Does Your Audience Find You Trustworthy? — 4 Components Of Ethos


“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. . . his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.”
Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.2.1356a.4‑12

———–

If you speak, you should begin here:
does your audience find you trustworthy?
If the answer is yes, they will more likely listen.  If the answer is no, than all is lost before you even begin.  This concern falls under the ancient category of “ethos.”

I have written before about the importance of ethos.  Traditionally, ethos stands for the “ethical appeal,” and speaks of the character of the speaker.  In an era of great mistrust, such as ours, ethos may be the most critical trait of all.

Ethos and character were frequently spoken of back in the days of ancient rhetoric. Quintilian (ca. 35 – ca. 100) actually defined rhetoric as “the good man speaking well.” This is from the Wikipedia article on Quintilian:

Quintilian quite literally believed that an evil man could not be an orator, “for the orator’s aim is to carry conviction, and we trust those only whom we know to be worthy of our trust.”

(Yes – I know – all of this is masculine centered language.  In ancient times, they had not yet made much progess in the arena of gender equality).

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) focused on “habits” related to ethos:

• intelligence =”mental habits”
• virtue = “moral habits”
• good will = “emotional habits”

In one of the textbooks I use in my teaching, Public Speaking (8th Edition) by Michael Osborn, Suzanne Osborn, and Randall Osborn, they describe four components of ethos.  These are terrific.  Here they are, from the book, with my own take sprinkled in:

• integrity – be trustworthy (ethical; honest; dependable)
• competence – develop genuine expertise; know your subject well (informed; intelligent; well-prepared)
• dynamism – raise the energy in the room whenever you speak (confident; decisive; enthusiastic)
• goodwill – have the best interests of your audience at heart.  Always mean them well, never mean them harm.

Or…  to put it all in simple terms:

• you can trust me
• because I have prepared well
• and, I believe this deeply enough to get excited about it – and I work hard to stay current
• and I share this with you to help you succeed in your own pursuits.

Enter every speaking assignment with these components of ethos at the front of your mind, and you will become known as trustworthy– a person of good character, speaking well.

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2 thoughts on “Does Your Audience Find You Trustworthy? — 4 Components Of Ethos

  1. So to keep someone from being persuasive you attack their ethics? Sounds like the world we’re living in right now. I guess the real question is how do you establish your ethics in a world where it is so easy to attack them.

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