Of the three modes of persuasion that Aristotle lays out in
, ethos is quite possibly the most
The ancient Greek term
is the origin of our modern word, ethics, and can be
how one chooses to live one’s life, including one’s intelligence, character, and goodwill
Today, we often hear about the importance of voters perceiving politicians as competent, trustworthy,
likeable, or similar to the general population.
During the 2004 presidential elections we saw a great
deal of media coverage focused on how likable, how experienced, or how honest the candidates were.
Depictions of Democratic Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards as the son of a poor mill worker
who grew up with traditional small-town blue-collar values were contrasted with depictions of him as a
high-power personal injury attorney and multimillionaire.
Whenever Edwards stood up to speak he
confronted issues of ethos.
Likewise, depictions of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as billionaire oil
barons unconcerned with America or its citizens were contrasted with images of them as patriots
embattled with tough choices and hard situations.
Throughout any election campaign each candidate
must both manage her or his existing public persona and try to build the public’s perception of the
candidate in positive ways.
As these example point out, ethos includes both the perceptions that the audience has before the
speaker begins to speak and also the perceptions that the speaker can build for the audience during the
course of the speech.
Of course, what a speaker can and cannot do in a speech is affected by what the
audience knows of the speaker beforehand.
When President Clinton went on television to admit his
affair with Monica Lewinsky and confess that he had lied to the American public, he certainly had to
take into consideration his previous deceptions, the fact that most Americans were already well-
convinced that the affair had occurred, and the deep political divide in the country at the time.
speaker, Clinton wanted audiences to believe his apology was sincere and his character still reasonably
To do so required that he consider what the audience already believed about him before he
could mold those beliefs into something more positive.
So, as speakers we must always start with the understanding that the ethos we try to build in a speech
must work with what the audience already might believe about us.
Even audiences who do not know a
speaker as an individual will bring assumptions to the speech about what type of person the speaker is.
Every speaker finds her/himself affected by certain assumptions before a speech even begins, being
already socially labeled as “student,” “teacher,” “lawyer,” “politician,” “administrator,” “father,”
“mother,” “black,” “white,” “hispanic,” “asian,” “male,” “female,” “young,” “middle-aged,” “elderly,”