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Ethos – How to Use the Ethical Appeal

Updated on June 23, 2013
The power of the ethical appeal lies in making connections with the audience.
The power of the ethical appeal lies in making connections with the audience. | Source

People don't believe someone they don't trust. In fact that's the definition of ethos – a person's credibility.

Ethos appeals to people's sense of fairness, values, and trust in a person's character. During persuasion, the speaker or writer presents himself in a certain way. Effective persuaders understand how to portray an image that their audience will trust.

Ethos, along with pathos and logos, is one of Aristotle's three pillars of persuasion. In fact, effective persuaders have learned how to use the art of rhetoric, which simply means speaking or writing effectively. However, the integral aspect of rhetoric lies in the speaker's ability to persuade. In fact, Aristotle described rhetoric as the ability to judge what means of persuasion will work in each case.

Everyone has the ability to use ethos to win an argument. Learn how to relate to your audience and portray yourself as a trustworthy authority in order to use ethos for persuasion.

Ethos meaning

Ethos refers to a person's credibility. People use ethos to show to their audience that they are a credible source worth listening too. Ethos is the Greek word for “character;” the word “ethic” is derived from ethos.

Ethos takes different forms:

  • Relationship: How a speaker relates to the audience and to the topic.
  • Authority: Based on the power and/or knowledge of the speaker.
  • Ethics: Based on the perceived ethics or values the speaker holds.
  • Situated: Based on the social standing between the audience and the speaker.

The Ethos of Rhetoric

What about relationships?

Relationship has significance to the ethical appeal in terms of the speaker-audience connection, the speaker-topic connection and even the audience-topic connection.

Audience-topic connection: People generally have opinions on any topic to which you will speak; it is rare to speak to a tabula rasa audience. There is little you can do about these preconceived notions; the only way to ensure they don't hinder your persuasion is to speak to only like-minded individuals. Naturally this is not an effective manner of persuasion.

Speaker-topic connection: People believe an objective speaker. They naturally expect him to be informed, but an audience naturally mistrusts someone who stands to gain by persuading them.

Speaker-audience connection: Effective persuasion relies on building trust between the speaker and the audience. People modify their beliefs based on their relationship with the speaker. This refers not to just admiration, but also whether the audience relates to the speaker as a person of authority, a member of their group, etc.

Building relationships is an integral aspect of ethos.
Building relationships is an integral aspect of ethos. | Source

How can I build on ethos and relationships?

Whether writing or speaking, you need to build a relationship with your audience. In a paper, article, etc., you do this by word choice, grammar, even pagination or font. As a speaker you still rely on word choice and grammar, but you also pay attention to body language, vocalization and even clothing.

Audience-topic connection: Know your audience ahead of time. If possible conduct a poll on their opinions of your topic. Survey their ideas on the issue.

  • If you are speaking to a like-minded group, worry less about convincing them your claim is correct and more about getting them to act.
  • If you know the audience is resistant, focus on convincing them to at least consider your claim.
  • Most audiences are mixed-bag, so you'll spend equal time on claim and call to action.
  • For resistant and mixed-bag audiences, spend ample time acknowledging the opposition.

Acknowledge your faults up front to enhance your credibility.
Acknowledge your faults up front to enhance your credibility. | Source

Speaker-topic connection: Be objective. Your audience will not believe a biased person.

  • Be well-informed on the topic. Refer to research.
  • If you have experience with the issue, tell your story. People remember stories – it might well be their take-away.
  • If you stand to gain by persuading the audience, acknowledge that fact up front.
  • If you do have a bias, acknowledge it up front and explain how you have it under control.

Speaker-audience connection: Present yourself as someone the audience can believe.

  • Use correct grammar. In writing, adhere to standard punctuation rules. Avoid exclamation marks. Never use an emoticon.
  • Use word choice appropriate for your audience.
  • Build rapport. Start your paper or your speech with a joke or a story. Or, if you do not have natural authority, cite experts and statistics right away.

Ethos Example #1: You are writing an editorial letter to a liberal magazine. Your opinion is conservative. Start out by researching the terminology the opposition prefers and use that. Acknowledge the opposing viewpoint at every step of the way. Do not spend so much time refuting the opposition; rather focus on introducing new information or at least a new perspective. Avoid any valuation in your own terminology.

Ethos Example #2: You are running for a class office and giving a speech in front of the whole class. Wear a signature outfit – that favored sweater or those beat-up Vans. Start off with a self-deprecating joke about campaigning. Use slang sparingly and for effect. Make eye contact with each corner of the room and the middle.

How does this comic appeal to ethics? Hint -- the man has experience with...
How does this comic appeal to ethics? Hint -- the man has experience with... | Source

How are authority and ethics related?

Society confers authority to certain people. For example, the principal of a school has authority in that environment because she had to work hard and earn specialized licensure to get to that point. Likewise a biologist has authority in his subject area due to his superior knowledge.

People also lend authority to those the perceive as ethical. Past actions speak loudly. How a speaker chooses to present himself also influences the audience's opinion.

  • If you are not naturally in a position of authority, you need to prove you've done the research necessary. Prove that you are considering the issue broadly.
  • Be scrupulous about your citations.
  • Mention your own experience to show you have some insider knowledge of a topic.
  • Name your group membership, be it the same as your audience or one that is generally respected.

Ethos Example #3: You are writing an article on an issue about which you are passionate. You have volunteered in relation to the issue. You have read numerous books and websites related on both sides. State up-front your membership in the group by relating an anecdote. Cite every fact.

What is situated ethos?

Situated ethos refers to the social standing between people in a rhetorical discussion. An example of situated ethos is the relative social standing between say, a presidential candidate and the audience.

Interpersonal relationships play a part of situated ethos. First, how much liking do the participants have for each other? Consider people on polar opposites of an issue versus people collaborating to fix a problem.

The power dynamic relates to one person or group's ability to exert their interpersonal influence over others. This is why presidential candidates fundraise: to generate the power they need to reach the wide populace.

Martin Luther King, Jr., had experience and knowledge of his topic. People believed him.
Martin Luther King, Jr., had experience and knowledge of his topic. People believed him. | Source

How can I use situated ethos?

You need to create the feeling that your social standing and your audience's mesh.

  • Identify your audience. Whether writing a paper or giving a speech, who is your target audience?
  • Consider your target audience carefully. What is their background? What motivates them?
  • Create the feeling that you are at least a fringe member of their group.


Ethos example #4: You are writing a persuasive paper trying to get a policy changed. First, identify who the paper is for. Next, consider that audience's background and motivation. If it is a school policy, you are likely speaking to members of the board of directors or the superintendant. Anyone from that group should be well-educated and dedicated to seeing a school run efficiently. In your paper you want to sound as educated as possible by conducted a lot of research and by using a formal level of language. You also want to acknowledge how your policy change affects the school's efficiency.


Ethos example #5: You are giving a speech attempting to recruit members for your organization. First, what type of people would be interested in your club? And what type of people do you want to attract? If you are recruiting for an artistic club and you need members who can help run committees, you want to speak to an artistic but organized audience. What kind of background would such people have? Perhaps art teachers or writers – both are artistic yet (hopefully) well-organized. You want to give a creative and fun speech – will a clear level of organization in its structure.

Ethos and Ethics

Can ethos be unethical?

See results
Unfortunately Hitler was a master at rhetoric. He knew how to build his credibility -- seen here working alongside his men.
Unfortunately Hitler was a master at rhetoric. He knew how to build his credibility -- seen here working alongside his men. | Source

Can the ethical appeal be unethical?

Ethos is a tool of rhetoric. The art of persuasion is a manner of convincing people to think and act as you want them to.


Pick two of the most persuasive speakers of the 20th-century. Likely Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind. He spoke with passion and energy on topics about which he was most certainly knowledgeable. Chances are Adolph Hitler also comes to mind. Guess what – he also spoke with passion and energy on topics about which he was knowledgeable.


The sad truth is both of these men used similar ethical appeals to persuade audiences. They both identified as members of the same group as their audience. They spoke as authorities. They cited evidence, facts and anecdotes. They backed up their words with their own actions.


Ethos also has associated fallacies, or mistakes in rhetoric.

  • Guilt by Association: Linking an opponent to an unpopular cause. (Related is the Hitler fallacy – associating the opposition with Hitler or Nazism.)
  • False Authority: Presenting a popular person or opinion as authoritative.
  • Mudslinging: Rather than speaking against the opposition attacking the opponent's character.
  • Name-calling: Attaching an unflattering or disreputable name to an opponent.
  • Ethical Fallacy: Opposite of mudslinging and name-calling – an attempt to gain support by linking your position to a widely-accepted value.
  • Either/Or Fallacy: Offering only two options – allows for no common ground.

Some of those techniques probably look familiar from presidential campaigns. Unfortunately, fallacious arguments often work.

Educational Hubs

The Three Pillars of Persuasion: Ethos, Logos, Pathos: Since the time of Aristotle, humans have used the three pillars of persuasion: pathos, ethos, and logos. This articles looks at the meanings and uses of these persuasion techniques.

Propaganda: What it is and How to Recognize it: Propaganda: the definition, several examples, and ways it has been used both in politics and advertising.

How to Write an Essay About Symbolism: Learn how to identify, interpret, and write about a symbol in a work of literature. Ace your English class! Suitable for high school English or college-level literature.

Ace English Class: Literary Terms for Poetry: Poetry is the highest craft in the English language. Readers will enjoy poetry much better with an understanding of key poetry literature terms.

How to make ethos work for you

Rhetoric is an art form. When you are preparing a speech, a paper or some other formal argument, you have all the time to craft your appeals. However, there are a few tips to keep in mind for using ethos at any time.

  • Presentation: People base judgment from the moment they lay eyes on you or your paper. Present yourself from the outset as credible.
  • Inclusion: Include yourself in your audience's group and vice versa. Do this by using "I" and "we." Use the present tense. Adopt the phrase, "Let me tell you…" (Listen for it in campaign speeches.)
  • Fairness: Always acknowledge the opposition. You're not going to put ideas into people's minds – they were already thinking of the argument. By acknowledging the opposition, you show you are a fair person.
  • Credit: Give credit where it's due.

Giving credit where it's due…

Crowley, S., & Hawee, D. (1999). Ancient rhetorics for contemporary students

Durham Tech: A General Study of Aristotle’s Appeals

http://courses.durhamtech.edu/perkins/aris.html

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