Rhetoric Recap: What is ethos?

With our 21st century penchant for planned obsolescence, you start to feel like anything that’s more than a couple years old is past its prime and headed for oblivion. But before you toss out your Blackberry, recycle all your CDs, and delete your MySpace page, consider this: pretty much everything we now know (or believe) about communication is derived from some ideas written down over 2000 years ago.

Once upon a time in the 4th century BCE, Aristotle penned a work that analyzed the use of rhetoric–aptly titled Rhetoric. In it, he laid out a model that came to dominate our study of public speaking, persuasion, and writing: the idea that to achieve their rhetorical objectives, rhetors make use of three types of appeals:

  • Ethos – attempts to create an effective perception of the rhetor by the audience
  • Pathos – attempts to produce an emotional response in the audience
  • Logos – attempts to persuade through evidence and reasoning

Aristotle’s three-pronged model was simple, and yet allowed for a great deal of flexibility and complexity in the analysis of rhetorical style, since each type of appeal includes different dimensions and can incorporate multiple strategies.

Perhaps the most complex and most essential type of appeal is the ethical appeal, the attempt to establish ethos.

The Meaning(s) of Ethos

Aristotle famously wrote that “we believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided” (qtd. in McCormack 136).

In other words, even if what you’re saying is clear, makes sense, and has evidence to back it up, none of that will matter if no one’s willing to listen to you in the first place. You have to establish yourself as someone your audience should listen to, giving them confidence in what you say, before what you say can even matter. And this becomes more and more true the less evidence or certain knowledge there is; the less people have hard facts to trust in, the more they have to trust in you.

This is not to say that ethos is merely a second line of defense behind hard facts; if we look at a contemporary political rhetoric, in our era of “fake news” and “truthiness,” we see myriad examples that, if  someone has a forceful enough personality and knows how to push the right buttons, he or she can can make the audience forget about facts altogether. Such rhetors can seem incredibly persuasive, even when the actual content of what they say is utter wackadoodle nonsense.

Ethos is the power to shape your audience’s perception of you, such that they want to listen to what you have to say. It implies both how you identify yourself to your audience and the relationship you establish with them.

Thus, ethos is grounded in who the rhetor is–either who s/he is in real life, or the persona s/he establishes within his/her discourse. When it appears in ancient Greek texts, the word “ethos” is generally translated as “character”; interestingly, the same word can mean (1)all the traits or characteristics of a person, (2) a sense of strong character or good moral fiber, (3) a character in a book or a play (Verdenius 247). And each of these meanings reveals something about the nature of the rhetorical use of ethical appeals. Giving the audience a strong sense of who you are (what knowledge and experiences you have, what your motivations are, what you care about) helps them to have confidence that they can believe what you say and trust your judgment. And while your ethos is in part shaped by what the audience may already know about you, a great deal of this sense of who you are is actually generated within your discourse itself. The characters we discover in books show how effectively language can generate, out of thin air, the image of a person who seems real, whom we feel we know, and whom we care about.

Fictional characters are pure perception; they don’t exist other than in the imaginations of the audience, and it’s the audience’s willingness to read their stories that allows them to live. Similarly, ethos can’t be said to exist without an audience. Not only that, but ethos can only be generated within the constraints of a particular audience’s beliefs, values, and attitudes (Grant-Davie 500). What builds your ethos with one audience could actually destroy a different audience’s confidence in you. Much of building ethos depends on knowing your audience and finding ways to connect with them, building a bridge between who you are and who they are.

How do I build ethos?

Rhetoricians from Aristotle onward have identified a number of strategies by which rhetors can establish their ethos. We’ll focus on 4: credibility, trustworthiness, similarity, and goodwill.

CREDIBILITY

Aristotle noted that we tend to seek out the advice of people with a reputation for demonstrating phronesis, or good sense (Porter). This involves wisdom and experience, as well as knowledge and expertise. It means, first of all, knowing your subject, and showing your audience the knowledge that you have; it also means speaking with authority on your topic (Porter; Ambler). If a rhetor lacks confidence, is vague or seems uncertain about the topic, contradicts her or himself,  or simply fails to explain her/his qualifications to speak on the subject, she or he may lose credibility with the audience

TRUSTWORTHINESS

As the definition of ethos suggests, an essential element is ethics in the modern sense: having good moral character, or at least convincing the audience that you do (Porter; Ambler). Again, a good argument or persuasive evidence won’t get you very far if your audience thinks you may be lying or trying to manipulate them. Establishing a sense of trust with the audience can be just as important (and in some contexts more important) than expertise. In fact, sometimes gestures that we might think could damage our credibility can actually help establish trustworthiness. Revealing a weakness, vulnerability, or mistake that we have made can make us sound more truthful, like we’re not trying to hide anything or make ourselves look good (Ambler). Trustworthiness can also be established by displaying sincerity, by letting the audience see our emotions and motivations–what we care about and why. And it often means connecting with the values of the audience: proving not only that one has values, but has the right values. The oldest meaning of ethos is actually a habit, custom, or more (Sattler 55); this fact reminds us of the extent to which people’s perception of our good character often comes from how well we uphold their own values. In this way it often goes along with the next element, similarity.

SIMILARITY

Identification is one of the most forceful and emotionally potent ways we connect with others. When I can recognize that you are like me, I automatically care about what happens to you insofar as it could happen to me, or perhaps already has. I’m also potentially more likely to trust you if I feel I understand you and your experiences, and if I see you as sharing my position, I’m more likely to believe that you are acting in my best interest, because it’s your best interest too.

Communications professional George Ambler points out that if you have a clear sense of your intended audience, you can build references into your rhetoric that help establish concrete similarities with that audience on a number of levels:

Demographic Similarities: Age, culture, ethnicity, race, gender, country of birth. For example a female audience will be more receptive to and more easily identify with a female speaker and their experiences.

Professional Similarities: Profession, organisations, industry, career history or common challenges. For example an audience within a specific industry would be more open to someone who has had experience working in the same industry.

Personal Similarities: Personality, extrovert, introvert, personal motivations, challenges

But sometimes you don’t know all these details about your audience, or you may not share any of these concrete things in common. However, you can still find ways to encourage your audience to identify with you by referencing shared beliefs or values, comparable experiences, or a shared sense of history or culture.

GOODWILL

One final element of ethos identified by Aristotle was eunoia, or goodwill (Porter). Goodwill “concerns the speaker’s intent and motivation. You need to show your audience that your intention and motivation is to be useful, to help educate, to inspire, to inform [or] to entertain. These motivations are positive and demonstrate your goodwill towards the audience” (Ambler). Ultimately, you want to convince your audience that it’s all for them, not you. You’re not talking just to hear yourself speak. You’re not sharing your experiences because you think you’re so wonderful and fascinating. You’re not sharing information because you’re a smarmy know-it-all who wants to show off. No! They should listen to you, because you want to help them.

What’s more, you care about them. An essential feature of goodwill is showing empathy for the audience: “acknowledge the feelings of those in the audience and show them that you understand” (Porter). In some cases, this can go along with similarity — it’s easier to show you understand the feelings of the audience if you can also say you share them. But goodwill can also exist without similarity; in fact, establishing goodwill is especially important when your audience is, or will perceive themselves to be, different from you. Such an audience is more likely to be skeptical or suspicious, so building goodwill is essential to ensure they are open to your message.

 

The means by which you can build ethos with your particular audience and within your given rhetorical situation are constraints that can help you to make purposeful and effective choices in the language and style of your communication. For example, adjusting the type of vocabulary you use can demonstrate your credibility, and/or help establish similarity with your audience. Showing passion and enthusiasm may help you seem more trustworthy. Using positive language and avoiding accusations can help build goodwill. The list goes on.

Always be mindful of the fact that with every word you speak or write, you are establishing your character in the minds of your audience members.

 

Works Cited

Ambler, George. “5 Ways to Persuade with Character (Ethos).” George Ambler: Helping Leaders Grow. 27 May 2014. Accessed 7 Oct 2014. < http://www.georgeambler.com/5-ways-persuade-character-ethos/ >.

Grant-Davie, Keith. “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents.” Writing about Writing: A College Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs. 3rd ed. Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2016. 484-509.

McCormack, Krista. “Ethos, Pathos, and Logos: The Benefits of Aristotelian Rhetoric in the Courtroom.” Washington University Jurisprudence Review 7.1 (2014): 131-155.

Porter, Jeremy. “Three ways to build authority.” Jeremy Porter Communications. 24 Feb 2014. < http://www.jrmyprtr.com/build-authority-and-persuade/ >.

Sattler, William. “Conceptions of Ethos in Ancient Rhetoric.” Speech Monographs 14:1-2 (1947): 55-65.

Verdenius, W. “The meaning of ethos and ethichos in Aristotle’s Poetics.” Mnemosyne 12.4 (1945): 241-257.

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