Theresa May’s pitch for Tory leadership: Distilling the persuasion

Richard Keith
Home Secretary Theresa May Launches Her Bid For The Conservative Leadership
May launched her bid for Tory leadership last week (Source: Getty)

Aristotle suggested that effective persuasive communication turns on three different elements: the character of the speaker (ethos), the emotions stirred within the listener (pathos) and the strength of the logical argument presented (logos).

In her pitch for the Tory leadership – and Prime Minister – candidacy late last week, Ms May tapped into all three of these elements.

She highlighted her worthy and honest character: “I grew up the daughter of a local vicar and the granddaughter of a Regimental sergeant major – public service has been part of who I am for as long as I can remember.” She reiterated her morals by telling us what she didn’t do: this included gossiping about people over lunch and drinking in parliament’s bars. She then told us about her no-nonsense, matter-of- fact approach: “I just get on with the job in front of me”. Ethos? Tick.

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After that she moved to the logical evidence in support of her case. She cited examples of previous success – often, she hinted, against the odds – when she was a government minister in office. “I was told I couldn’t cut police spending without crime going up but crime is lower than ever. I was told I shouldn’t start asking questions about police corruption; but everywhere I’ve seen it, from Stephen Lawrence to Hillsborough, I’ve exposed it” (Further ethos here.)

“I was told I couldn’t deport Abu Qatada, but I flew to Jordan and negotiated the treaty that got him out of Britain for good.” Logos? Tick.

What about stirring the emotions of her listeners? By her own admission she rarely wears her heart on her sleeve, but there were some subtle parts of a dramatic climax here.

There was a strong call to action: “We have immediate work to do to restore political stability and economic certainty.” As the word “immediate” left her mouth her right hand, in a closed fist, bashed the air in a gesture that signalled strength and intention.

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“But more than that”, she continued, “we have a mission to make Britain a country that works not for the privileged and not for the few, but for every…one of our…citizens. Together, we the Conservative Party, can build…a better…Britain.” By referring to a “mission” she indicated the importance of her calling, and by using specific pitch modulation and pace alterations she conveys her emotional engagement with what she’s saying. Pathos? Yes, it’s definitely here too.

Whether you are selling goods and services, or yourself and your ideas, creating the right balance of ethos, logos, and pathos is vital in any pitch. With many more mini pitches to come from Ms May and her co-runners, expect to see these ancient agents of persuasion a great deal over the coming months.

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