Article Category: Speaker Habits, Speechwriting

15 Tactics to Establish Ethos: Examples for Persuasive Speaking


Your speaking ethos is critical to ensure that your audience is present, listening, and open to being persuaded by your ideas.

But, how do you maximize your ethos for a given speech and a given audience? Is ethos fixed before you open your mouth? Is there anything you can do during a speech that makes a difference?

This article shows you practical tactics you can employ to establish and increase your ethos.

Definition of Ethos

The previous article in the Ethos, Pathos, and Logos series defined ethos along four dimensions:

  1. Trustworthiness
    Does your audience believe you are a good person who can be trusted to tell the truth?
  2. Similarity
    Does your audience identify with you?
  3. Authority
    Do you have formal or informal authority relative to your audience?
  4. Reputation
    How much expertise does your audience think you have in this field?

We will refer to these four dimensions throughout this article as we link practical actions back to their roots. Look for them in parentheses, like this: (Similiarity). When a certain tactic applies to all four dimensions of ethos, we’ll denote it like this: (All)

Remember that these dimensions are not always independent; rather, they are often intertwined.

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

Caution: Ethos is not an exact measure

Consider the difference between your weight and your overall health.

  • Weight is precise. Yesterday, you weighted 121 pounds. Today, you weigh 120.5 pounds. If you burn 3500 calories through exercise, you’ll drop one pound in weight. Last week, you weighed three pounds less than your sister.
  • Health, on the other hand, is not precise. Your health cannot be described by a single number. Still, you can make some assertions. You can be pretty sure that one person is healthier than another. Further, you can be confident that certain actions will improve your health (e.g. exercising more; eating spinach) and other actions will damage your health (e.g. smoking;  eating cake).

Ethos is not like weight. You can’t say “Oh, my ethos score with this audience is 165 today. Yippee!” (Well, you can say it, but it would be meaningless.)

Instead, ethos is like your physical health. You probably have less ethos than Steve Jobs at a technology convention. Having come to this epiphany, you should also realize that there are certain actions which improve your ethos, and certain actions that damage your ethos. Examples of these actions will be the focus of the remainder of this article.

You probably have less ethos than Steve Jobs at a technology convention.

How to Improve Ethos – Long Before Your Speech

Ethos is about your audience’s perception of you, and this perception can be formed over many months or years, or perhaps over many past speeches. So, we’ll first examine things you can do in the long run to improve your ethos.

#1: Be a Good Person (Trustworthiness)

Let’s start with an easy one. Be a good person, do good things, and think good thoughts. There are far more important reasons to follow this mantra than to gain speaking ethos. Nonetheless, your ethos will grow. The positive effect you have on those around you will spread, and will become known to your audience.

Example: How much ethos does Tiger Woods have (in the wake of the fidelity scandal) in terms of trustworthiness?

#2: Develop Deep Expertise in Topics You Speak About (Reputation)

Your expertise will often differentiate you from competing speakers.

People are busy. (There’s a news flash!) There are many things competing for their attention, and there are often many other speakers competing for their attention. Why will they choose to listen to you speak? Your expertise will often differentiate you from competing speakers.

Example: Suppose an audience has two options for concurrent sessions at a conference:

  1. Speaker A has very interesting ideas, but only 2 years of work in a related field.
  2. Speaker B has written two best-selling books in the field, and is a sought after consultant with 15 years of experience.

Who is the audience going to choose?

There’s a corollary for this rule too. Stick to speaking about topics for which you have deep expertise.

#3: Market Yourself (Reputation)

Developing the expertise doesn’t earn you any ethos if you don’t market yourself and let the world know about it. You’ve got to take charge of your personal brand and make sure that it’s a brand that emphasizes the qualities you want to emphasize.

#4: Analyze Your Audience (Similarity)

Thorough audience analysis is critical for improving your ethos. (It’s critical for improving your pathos and logos too… but that’s a topic for another article. Stay tuned.)

Audience analysis will reveal valuable clues that you can use to adapt yourself to your audience. Seek to find common traits that you share and highlight them. For other traits, find ways to adapt your language, your mannerisms, your dress, your PowerPoint visuals, or your stories to match the audience.

Example: You’ve been invited to speak to a company that is new to you. You don’t know whether their corporate atmosphere is formal or relaxed. Through audience analysis, you discover that nobody in the company wears a suit to work. So, you choose a less formal outfit to adapt to your audience.

How to Improve Ethos — Before Your Speech

Showing up early demonstrates your dedication to serve the audience.

The day of your presentation is too late to develop deep expertise about your topic. However, there’s much you can do before you say your first words:

#5: Show up Early to Welcome the Audience (Trustworthiness)

Showing up with minutes to spare gives the impression that you almost had somewhere more important to be. Showing up early demonstrates your dedication to serve the audience. This, in turn, builds trust.

#6: Share Event Experience with Audience (Similarity)

If your presentation is part of a larger event, try to attend as much of it as you can. Every minute you spend with your audience as an audience member builds your level of affiliation with them. The event becomes a shared experience. The audience sees you as one of them.

#7: Highlight Ethos in Marketing Materials (All)

Depending on the event, you may have an opportunity to provide an author’s bio to complement your speech title. Seize this opportunity. Make it clear to your potential audience why they should spend their time (and their money) to listen to you. This is particularly critical if you are at an event with concurrent sessions. Don’t assume that people make their decisions on topic alone.

Example: Suppose you will be speaking at the Arizona Teachers Association Annual Conference. Positive testimonials from past presentations to teacher associations would be effective to establish your reputation.

#8: Highlight Ethos in Introduction (All)

Your introduction is probably the single best opportunity for you to establish your ethos with this audience on this day. For this reason, you should always write your own introduction. Don’t let an event organizer wing it. Highlight the essential facts that establish your trustworthiness, similarity, authority, and reputation. As in the example above, pick the material specific to this audience and topic.

Beware that you don’t overdo it. Long introductions are boring. Long introductions filled with every accomplishment you’ve had since age 21 are boring and pompous.

You should always write your own introduction. Don’t let an event organizer wing it.

Example: Suppose you are delivering user training for employees to introduce the new corporate financial system. Key items to highlight in your brief introduction might be:

  1. You were the project manager for implementing the new system (Reputation)
  2. You have implemented similar systems twice before in your career (Reputation)

Note: Much more on effective evaluations can be found in the article: How to Introduce a Speaker: 16 Essential Tips for Success.

How to Improve Ethos — During Your Speech

If you’ve done well so far, your audience is listening from your first word. Don’t get complacent. Continue building your ethos through your presentation:

#9: Tell stories or anecdotes which show you are consistent with your message (Trustworthiness)

Don’t be a hypocrite. Nobody will act on your advice if you don’t.

Example: Suppose you are trying to persuade your audience to support Habitat for Humanity, an international organization that builds homes to eliminate poverty. You can raise your ethos by crafting stories or anecdotes which demonstrate that you are active in the local Habitat chapter.

By demonstrating that you follow your own advice, your audience is more likely to believe you on other points which cannot be so easily verified (for example, statistics about Habitat for Humanity).

Don’t be a hypocrite. Nobody will act on your advice if you don’t.

#10: Use language familiar to your audience (Similarity)

Using language familiar to your audience is good for two reasons:

  1. It aids in their understanding (which, indirectly, makes you more persuasive).
  2. It helps the audience identify with you which boosts your ethos.

By “familiar language”, I mean more than English versus Dutch. As well, I mean more than using words which are understood by the audience.

To really get your audience to identify with you, you must use the terms that they would use to describe the concepts.

Example: A few examples might make this clearer:

  1. Many people would understand that property agent is the same thing as a real estate agent. However, depending where you speak, one of these terms will be more common. Use it!
  2. Acronyms are dangerous if you are using ones that your audience doesn’t know. Conversely, if everyone in your audience uses the term P.M. on a daily basis, you should use that term rather than project manager.

#11: Use visuals/examples which resonate with your audience (Similarity)

For any given message, you have a multitude of options for stories, anecdotes, visuals, or other techniques to convey your speech. From this multitude, try selecting the ones which have the biggest impact with this audience. Not only will you get the big impact, but the audience will also start thinking that you are just like them. That’s good for you!

Example: Suppose you are speaking to company management on the topic of goal-setting. Through audience analysis, you discovered that the company sponsored employees to run the local marathon. Although there are many metaphors and visuals you could use to talk about goal-setting, you choose to draw parallels between corporate goal-setting and the goals one sets when tackling a challenging race. You feature several vivid photographs of marathon races to complement your arguments.

#12: Choose quotations and statistics from the right sources (All)

Quotations and statistics are common speech tools which, on the surface, may contribute more to your logos (logical argument) than ethos. Nonetheless, if you choose the right sources, you can boost your ethos too.

When you reference a reputable source, you boost your ethos by association.

Example: When researching a speech about cancer research, you discover two statistics that will help you make your argument.

  1. The source of the first statistic is some unknown author on Wikipedia.
  2. The source of the second statistic is the Mayo Clinic.

Which statistic is your audience more likely to believe? If you guessed the Mayo Clinic, you’re right. When you reference a reputable source, you boost your ethos by association.

So, the general guideline is to use quotations and statistics from sources which have high ethos to your audience, whether by trustworthiness, similarity, authority, or reputation.

#13: Reference people in the audience, or events earlier in the day (Similarity)

Earlier, we mentioned that, if possible, you should try to share the event experience with your audience. When you do, you can increase your ethos by incorporating something from that shared experience (or someone in the audience) into your speech. Your audience sees you as “one of them”, and a silent bond forms.

Example: In the presentation preceding yours, the speaker repeated a memorable phrase “It’s never too late.” If you can do it in a meaningful way, try to weave this phrase into your material.

How to Improve Ethos — After Your Speech

Your talk is done, but your effectiveness as a speaker is not yet written in stone. Here’s a few things you can do to continue to build up your ethos with this audience, or with your next audience.

#14: Make yourself available to your audience (Similarity)

Whenever possible, stick around after your presentation is over. Mingle with the audience and continue to share in the event experience. Not only will you have the opportunity for productive follow-up conversations, but your audience will see you as accessible, and accessible is good.

In short, your ethos will rise.

#15: Follow through on promises made during your presentation (Trustworthiness)

One technique for managing a short Q&A session is to defer thorny or complex questions to a later time.

Example: If someone asks a question as part of a 10-minute Q&A session that would take you 20 minutes to answer, it’s okay to defer the question saying: “I’d like to give the complete answer, but we don’t have time today. I’ll send it out to the group on email.”

It’s okay to do that, but only if you do follow up! If you fail to do so, your audience will judge you as being untrustworthy. Even if your presentation was great, your influence on their future actions is diminished.

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

Ethos in the short term versus the long term

In the above examples, you may have noticed that trustworthiness and similarity were mentioned much more often than authority or reputation. This is not an accident.

  • You can significantly influence your audience’s on-the-spot assessment of your trustworthiness and similarity by following the advice above. While your audience may have preconceptions about you in these dimensions, you may be able to change their mind.
  • It is much harder to change your audience’s on-the-spot assessment of your authority and reputation. Your audience’s perception of you along these dimensions is mostly fixed before your speech starts. Either you are an expert in the field, or you are not. Either you have formal authority over your audience, or you don’t. Not much that you say in a one hour speech will change either of these.

Next in this Series…

In the next article of this series, we’ll switch our focus to examine pathos: your emotional connection with the audience.

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
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Comments icon6 Comments

  1. This article is full of useful tactics for improving your ethos in a speech (and before and after). What seems to be missing is that speakers need to show their hearts to audiences to truly connect with them. Audiences aren’t easily fooled, in the basic sense of trust, and a speaker who leaves that out will almost certainly lose, alienate, or bore his/her audience.

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Hi Nick:
      The tactics in the article are not an exhaustive list. There are other things one can do.
      While I think “showing your heart” is primarily an emotional appeal (i.e. pathos), I agree with you that it is another way to improve your trustworthiness (and thus your ethos).

  2. Very informative article!

    Ethos is one of the essentials for a good persuasive speech. It is very important that you established your credibility for your audience to fully trust in what you are saying.

  3. josh says:

    Thank you for providing this information for free! It has been a pleasure reading and I can’t wait to read more! Point #1 made me think of Lance Armstrong because he has lost all credibility after years of aggressively lying about taking performance enhancing drugs (on a side note I very much admire his determination).

  4. christian says:

    Thank you for proving free information about this. I hope it helps me for my future writing too.In your presentation, i learn i need to build the trustworthiness in both speech and writing. i know it now and i hope i can use it.

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Overtuigtips @overtuigtips — Apr 6th, 2012

Prima artikel met 15 tips om je geloofwaardigheid te vergroten vóór, tijdens en na jouw presentatie: http://t.co/4Rt1WZys #ethos

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samuelbritten @samuelbritten — Oct 1st, 2012

http://t.co/imS86o3G via @6minutes

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Nicole Vrabel @nicole_vrabel — Dec 21st, 2012

15 Tactics to Establish Ethos: Examples for Persuasive Speaking http://t.co/OifG6GjX via @6minutes

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@Aa_Schultz @Aa_Schultz — Feb 20th, 2014

Ethos is crucial and this is helpful.15 Tactics to Establish #Ethos: Examples for Persuasive #Speaking http://t.co/dronIjCoPq

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