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Ethos was originally defined by Aristotle in On Rhetoric as being trustworthy. He stated that we are more likely to believe people who have good character. Aristotle later broadened this definition of ethos to add that we are more likely to be persuaded by someone who is similar to us, whether by their intrinsic characteristics (e.g. physical age) or the qualities they adapt (e.g. youthful language).
Aristotle does not include the concept of either a speaker’s authority or reputation in his definition of ethos, but this reflects the rather narrow role for public speaking in his world. In our world, where speaking takes so many forms and where we often know a great deal about the speaker, we will include both of these elements in our definition of ethos.
So, then, we will measure the ethos of a speaker by four related characteristics:
- Trustworthiness (as perceived by the audience)
- Similarity (to the audience)
- Authority (relative to the audience)
- Reputation or Expertise(relative to the topic)
1. Ethos = Trustworthiness
An audience is more likely to be persuaded by someone who they trust, and this is largely independent of the topic being presented. If the audience trusts you, then they expect that what you are telling them is true.
“If the audience trusts you, then they expect that what you are telling them is true.”
Your trustworthiness is enhanced if the audience believes you have a strong moral character. Additionally, your audience tends to trust you if you are a member of a group with which these qualities are often associated (e.g. a pastor; a firefighter).
2. Ethos = Similarity to the Audience
Your audience is more receptive to being persuaded by someone with whom they can identify. Like trustworthiness, this aspect of ethos is largely independent of the topic.
If you share characteristics with your audience, great!
If you don’t, you can adapt your language, your mannerisms, your dress, your visuals, and your overall style to match your audience. Consider this the chameleon effect. Keep in mind that there are limitations to how much you can adapt your speech and delivery. Beyond this limit, your audience will see you as lacking authenticity and that’s bad.
“If you are similar to your audience, then your audience will be more receptive to your ideas in the same way that you are more likely to open a door at night if you recognize the voice of the person on the other side.”
If you are similar to your audience, then your audience will be more receptive to your ideas in the same way that you are more likely to open a door at night if you recognize the voice of the person on the other side.
3. Ethos = Authority
The greater a person’s authority, whether formal (e.g. an elected official) or moral (e.g. the Dalai Lama), the more likely an audience is inclined to listen and be persuaded.
Authority comes from the relationship between the speaker and the audience and is, in most cases, fairly easy to recognize. In addition to these, every speaker has authority just from being the speaker. When you speak, you are the one at the front of the room, often on an elevated platform, sometimes with a microphone or spotlight. You control the moment and thus, have temporary authority.
4. Ethos = Reputation (or Expertise)
Expertise is what you know about your topic.
Reputation is what your audience knows about what you know about your topic.
Your ethos is influenced by your reputation. Of the four characteristics of ethos, reputation is the one most connected to the topic of your presentation.
“Expertise is what you know about your topic.
Reputation is what your audience knows about what you know about your topic.”
How do these characteristics combine?
Ethos cannot be assessed with a checkbox (“yes, you have ethos” or “no, you don’t.”) like you can with, say, pregnancy. It’s more like beauty in the sense that there’s a whole range of beauty and many ways to obtain it. (And, it’s in the eye of the beholder… your audience!)
If you have high ethos, your audience is listening and attentive from your first word. They expect that you have something valuable to say, and they are eager to hear it. They are likely to be persuaded by you, provided that your speech is compelling. A bad speech will still sink you, but you’ll have more leeway.
If you have low ethos, your audience may not be listening or paying attention. (In fact, they may not even show up! Poor ethos doesn’t attract a crowd.) Expectations are low, and a poor opening will kill you. Your audience can be persuaded, but your speech needs to be much better to do it