Pathos works at our emotions to get us to think, feel, or act in a certain way, while logos appeals to logic and reason, making it an excellent asset for both written and spoken discourse.
Ethos, however, works by establishing the presenter’s credibility, which is essential for a convincing argument.
Derived from the Greek word for “character,” ethos is a rhetorical device that is used to establish the speaker’s credibility or appeal to the audience’s sense of ethical responsibility.
Ethos is usually applied when the speaker wants to validate their intentions (in other words, why their argument is a good and relevant one) or when they want to demonstrate their authority on a subject.
Why is Ethos Important?
Ethos is necessary for convincing an audience that a speaker is someone they should believe. If an audience does not trust the qualifications or knowledge of the persuader, they likely will not be moved by his or her words.
Even if a speaker presents logically sound arguments, some audiences will still not be totally convinced unless they know something about the speaker’s merits.
How to Use Ethos in Writing
When used properly, an appeal to ethos can make your persuasive, creative, and expository writing more effective and interesting to readers.
Use Expert Opinions
Through extensive, up-to-date research—or by bringing in expert support—you can establish greater credibility for your argument. This is also where logos and ethos can work hand in hand to create not only a logical, but believable, point.
Although you might use a personal experience or two to illustrate your authority, avoid overdoing it and limit your use of the first person to these specific experiences.
In all other cases, write from the third person point of view and avoid bringing in too much emotion.
Present Balanced Arguments
Presenting a valid counter argument can actually help to build your credibility as a speaker.
By showing that you and the other side agree on at least one point—or, by conceding to one of the opposition’s valid points—you will demonstrate to audiences that you are both fair and rational, which makes you trustworthy.
However, don’t get carried away in your counter argument—remember which side you support and only concede what is necessary to show that you can be even-handed.
Use Appropriate Vocabulary
When appealing to ethos, it is important that you choose your words with care. Consider both your audience and the topic—you don’t want to use fancy words that will confuse or intimidate your audience, but you also don’t want to sound weak or unprofessional.
Try to match your tone and level of writing to that of your target audience. Make sure that your words carry the appropriate connotations, as well.
Examples of Ethos
Examples of ethical appeals can be found in both fiction and nonfiction works.
It is frequently utilized in advertisement campaigns, political rhetoric, and even literature.
Ethos in Literature
From To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:
I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.
In this example from To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus uses ethos to appeal to the jury before him in hopes that they will make the right, ethical decision.
Ethos in Politics
From Winston Churchill’s 1941 Address to the United States Congress:
I am a child of the House of Commons. I was brought up in my father’s house to believe in democracy. “Trust the people.” That was his message. I used to see him cheered at meetings and in the streets by crowds of workingmen way back in those aristocratic Victorian days when as Disraeli said “the world was for the few, and for the very few.”
Therefore I have been in full harmony all my life with the tides which have flowed on both sides of the Atlantic against privilege and monopoly and I have steered confidently towards the Gettysburg ideal of government of the people, by the people, for the people.
In this speech, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stresses the qualities and values he shares with the American public in order to establish ethos and present himself as more relatable to his audience.
Ethos in Advertising
When it comes to advertising, ethos is usually employed in one of two ways: by using a celebrity or big name that people recognize and trust, or by appealing to the average person, aka the “plain folks” strategy.
Celebrities and Trusted Names
Jennifer Aniston is featured in Glaceau’s Smart Water advertising campaign because she is a family name, and even though most of us don’t actually know her or have any reason to trust her opinion on water so easily, many people feel like they can.
If Rachel from Friends says this water is good for me, it must be true, right?
This technique is mostly used by big brands to sell anything from athletic shoes to acne products.
The “Plain Folks” Technique
The other common strategy—the “plain folks” technique—takes exactly the opposite approach by appealing to everyday individuals.
While it is also used to sell products, the plain folks technique is frequently used in political campaigns to show voters that a candidate—despite their wealth or status—is just like them.
Hillary Clinton’s “Family Strong” ad from her 2016 presidential campaign is an example of this method. The video uses images of Clinton’s family and highlights her rather ordinary upbringing to make her appear more relatable to voters.
Use Ethos to Improve Your Writing
Whether you’re writing to persuade or entertain, ethos can enrich your writing and help you gain the trust of your readers.
Start practicing with writing prompts today to see if you can apply the three modes of persuasion for more effective prose.
Which techniques have helped you improve your persuasive writing? Feel free to share in the comments below!