Our Next Outbreak

Rhetorical analysis of a speech is all the more important when it carries significant value in the present – and I hope to have found just the piece. The other day, in what I am sure was a complete coincidence and in no way influenced by the outside world, Bill Gates’ 2015 TED talk The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready appeared in my YouTube recommendations. Given the circumstances of the past month, what better time than now to analyze a speech by Bill Gates, in which he almost perfectly predicts the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The first aspect of any successful speech is ethos. That box is checked quite clearly, as Bill Gates is not only one of the richest, but also one of the most public and well-known, people in the world. Building up a fortune of tens of billions of dollars out of almost nothing, Gates’s ethos is hardly questioned. It is important to see what beyond this Gates did successfully.

First, Gates grabs his audience’s attention. The speech begins with him wheeling out a survival bin, one he had as a child, and explaining that the biggest threat to his family was nuclear war. He then transitions this into today’s biggest threat of mass death: viruses. Next, Gates utilizes data from the Ebola outbreak of 2015, data that was very relevant at the time of this TED talk. By showing the effects of Ebola and the overall lack of preparation, Gates furthers his ethos and the credibility of his argument. After demonstrating that the U.S. was fully unprepared for a global epidemic, he then turns to an even more persuasive device: pathos. Or, more specifically, fear.

After first presenting facts about the Ebola situation, Gates explains one of the largest reasons the outbreak wasn’t much worse – luck. If the illness had found its way into densely populated urban areas, the death total would have been much, much higher. This type of argument is extremely eye-opening for those in attendance. The fact that the fate of so many people’s lives was determined by sheer luck should be alarming to most, and Gates knows this. His demonstration of our lack of preparation (and our ability to do so), followed by significant fear-invoking arguments, calls many to action, and likely inspired some to act. Through pathos, some fear, and his own credibility, Bill Gates constructs an extremely successful speech, and explains why we truly aren’t (and clearly weren’t) ready for the next outbreak.


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