Kairos: The Foundation of Rhetoric






What time is it?

The ancient Greeks had two words for “time”. The first was “chronos” (χρόνος), which referred to chronological time. Words like “chronological” and “chronology” come from chronos. The second was “kairos” (καιρός), which means the right moment or opportunity. It is this second meaning which is of supreme importance when it comes to public speaking.

Whereas chronos is quantitative – how much time do we have; when did things start – kairos is qualitative. Essentially, it means saying the right thing in the right way at the right time. It requires a speaker to think about the audience, the occasion, the message, and how the message should be delivered.

Aristotle and kairos
Aristotle understood the importance of kairos

Aristotle and kairos

Much has been written about Aristotle’s three rhetorical pillars of persuasion: logos; ethos; and pathos. Logos is persuasion based on the logic of the argument. Ethos is persuasion based on the credibility of the speaker. Pathos is persuasion based on emotion. For examples of each, see this post or this post. But Aristotle knew that kairos underpins them all.

Depending on the audience and the situation, a speaker needs to determine how much logos, ethos and pathos to use. Using only facts and data to appeal to an audience on an emotional topic is probably not the best strategy. In a similar vein, if you use too much emotion, the audience might feel as though you are trying to manipulate them. Think of kairos as an instrument to help you gauge how much logos, ethos and pathos to use.

Kairos can also help a speaker when it comes to the tone and formality of a speech. A middle manager in a large company who is trying to effect a change will speak to the Board of Directors in a different manner than he will to the members of his team. The founders of a startup will present differently to potential investors than they will to students at a university conference.

Aristotle understood that kairos is critical when it comes to preparing your speech or presentation. You want as much clarity as possible about the audience, its needs and the situation in which you will be speaking. You can then work on building a relevant message that is supported in the best way possible for that audience on that occasion. For a comprehensive guide to building a speech or presentation, see this post.

Kairos in action

A great example of a speech that is replete with kairos, is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on 28 August 1963.

King gave his speech on racial equality and justice in front of 200,000 people who participated in the famous March on Washington. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum and recognition. The speech was televised to millions of people at a time when televisions were becoming common in American homes. King spoke on the steps of the memorial to the man who fought for the emancipation of the slaves during the centennial celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. His words were filled with rhetorical passion and delivered at a time when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in making people aware of the injustices of segregation.

It truly was the right speech in the right place at the right time. Had King delivered the speech in a different location on a different date, it would not have resonated the same way. Indeed, as we will see below, King had used the “I have a dream” refrain previously in several of his speeches, none of which gained much recognition.

At first, there was no dream

Even the best prepared speeches can run into unforeseen circumstances. The greatest orators can sense the shift in kairos while delivering their speeches. Here too, we can learn a valuable lesson from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The night before his speech, King asked his aides for advice about the speech. One of them, Wyatt Walker, is reported to have said, “Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream’. It’s trite, it’s cliché. You’ve used it too many times already.” Indeed, King had used this refrain in previous speeches, including one that he had given in Chicago just a week before the March on Washington. When King finally went to bed at 4:00 a.m. on the morning of 28 August 1963, those four famous words were not in the final text of the speech.

Then something changed

For the first 12 minutes of his speech, King read from his prepared remarks. There is no question that it was an excellent speech. However, as John Lewis, the leader of the student wing of King’s movement said, “It was not nearly as powerful as many I had heard him make. As he moved towards his final words, it seemed that he, too, could sense that he was falling short. He hadn’t locked into that power he so often found.”

King’s friend, the famous gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, was standing very close to the lectern at which King was speaking. During a pause near the end of his prepared remarks, she shouted to him, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” And that’s exactly what he did.

Setting aside his prepared remarks, King began to speak from his heart. He was no longer looking down at his text; he was looking at the audience and connecting with the people. I encourage you to watch the entirety of King’s speech below. It is an outstanding example of powerful speaking from start to finish. However, notice the difference in King’s oratory starting at around 12:20 of the video. It is at this moment that he truly grasps the kairos of the moment, and the rest is history.

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