Now that you know how logos and pathos work, it’s time to take a look at Aristotle’s third strategy: ethos.
At this point, it might go without saying that Aristotle was the godfather of rhetoric. And for him, the most important argumentative appeal of the three was ethos. Here’s why:
When it comes to rhetoric, a good reputation goes further than good reasoning. For instance, when Lincoln was fighting to end slavery in America, his ideas weren’t exactly popular. However, people liked him, and this made all the difference when he sought to abolish slavery.
But to truly understand ethos we need to look at the origins of the word. In Greek, “ethos,” or “ethics,” originally meant “habitat” – the environment a person occupies. That means being an ethical person is about “being at home” with your audience, sharing their values, manners and tone, fitting in as snugly as a piece in a puzzle.
The Romans also had a word for ethos – decorum, which refers to the way a speaker encapsulates the collective voice of a crowd. For instance, the movie 8 Mile, a quasi-biopic of Eminem’s rise to stardom, culminates in a hip-hop club where orators, depicted here as emcees, sling verbal attacks at each other.
It’s at this moment that, to the crowd’s surprise, Eminem himself, nothing more than a white-trash bum, wins over the predominantly black crowd. His winning strategy is to tear down the street credibility of his opponent by pointing out that he comes from a wealthy family and attended private school.
It worked for Eminem’s character in the film, but be careful when using ethos. Remember that convincing an audience using decorum doesn’t mean mimicking them. Rather, it’s a matter of representing their ideal. For instance, when an ethical politician addresses a crowd, he has to seem as honest as possible, even if his constituents are committing fraud or cheating on their partners.
Constituents, though far from perfect themselves, always want a perfect politician; and audiences always want a flawless orator!
So, presenting an appealing character is essential to winning over your audience. Here’s how to do it:
According to Aristotle, an ethos-based argument has three essential qualities. The first is virtue, which means you can persuade your audience by sharing their values. But to do that you first need to know what values your audience holds and how you can embody them.
For instance, say you’re reading a book while your teenage daughter listens to Taylor Swift’s latest hit. You know that, at this age, young women consider independence paramount and that ordering her to turn off the music will certainly backfire. So, a better option is to give her a choice, thereby manipulating her sense of independence. Ask her whether she’d rather turn down the music or put on her headphones.
The second aspect of effective ethos is practical wisdom. That means you’ve got to look like a person who always knows what to do. For example, Jimmy Carter had the exceptional credentials that Americans look for in a presidential candidate and he should have done fantastically as president. He failed to secure a second term, however, because he lacked the necessary practical knowledge.
In fact, showing off your real-world experience is pretty effective; indeed, street smarts are often more effective than book learning. For instance, in discussions about war, someone usually invokes their status as a veteran to gain the audience’s trust. Naturally, this experience means a lot more than having studied war academically.
And the final quality of ethos is selflessness, which, in this context, means showing your audience that you have their interest in mind above all else. You can do this by reaching an agreement that might appear to personally hurt you, but which is undeniably correct.
For instance, say you want a project to go through at work. You might tell your boss that, even if you don’t get credit for the project, you’ll still work late to make it happen – it’s just too good to be passed up.
Have you ever been convinced by a sleazy salesman? Well, they often rely on some of the most notorious rhetorical traps out there.
Two such traps are bad logic and false comparisons. Kids love using them to get what they want from their parents. Just take the classic line, “But all the other kids get to do it!” Be careful not to do what many parents do, which is to rebut this with poor logic of their own by asking some inane question, like “And if all the other kids jumped off a cliff, would you follow them?”
Another strategy people employ is to hurl insults at their opponents. When faced with such accusations you can use labeling to attach positive connotations to their words. This is something politicians do all the time.
For instance, if a friend accuses you of being “a liberal hippy” you can simply respond that if caring about people makes you a liberal hippy, then, yes, you are a liberal hippy. The effect will be to put your opponent on the defensive and let you move more easily.
And finally, it’s especially important to watch for bad examples and tautologies. Bad examples are usually easy to spot because they’re disconnected from the argument they’re meant to support.
For instance, a mother might read about a child molester in the paper and decide that it means her kids aren’t safe playing outside. In cases like this, the mother is using a poor example of a single arrest to support a general argument that her kids should not play outside.
They just repeat the obvious. For instance, “I’m sure the Warriors are going to be NBA champions this year because they’ve got the best team.” The persuasiveness of such arguments is essentially nil when compared to a statement like, “I’m sure the Warriors will be NBA champions this year because Steve Kerr’s become a much better coach.”
Arguing sometimes gets a bad rap, but it’s as old as ancient Greece and it’s more about persuasion than picking a fight. Mastering the skills of rhetoric will help you communicate better, understand others and share your opinions without upsetting people.
So try this out. Aristotle used to say that there’s a flip side to every point, and when he found himself in a tough argument, he’d search for a way to turn the tables, usually by using concession. For instance, say your spouse is upset that you two never go out anymore. You could respond by saying, “Yes, my love, but that’s only because I want you all to myself.” That should give you enough time to decide which restaurant to make a reservation at.
Check out my related post: How to win an argument?