Modes of Persuasion: Ethos

Ethos or the ethical appeal means to convince an audience of the author’s credibility or character.

An author would use ethos to show to his audience that he is a credible source and is worth listening to. Ethos is the Greek word for “character.” The word “ethic” is derived from ethos.


Ethos can be developed by choosing language that is appropriate for the audience and topic (this also means choosing the proper level of vocabulary), making yourself sound fair or unbiased, introducing your expertise, accomplishments or pedigree, and by using correct grammar and syntax.

During public speaking events, typically a speaker will have at least some of his pedigree and accomplishments listed upon introduction by a master of ceremony.

Ethos in Academic Writing

The application of ethos in writing, and advertising material manifests itself in a multitude of ways.  In academic papers, writers convey ethos first and foremost through appropriate use of style and grammar. This usually means adhering to a predefined manner of formatting the paper’s citations and paragraph structure, such as APA, MLA or Chicago/Turabian style.  This custom is primarily used to give a standard means to citing and referring to sources, in order to facilitate academic review.

Ethos in academic writing is further established by adequately structuring the paper’s theses and ideas. Thus in this case ethos is closely associated with the logos, the appeal to logic.  This is due to the nature of academia itself being dedicated to the pursuit and advancement of knowledge and ideas.

Ethos in Advertising

Establishing credibility when attempting to call an audience to an action, such as buying a product, encompasses a wide range of details, which can sometimes be entirely specific to the medium on which the advertisement is being delivered. Approaches can widely vary whether an advertisement is delivered in a purely audio, static graphic or video format.  Whether an advertisement is delivered via digital advertising, billboard, street furniture, print publication or television could also potentially have a source effect on the ethos of the advertisement and of the brand or product the ad is attempting to promote. Additionally, the content and reputation associated with a certain website or publication can have affect the ethos of the advertisement.

Approaches to establishing ethos can also depend entirely on the industry and branding strategy. In many cases it is not about having a "better" or "worse" ethos, rather the goal would be to establish a connection to the ethos of existing groups of people. Do you want your advertisement to appeal to surfers from surfers from Long Beach, or bankers from Wall Street? A different ad strategy and associated product/brand ethos would be required to appeal to each. 

However, there should be a clear distinction between establishing a desired ethos surrounding a specific advertisement/campaign/brand/product, and advertising products which convey or attempt to establish a personal ethos. In essence, one is needed to establish the other. When promoting their products, advertisers will attempt to persuade customers that the ethos associated any given product will transfer itself to the user of the product. 

Some of the best examples of this are advertisements for designer clothing and automobiles, for example Gucci and Mercedes. Both of these product categories are closely associated with a sense of individual style and status, and many people buy these products to establish or promote a certain personal ethos that they believe is already associated with the product.  Marketing for these kinds of goods normally attempts to connect the product to a certain way of life, personal image or social status.

 This Mercedes Benz Ad Utilizes a Celebrity Athlete in Order to Attach a Certain Ethos to its Product

Ethos in Public Speaking and Oral Presentations

In oral presentations and debates, speakers knowingly and unknowing utilize ethos in a number of ways. The easiest example of this to see is choice of dress and physical appearance. In this aspect, different audiences and events will beget different attire. A speaker at a surfing convention would most likely dress themselves much differently than one at a shareholder meeting for a Wall Street bank.

Speakers Must Adapt their Image and Attire for Different Audiences and Events

During any oral presentation two key elements, just about equal in importance, will almost certainly be necessary to effectively present to any given audience.

One is calmness, and certain confidence in the fact that you know what you are talking about. Of course, achieving this usually requires preparation, as well as a solid understanding of the presentation or speech’s topic.  One aspect of this is keeping on topic and having a solid point to point agenda of subjects vital to the coherency of the presentation.

The second key element is to introduce pedigree and experience in the subject of discussion.  This is especially important during key industry and academic events, where many audience members are either familiar in the topic of discussion or an expert in it themselves. Typically, at least some of this work should be done prior to any speech by a master of ceremony. However, it still may be a good idea to touch back to anecdotes of accomplishments and/or projects that the audience would likely be interested in during the speaking engagement.

While introducing pedigree and experience, there can sometimes be a fine line between demonstrating knowledge and industry experience, and sounding somewhat arrogant. On this note, having a degree of calmness when speaking about your experiences and knowledge can in many cases offset this effect.  Demonstrate as much expertise as necessary, and leave the act of impressing the audience up to your presentation.

During any class presentations below the high school or undergraduate level, pedigree and expertise are negligible, as the audience is typically of peers who will not expect anything more of a speaker than being their classmate. Any existing expertise or pedigree in presentations like this are a bonus.