Article Category: Speechwriting

What is Ethos and
Why is it Critical for Speakers?


Is your audience listening even before you speak your first words?

Do they have high expectations?

Are they prepared to be convinced by what you have to say?

If not, you are suffering from poor ethos.

The first article in the Ethos, Pathos, and Logos series introduced these core concepts for speakers.

In this article, we define ethos, we look at ways that an audience measures your ethos, and we examine why it is so critical for a successful speech.

What is Ethos?

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 (e.g. a government leader) or reputation (e.g. an industry expert) 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.

Three Pillars of Public Speaking
  1. Ethos, Pathos, Logos - Introduction
  2. Ethos - Speaker Credibility
  3. Pathos - Emotional Connection
  4. Logos - Logical Argument

So, then, we will measure the ethos of a speaker by four related characteristics:

  1. Trustworthiness (as perceived by the audience)
  2. Similarity (to the audience)
  3. Authority (relative to the audience)
  4. Reputation or Expertise (relative to the topic)

We will explore each of these characteristics below. In a later article, we look at specific things you can do to improve your ethos as defined by these root characteristics.

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, as measured by concepts like:

  • Honest,
  • Ethical or moral,
  • Generous, or
  • Benevolent

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.

There are many characteristics which you might share with your audience:

  • Age, Gender, Race, Culture
    Example: A youthful audience identifies with a youthful speaker, just as a mature audience will identify more with a mature speaker.
  • Socio-economic status
    Rich? Poor? Educated? Middle-class? Urban? Rural?
  • Citizenship
    Where you are from, whether in a global sense (what country are you from?), or in a local sense (are you urban, or rural?)
  • Career or Affiliation
    Do you share a profession with your audience?
    Are you a member of the same organization as your audience?
  • Personality
    Analytical? Emotional? Reserved? Outgoing?

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. Several types of authority include:

  • Organizational authority
    e.g. CEO, manager, supervisor
  • Political authority
    e.g. president, political leader
  • Religious authority
    e.g. priest, pastor, nun
  • Educational authority
    e.g. principal, teacher, professor
  • Elder authority
    e.g. anyone who is older than us

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.

Your reputation is determined by several related factors:

  • Your experience in the field
    How many years have you worked with or studied this topic?
  • Your proximity to the topic or concept
    Are you the one who invented the concept? Were you involved at all? Or are you more of a third-party?
  • Your production in the field
    Books or academic papers written. Blogs authored. Commercial products developed.
  • Your demonstrated skill
    If you are talking about money management, are you a successful money manager?
  • Your achievements, or recognition from others in the field
    Awards won. Testimonials earned. Records achieved. Milestones reached.

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!)

This is easy to see if you examine how the four characteristics of ethos combine in various ways. Consider the following examples:

  • A CEO speaking to her employees
    As the CEO, she has organizational authority, and this is usually accompanied by a reputation built on years of success within the company. However, she may not be very similar to most of the employees (older than most; richer than most; perhaps more reserved and analytical). Nonetheless, her trustworthiness is solid based on past history of honest communication with employees.
  • The U.S. President giving the State of the Union address
    The President has more authority than most people on the planet based on his job title.  His reputation and trustworthiness probably depend a fair bit on your political beliefs. As for similarity to his audience, it’s a mixed bag — He’s American, and he’s not too old nor too young. But, he’s a politician and in a socio-economic class which puts him apart from most citizens.
  • A Teacher speaking to his students
    He probably has a record of trustworthiness, as long as he truthfully announces when assignments are due and exams are scheduled.  He has authority over the 16-year-olds, both by way of position and by age. He has taught in the school for 10 years (expertise), including many of his students’ older siblings (reputation). Unfortunately, he’s not really similar to his students in terms of age, wealth, career, or choice of music.

All of them have significant ethos as they score high on several measures. In particular, authority and reputation often are closely related. (The things you did to earn the reputation often earn authority as well.)

On the other hand, none have perfect ethos. Indeed, this is very hard to obtain as some measures conflict. For example, your authority relative to your audience often weakens your similarity with them.

Why is Ethos Critical for Speakers?

If you have high ethos, your audience is listening and attentive from your first word.

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.

How do you Establish Ethos?

Three Pillars of Public Speaking
  1. Ethos, Pathos, Logos - Introduction
  2. Ethos - Speaker Credibility
  3. Pathos - Emotional Connection
  4. Logos - Logical Argument

Unlike pathos and logos (about which we will learn in future articles), your ethos as a speaker is primarily established before you speak your first words. For example, either you have expertise about your topic, or you don’t. Either you are the CEO of the company, or you aren’t.

Having said that, there are many ways to establish ethos and to boost your ethos throughout your speech. We examine this in the next article of the series: 15 Tactics to Establish Ethos: Examples for Persuasive Speaking.

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
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Comments icon5 Comments

  1. Leon says:

    I was looking at Steve Jobs and his presentation of the new iPad, while thinking ‘why are so many people in awe of him’. Now it I know that it is probably because he has very high ‘ethos’ on the subject of innovative new product launches.

    Good article!

  2. K8 Peters says:

    I am fascinated by this topic because it addresses not only how to be prepared as a speaker, but also the importance of aligning the important unspoken elements as well as the spoken. Not to sound like a broken record, but once you open your mouth, we need to be sure that the sound of our voice aligns with our ethos or all that preparation goes out the door!!

  3. Luis says:

    Thanks for the information. I was looking for definitions of this term, to compare them with those of “pathos” (on which I am working). Because Abraham Joshua Heschel uses this term, pathos, at the beginning of the third volume on prophets (The Prophets, sympathy and Phenomenology). You have been very helpful. This information can’t be usually found in Spanish.

  4. Ryan T. Hogan says:

    Hello,
    Looking to bcome a better public speaker/communicator with my clients/prospective Financial Advisory clientel. Enjoyed learning breifly about Ethos Pathos logos. Please keep me informed.

    Sincerely,
    Ryan Hogan

  5. Craig says:

    I’ve been tasked to research ethos as it relates to a belief system and the relationship between it and Ethics. I appreciated reading your articles regarding Ethos as a speaker. I was attempting to relate all the same concepts (trustworthiness, similarity, authority, and reputation/expertise) to Ethos as believe system. Would I be wrong in doing that? Are there other characteristics that I need to consider as well? Please share with me your thoughts of Ethos as a belief system.

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