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How To Use Ethos In A Persuasive Essay

Using Rhetorical Strategies for Persuasion


These OWL resources will help you develop and refine the arguments in your writing.

Contributors: Stacy Weida, Karl Stolley
Last Edited: 2013-03-11 12:56:30

There are three types of rhetorical appeals, or persuasive strategies, used in arguments to support claims and respond to opposing arguments. A good argument will generally use a combination of all three appeals to make its case.


Logos or the appeal to reason relies on logic or reason. Logos often depends on the use of inductive or deductive reasoning.

Inductive reasoning takes a specific representative case or facts and then draws generalizations or conclusions from them. Inductive reasoning must be based on a sufficient amount of reliable evidence. In other words, the facts you draw on must fairly represent the larger situation or population. Example:

Fair trade agreements have raised the quality of life for coffee producers, so fair trade agreements could be used to help other farmers as well.

In this example the specific case of fair trade agreements with coffee producers is being used as the starting point for the claim. Because these agreements have worked the author concludes that it could work for other farmers as well.

Deductive reasoning begins with a generalization and then applies it to a specific case. The generalization you start with must have been based on a sufficient amount of reliable evidence.Example:

Genetically modified seeds have caused poverty, hunger, and a decline in bio-diversity everywhere they have been introduced, so there is no reason the same thing will not occur when genetically modified corn seeds are introduced in Mexico.

In this example the author starts with a large claim, that genetically modified seeds have been problematic everywhere, and from this draws the more localized or specific conclusion that Mexico will be affected in the same way.

Avoid Logical Fallacies

These are some common errors in reasoning that will undermine the logic of your argument. Also, watch out for these slips in other people's arguments.

Slippery slope: This is a conclusion based on the premise that if A happens, then eventually through a series of small steps, through B, C,..., X, Y, Z will happen, too, basically equating A and Z. So, if we don't want Z to occur A must not be allowed to occur either. Example:

If we ban Hummers because they are bad for the environment eventually the government will ban all cars, so we should not ban Hummers.

In this example the author is equating banning Hummers with banning all cars, which is not the same thing.

Hasty Generalization: This is a conclusion based on insufficient or biased evidence. In other words, you are rushing to a conclusion before you have all the relevant facts. Example:

Even though it's only the first day, I can tell this is going to be a boring course.

In this example the author is basing their evaluation of the entire course on only one class, and on the first day which is notoriously boring and full of housekeeping tasks for most courses. To make a fair and reasonable evaluation the author must attend several classes, and possibly even examine the textbook, talk to the professor, or talk to others who have previously finished the course in order to have sufficient evidence to base a conclusion on.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc: This is a conclusion that assumes that if 'A' occurred after 'B' then 'B' must have caused 'A.' Example:

I drank bottled water and now I am sick, so the water must have made me sick.

In this example the author assumes that if one event chronologically follows another the first event must have caused the second. But the illness could have been caused by the burrito the night before, a flu bug that had been working on the body for days, or a chemical spill across campus. There is no reason, without more evidence, to assume the water caused the person to be sick.

Genetic Fallacy: A conclusion is based on an argument that the origins of a person, idea, institute, or theory determine its character, nature, or worth. Example:

The Volkswagen Beetle is an evil car because it was originally designed by Hitler's army.

In this example the author is equating the character of a car with the character of the people who built the car.

Begging the Claim: The conclusion that the writer should prove is validated within the claim. Example:

Filthy and polluting coal should be banned.

Arguing that coal pollutes the earth and thus should be banned would be logical. But the very conclusion that should be proved, that coal causes enough pollution to warrant banning its use, is already assumed in the claim by referring to it as "filthy and polluting."

Circular Argument: This restates the argument rather than actually proving it. Example:

George Bush is a good communicator because he speaks effectively.

In this example the conclusion that Bush is a "good communicator" and the evidence used to prove it "he speaks effectively" are basically the same idea. Specific evidence such as using everyday language, breaking down complex problems, or illustrating his points with humorous stories would be needed to prove either half of the sentence.

Either/or: This is a conclusion that oversimplifies the argument by reducing it to only two sides or choices. Example:

We can either stop using cars or destroy the earth.

In this example where two choices are presented as the only options, yet the author ignores a range of choices in between such as developing cleaner technology, car sharing systems for necessities and emergencies, or better community planning to discourage daily driving.

Ad hominem: This is an attack on the character of a person rather than their opinions or arguments. Example:

Green Peace's strategies aren't effective because they are all dirty, lazy hippies.

In this example the author doesn't even name particular strategies Green Peace has suggested, much less evaluate those strategies on their merits. Instead, the author attacks the characters of the individuals in the group.

Ad populum: This is an emotional appeal that speaks to positive (such as patriotism, religion, democracy) or negative (such as terrorism or fascism) concepts rather than the real issue at hand. Example:

If you were a true American you would support the rights of people to choose whatever vehicle they want.

In this example the author equates being a "true American," a concept that people want to be associated with, particularly in a time of war, with allowing people to buy any vehicle they want even though there is no inherent connection between the two.

Red Herring: This is a diversionary tactic that avoids the key issues, often by avoiding opposing arguments rather than addressing them. Example:

The level of mercury in seafood may be unsafe, but what will fishers do to support their families.

In this example the author switches the discussion away from the safety of the food and talks instead about an economic issue, the livelihood of those catching fish. While one issue may effect the other, it does not mean we should ignore possible safety issues because of possible economic consequences to a few individuals.


Ethos or the ethical appeal is based on the character, credibility, or reliability of the writer. There are many ways to establish good character and credibility as an author:

  • Use only credible, reliable sources to build your argument and cite those sources properly.
  • Respect the reader by stating the opposing position accurately.
  • Establish common ground with your audience. Most of the time, this can be done by acknowledging values and beliefs shared by those on both sides of the argument.
  • If appropriate for the assignment, disclose why you are interested in this topic or what personal experiences you have had with the topic.
  • Organize your argument in a logical, easy to follow manner. You can use the Toulmin method of logic or a simple pattern such as chronological order, most general to most detailed example, earliest to most recent example, etc.
  • Proofread the argument. Too many careless grammar mistakes cast doubt on your character as a writer.


Pathos, or emotional appeal, appeals to an audience's needs, values, and emotional sensibilities.

Argument emphasizes reason, but used properly there is often a place for emotion as well. Emotional appeals can use sources such as interviews and individual stories to paint a more legitimate and moving picture of reality or illuminate the truth. For example, telling the story of a single child who has been abused may make for a more persuasive argument than simply the number of children abused each year because it would give a human face to the numbers.

Only use an emotional appeal if it truly supports the claim you are making, not as a way to distract from the real issues of debate. An argument should never use emotion to misrepresent the topic or frighten people.

Your speaking ethos is critical to ensure that your audience is present, listening, and open to being persuaded by your ideas.

But, how do you maximize your ethos for a given speech and a given audience? Is ethos fixed before you open your mouth? Is there anything you can do during a speech that makes a difference?

This article shows you practical tactics you can employ to establish and increase your ethos.

Definition of Ethos

The previous article in the Ethos, Pathos, and Logos series defined ethos along four dimensions:

  1. Trustworthiness
    Does your audience believe you are a good person who can be trusted to tell the truth?
  2. Similarity
    Does your audience identify with you?
  3. Authority
    Do you have formal or informal authority relative to your audience?
  4. Reputation
    How much expertise does your audience think you have in this field?

We will refer to these four dimensions throughout this article as we link practical actions back to their roots. Look for them in parentheses, like this: (Similiarity). When a certain tactic applies to all four dimensions of ethos, we’ll denote it like this: (All)

Remember that these dimensions are not always independent; rather, they are often intertwined.

Three Pillars of Public Speaking

Caution: Ethos is not an exact measure

Consider the difference between your weight and your overall health.

  • Weight is precise. Yesterday, you weighted 121 pounds. Today, you weigh 120.5 pounds. If you burn 3500 calories through exercise, you’ll drop one pound in weight. Last week, you weighed three pounds less than your sister.
  • Health, on the other hand, is not precise. Your health cannot be described by a single number. Still, you can make some assertions. You can be pretty sure that one person is healthier than another. Further, you can be confident that certain actions will improve your health (e.g. exercising more; eating spinach) and other actions will damage your health (e.g. smoking;  eating cake).

Ethos is not like weight. You can’t say “Oh, my ethos score with this audience is 165 today. Yippee!” (Well, you can say it, but it would be meaningless.)

Instead, ethos is like your physical health. You probably have less ethos than Steve Jobs at a technology convention. Having come to this epiphany, you should also realize that there are certain actions which improve your ethos, and certain actions that damage your ethos. Examples of these actions will be the focus of the remainder of this article.

“You probably have less ethos than Steve Jobs at a technology convention.”

How to Improve Ethos – Long Before Your Speech

Ethos is about your audience’s perception of you, and this perception can be formed over many months or years, or perhaps over many past speeches. So, we’ll first examine things you can do in the long run to improve your ethos.

#1: Be a Good Person (Trustworthiness)

Let’s start with an easy one. Be a good person, do good things, and think good thoughts. There are far more important reasons to follow this mantra than to gain speaking ethos. Nonetheless, your ethos will grow. The positive effect you have on those around you will spread, and will become known to your audience.

Example: How much ethos does Tiger Woods have (in the wake of the fidelity scandal) in terms of trustworthiness?

#2: Develop Deep Expertise in Topics You Speak About (Reputation)

“Your expertise will often differentiate you from competing speakers.”

People are busy. (There’s a news flash!) There are many things competing for their attention, and there are often many other speakers competing for their attention. Why will they choose to listen to you speak? Your expertise will often differentiate you from competing speakers.

Example: Suppose an audience has two options for concurrent sessions at a conference:

  1. Speaker A has very interesting ideas, but only 2 years of work in a related field.
  2. Speaker B has written two best-selling books in the field, and is a sought after consultant with 15 years of experience.

Who is the audience going to choose?

There’s a corollary for this rule too. Stick to speaking about topics for which you have deep expertise.

#3: Market Yourself (Reputation)

Developing the expertise doesn’t earn you any ethos if you don’t market yourself and let the world know about it. You’ve got to take charge of your personal brand and make sure that it’s a brand that emphasizes the qualities you want to emphasize.

#4: Analyze Your Audience (Similarity)

Thorough audience analysis is critical for improving your ethos. (It’s critical for improving your pathos and logos too… but that’s a topic for another article. Stay tuned.)

Audience analysis will reveal valuable clues that you can use to adapt yourself to your audience. Seek to find common traits that you share and highlight them. For other traits, find ways to adapt your language, your mannerisms, your dress, your PowerPoint visuals, or your stories to match the audience.

Example: You’ve been invited to speak to a company that is new to you. You don’t know whether their corporate atmosphere is formal or relaxed. Through audience analysis, you discover that nobody in the company wears a suit to work. So, you choose a less formal outfit to adapt to your audience.

How to Improve Ethos — Before Your Speech

“Showing up early demonstrates your dedication to serve the audience.”

The day of your presentation is too late to develop deep expertise about your topic. However, there’s much you can do before you say your first words:

#5: Show up Early to Welcome the Audience (Trustworthiness)

Showing up with minutes to spare gives the impression that you almost had somewhere more important to be. Showing up early demonstrates your dedication to serve the audience. This, in turn, builds trust.

#6: Share Event Experience with Audience (Similarity)

If your presentation is part of a larger event, try to attend as much of it as you can. Every minute you spend with your audience as an audience member builds your level of affiliation with them. The event becomes a shared experience. The audience sees you as one of them.

#7: Highlight Ethos in Marketing Materials (All)

Depending on the event, you may have an opportunity to provide an author’s bio to complement your speech title. Seize this opportunity. Make it clear to your potential audience why they should spend their time (and their money) to listen to you. This is particularly critical if you are at an event with concurrent sessions. Don’t assume that people make their decisions on topic alone.

Example: Suppose you will be speaking at the Arizona Teachers Association Annual Conference. Positive testimonials from past presentations to teacher associations would be effective to establish your reputation.

#8: Highlight Ethos in Introduction (All)

Your introduction is probably the single best opportunity for you to establish your ethos with this audience on this day. For this reason, you should always write your own introduction. Don’t let an event organizer wing it. Highlight the essential facts that establish your trustworthiness, similarity, authority, and reputation. As in the example above, pick the material specific to this audience and topic.

Beware that you don’t overdo it. Long introductions are boring. Long introductions filled with every accomplishment you’ve had since age 21 are boring and pompous.

“You should always write your own introduction. Don’t let an event organizer wing it.”

Example: Suppose you are delivering user training for employees to introduce the new corporate financial system. Key items to highlight in your brief introduction might be:

  1. You were the project manager for implementing the new system (Reputation)
  2. You have implemented similar systems twice before in your career (Reputation)

Note: Much more on effective evaluations can be found in the article: How to Introduce a Speaker: 16 Essential Tips for Success.

How to Improve Ethos — During Your Speech

If you’ve done well so far, your audience is listening from your first word. Don’t get complacent. Continue building your ethos through your presentation:

#9: Tell stories or anecdotes which show you are consistent with your message (Trustworthiness)

Don’t be a hypocrite. Nobody will act on your advice if you don’t.

Example: Suppose you are trying to persuade your audience to support Habitat for Humanity, an international organization that builds homes to eliminate poverty. You can raise your ethos by crafting stories or anecdotes which demonstrate that you are active in the local Habitat chapter.

By demonstrating that you follow your own advice, your audience is more likely to believe you on other points which cannot be so easily verified (for example, statistics about Habitat for Humanity).

“Don’t be a hypocrite. Nobody will act on your advice if you don’t.”

#10: Use language familiar to your audience (Similarity)

Using language familiar to your audience is good for two reasons:

  1. It aids in their understanding (which, indirectly, makes you more persuasive).
  2. It helps the audience identify with you which boosts your ethos.

By “familiar language”, I mean more than English versus Dutch. As well, I mean more than using words which are understood by the audience.

To really get your audience to identify with you, you must use the terms that they would use to describe the concepts.

Example: A few examples might make this clearer:

  1. Many people would understand that property agent is the same thing as a real estate agent. However, depending where you speak, one of these terms will be more common. Use it!
  2. Acronyms are dangerous if you are using ones that your audience doesn’t know. Conversely, if everyone in your audience uses the term P.M. on a daily basis, you should use that term rather than project manager.

#11: Use visuals/examples which resonate with your audience (Similarity)

For any given message, you have a multitude of options for stories, anecdotes, visuals, or other techniques to convey your speech. From this multitude, try selecting the ones which have the biggest impact with this audience. Not only will you get the big impact, but the audience will also start thinking that you are just like them. That’s good for you!

Example: Suppose you are speaking to company management on the topic of goal-setting. Through audience analysis, you discovered that the company sponsored employees to run the local marathon. Although there are many metaphors and visuals you could use to talk about goal-setting, you choose to draw parallels between corporate goal-setting and the goals one sets when tackling a challenging race. You feature several vivid photographs of marathon races to complement your arguments.

#12: Choose quotations and statistics from the right sources (All)

Quotations and statistics are common speech tools which, on the surface, may contribute more to your logos (logical argument) than ethos. Nonetheless, if you choose the right sources, you can boost your ethos too.

“When you reference a reputable source, you boost your ethos by association.”

Example: When researching a speech about cancer research, you discover two statistics that will help you make your argument.

  1. The source of the first statistic is some unknown author on Wikipedia.
  2. The source of the second statistic is the Mayo Clinic.

Which statistic is your audience more likely to believe? If you guessed the Mayo Clinic, you’re right. When you reference a reputable source, you boost your ethos by association.

So, the general guideline is to use quotations and statistics from sources which have high ethos to your audience, whether by trustworthiness, similarity, authority, or reputation.

#13: Reference people in the audience, or events earlier in the day (Similarity)

Earlier, we mentioned that, if possible, you should try to share the event experience with your audience. When you do, you can increase your ethos by incorporating something from that shared experience (or someone in the audience) into your speech. Your audience sees you as “one of them”, and a silent bond forms.

Example: In the presentation preceding yours, the speaker repeated a memorable phrase “It’s never too late.” If you can do it in a meaningful way, try to weave this phrase into your material.

How to Improve Ethos — After Your Speech

Your talk is done, but your effectiveness as a speaker is not yet written in stone. Here’s a few things you can do to continue to build up your ethos with this audience, or with your next audience.

#14: Make yourself available to your audience (Similarity)

Whenever possible, stick around after your presentation is over. Mingle with the audience and continue to share in the event experience. Not only will you have the opportunity for productive follow-up conversations, but your audience will see you as accessible, and accessible is good.

In short, your ethos will rise.

#15: Follow through on promises made during your presentation (Trustworthiness)

One technique for managing a short Q&A session is to defer thorny or complex questions to a later time.

Example: If someone asks a question as part of a 10-minute Q&A session that would take you 20 minutes to answer, it’s okay to defer the question saying: “I’d like to give the complete answer, but we don’t have time today. I’ll send it out to the group on email.”

It’s okay to do that, but only if you do follow up! If you fail to do so, your audience will judge you as being untrustworthy. Even if your presentation was great, your influence on their future actions is diminished.

Three Pillars of Public Speaking

Ethos in the short term versus the long term

In the above examples, you may have noticed that trustworthiness and similarity were mentioned much more often than authority or reputation. This is not an accident.

  • You can significantly influence your audience’s on-the-spot assessment of your trustworthiness and similarity by following the advice above. While your audience may have preconceptions about you in these dimensions, you may be able to change their mind.
  • It is much harder to change your audience’s on-the-spot assessment of your authority and reputation. Your audience’s perception of you along these dimensions is mostly fixed before your speech starts. Either you are an expert in the field, or you are not. Either you have formal authority over your audience, or you don’t. Not much that you say in a one hour speech will change either of these.

Next in this Series…

In the next article of this series, we’ll switch our focus to examine pathos: your emotional connection with the audience.

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Andrew Dlugan is the editor and founder of Six Minutes. He teaches courses, leads seminars, coaches speakers, and strives to avoid Suicide by PowerPoint. He is an award-winning public speaker and speech evaluator. Andrew is a father and husband who resides in British Columbia, Canada.

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Image credit: Temple of Castor and Pollux by Brian Jeffery Beggerly (CC BY 2.0)

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