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How to Craft a Good Ethos Strategy

I argued in the last article that all three of Aristotle’s famous appeals are important. 

Ethos is the appeal to trustworthiness. It involves a speaker’s credibility, authority, character, and so on. Logos is the appeal to logic. It involves a speaker’s evidence and reasoning. Pathos is the appeal to emotion. It involves the speaker’s emotional impact. I illustrated how these three appeals work together partly by posting this illuminating Pinterest image:

But I also pointed out that each one of the three appeals should play the starring role at a different stage in your message. I said that ethos should come through clearest right up front. 

Here’s what I wrote about ETHOS:

We do not listen to people we do not trust. That is why it is essential to establish ethos with your audience up front. To do this well, consider the following tactics: 
Offer them a compliment. Thank the audience for showing up on time. Acknowledge an award they recently won, or a particular skill or benchmark they have achieved, or an indispensable role they play in the organization. Show them that you care about the topic. Do not be insincere. If you can tell your audience in a genuine way that this topic means something to you, and that you have their best interests at heart, they will be much more inclined to trust you. Tell them you know something about the topic. You do not need to brag or offer a list of credentials, but there is nothing wrong with telling your audience that you have real experience with the topic, that you’ve spent some real time studying this topic, and that you have some things to share. 

These principles can be applied whether you are an HR rep discussing the importance of recertification or you are a head of state trying to inspire a nation. 

Let’s consider how these principles of ethos were used in one of the most high-profile presidential addresses in modern memory.  

EXAMPLE: Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” Address: Ethos Analysis 

Back in 2008, Barack Obama was running for his first term as president. He was doing very well in the primary polls, but then controversy erupted. Videos of his Christian pastor surfaced. The pastor, Jeremiah Wright, was recorded making incendiary remarks about U.S. history. There were other reports of Wright using stereotypes of other races. 

The videos went viral, Obama started to lose ground in the polls, and he needed to address the issue. His speech “A More Perfect Union” was his response to the controversy, and the speech quickly became a classic of American political oratory. One of the reasons for the speech’s success was Obama’s ethos strategy. He made the speech a discussion of race in the United States. Rather than simply disavow Wright’s comments, although he did that too, Obama took advantage of the opportunity to start a broader conversation about why Black Americans and, in response, White Americans often feel so angry. His ethos strategy included these introductory remarks:

Offer a compliment:

“Farmers and scholars, statesmen and patriots who had traveled across the ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence . . . What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggles, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk . . .”

Notice how Obama is highlighting the accomplishments of his audience (American citizens). He is praising Americans of both the past and the present for their ideals, sacrifices, and achievements. Here he shows what Aristotle calls eunoia, an element of ethos that implies good intentions. 

Show them you care:

“This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this presidential campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and prosperous America. I chose to run for president at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together. . . This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people.” 

Notice how Obama is showing his audience that he shares their values, has their best interests at heart, and is motivated by unselfish reasons. When Aristotle theorized ethos more than two thousand years ago, he called this element of ethos arete, which means, in part, virtue and good character.

Tell them you know something:

“I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Forth Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – and inheritance we pass to our daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles, cousins of every race and every hue . . . It is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one.” 
“(My campaign) won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African-Americans and white Americans.” 

Notice the way Obama does not appear to be bragging so much as reminding his audience that his background and experience make him uniquely qualified to speak on the topic at hand.

Rather than just saying he knows a lot, that he has fancy college degrees, that he has special credentials or powerful friends, that he won a bunch of competitions, he folds reminders of his achievements into the purpose of the message. This element of ethos is what Aristotle called phronesis, or practical wisdom. Obama does not want to appear as holier-than-thou to his audience, he wants to appear as though he has some practical experience with a real-world problem, and that it is, therefore, right for him to speak on the subject. 

Once Obama has made it clear to his audience that he has the three elements of a strong ethos – eunoia (good intentions), arete (good character), and phronesis (good wisdom), then he can move with confidence into the main thrust of his message, knowing that his audience is now more likely to trust what he has to say.      

Ben Crosby is a professor of rhetoric and a communication skills consultant. He teaches courses in public speaking and presenting, argumentation and debate, technical and professional communication, persuasion and selling, and the history of rhetoric.

His work is regularly published in his field’s top academic journals and conferences. He is also the author of Presentations as Performance: A Professional’s Guide to Better Speaking.

Ben’s areas of expertise are Public Speaking, Presentation Skills, Argumentation, Sales Training, and Professional Writing.

In his free time, he spends time with his wife, Rebecca, their four kids, and their cat, Arza. He is an avid Utah Jazz fan.

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