Pantelides, Kate, Megan McIntyre, and Jessica McKee. “Kairos.” Writing Commons. N.p., 16 April 2012. Web. 2 July 2016.

—. “Fallacious Appeals to Kairos.” Writing Commons. N.p., 16 April 2012. Web. 2 July 2016.

“Tobacco-Related Mortality.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d. Web. 5 July 2015.