Modes of Persuasion - Ethos

Ethos is concerned with the self-portrayal of the speaker. Thus, it deals with the conscious and unconscious demonstration of the speaker’s character during the delivery of the speech. Ethos is seen by many scholars as the most important of the three appeals (ethos, pathos and logos), both in modern and antique practice.

There are different understandings of ethos and pathos, since the roman rhetorician Quintilian redefined ethos in his work Institutio Oratoria (Institutes of Oratory). Aristotle defined pathos as “putting the audience into a certain frame of mind” [Aristotle: Rhetoric: 1356a], whereas Quintilian used pathos and ethos to describe different intensities of emotional affection. In this work ethos refers to the original meaning it was given by Aristotle. Note that many scholars often don’t explicitly state, which kind definition of ethos they follow.

Ethos deals with the appearance of the person not the actual being. For example the Morphing Textbook of the Rhetoric Department of the University of Iowa instructs the student to ask the question “is the source credible” [Morphing Textbook - Rhetoric Analysis] when dealing with ethos. In general, this question could be considered correct, but with a strict understanding of ethos the question should be “does the source appear to be credible?” Ethos is concerned about the appearance of the character not its “real” characteristics.

The aim of ethos is to show the trustworthiness of the speaker, thus the aim of the speaker is to appear – not to be – trustworthy in his delivery. The overall ability to achieve ethos can be called self-portrayal or impression management.

The Goal – Trustworthiness

The goal of the speaker is to express credibility and authenticity of his character, not about his arguments. Trustworthiness is achieved via perceptions over various channels, e.g., body language, vocal qualities, content, etc. The information retrieved from one channel has to be in harmony – in congruence – with each of the others. Many of these signals are received on an unconscious level, thus the audience sometimes is not able to explain affections and influences on a logical level. Thus, creating responses like “Uhmm I just trust him,” when you ask someone about a trustworthy person.

Various studies have shown that there is quite a difference in which “channel” prevails in measuring the speaker. Many studies suggest that the nonverbal and paraverbal aspects have stronger influence on the appearance of authenticity than the verbal aspects. Yet, a study co-funded by the Association of Speechwriters of the German Language (Verband der Redenschreiber deutscher Sprache) [Welchen Anteil haben Text, Erscheinungsbild des Redners, Betonung und Gestik an der Gesamtwirkung eines Vortrags?]. in 2006 states that the effect of the content (logos) is the main factor for a reaction in the audience.

One of the social aspects of credibility is about identity and the membership in a group. Thus, when a speaker appears to be a member of the group, he can gain easier credibility in the group. Research in leadership suggests “that to gain credibility among followers, leaders must try to position themselves among the group rather than above it.” [The New Psychology of Leadership (Scientific American)] Thus, a self-portrayal that encompasses the identities of the audiences can have a favorable effect.

The Ability – Self-Portrayal / Impression Management

The sociologist Erving Goffman argues in his work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that everyone “plays” different roles of himself depending on the social context. To a certain degree this acting is done consciously, but it is also performed unconsciously. “When an individual appears before others, he knowingly and unwittingly projects a definition of the situation, of which a conception of himself is an important part.” [Erving Goffman: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life: p. 234-235] Thus, to a certain degree “the self is always coming through”, since unconscious processes are not directly controllable.

Social Position and Authority

Social position and authority can be attributed to the person via external authorities or means. For example, empirical studies have shown, people are more likely to follow a person that shows explicit signs of authority, like wearing a suit with a tie. [Cialdini: Influence - The Psychology of Persuasion] Some forms of authority can be expressed by the speaker, like dress, whereas other forms are attributed by society, like reputation. Both factors are dependent on the social context, because authority in a field, social position, and dress code are dependent on the social environment and concrete situation. Besides expressing authority, dress can also be used to express similarities, thus tending more towards sympathy then authority.
By taking an explicit look on the social position of the speaker and his positioning on the stage, it is possible to determine what and how a person expresses certain attributes. This also requires background information on the reputation, authority of the speaker, the social context, and the audience.

Body Language

Body language is an element of nonverbal communication that is composed of different factors. The following are discussed here: facial expression, gesture, the collectivity of the body, body posture, and body movement.

Body language is known for reflecting the emotional state of the person, yet this reflection is not without an effect on the environment. It creates and regulates the affections of the counterpart, thus it also influences the interpersonal emotions and the whole communication situation. Since the reception and production of body language is mainly unconscious, its influence is omnipresent. Thus, the interpretation of body language is problematic due the complex impressions, volatileness of movements, and that its reading is an unconscious and usually not conconsciously learned process.

The Collectivity of the Body

constitutes all parts of the body in unity. Of main interest is the collective signal, especially the body posture and movement. Another aspect is the relationship to other bodies at a distance and touching behaviors. Research suggests that people attribute certain characteristics based on posture and movement towards the counterpart. Experiments have shown that the attribution of character properties, such as competence, sympathy, honesty, etc., are based more on movement behavior than on visual appearance.


is the act of using body parts during the communication process. A categorized vocabulary of gestures existed in the antique rhetoric. The main categories where denotative, imitational, enunciative, addressing, and empathic gestures.

Modern research suggests that gesture has two major functions. One function supports the speaker in speech production, while the other creates additional information for the listener. This underlines that gestures are not completely controllable. Note that natural gesture happens slighty before the words. This is the reason why most learned gestures appear fake to the audience.

Facial Expression

includes all moving and fixed parts of the human head that are visible during a direct look at the other person. Like body language, facial expressions not only transmit the emotional state of a person, but also influences the counterpart. According to the expert in facial expression Paul Ekman there are some basic facial expressions for showing emotional states and they are universal for humans, therefore, they are independent of culture and socialization. [Emotions Revealed, Second Edition: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life]

The (in)famous study of Mehrarbian suggests “that the information judges receive about attitudes can be quantified as follows: 7 % speech content, 38 % vocal qualities and 55 % facial.” [Giles, Howard; Powesland, Peter F.: Speech Style and Social Evaluation: p. 2, London, 1975.] Heike Mayer noted the study itself is not really representative for various reasons, but similar and more sophisticated studies confirmed the results of Mehrarbian.

Facial expression also involves eye contact. The analysis of eye contact is problematic with large audiences and speeches that are recorded on video. Furthermore, there are restrictions on whom is allowed to look directly into the camera while talking. “Only certain people are normally allowed to do this, such as announcers, presenters, newsreaders, weather forecasters, interviewers, anchor-persons, and, on special occasions (e.g. ministerial broadcasts), key public figures.” [The 'Grammar' of Television and Film] Thus, the eye contact between the speaker and the camera is an important aspect. (In case you ever wondered why most interviewed people don’t look into the camera, it is policy.)

The analysis of facial expressions allows the viewer to determine the attachment of the speaker to the topic/speech. Moreover, eye contact between the camera and the speaker offers an indication to his social status and/or the artificial generation of feelings like familiarity with the audience due to the use of certain camera portrayal techniques.


The voice conveys paraverbal aspects. For Aristotle the main points of the sound of the voice were volume, tonality, and rhythm. The latter is also considered a style phenomenon because it is largely constituted by the structure of the sentences. The voice provides the speaker with the opportunity to convey his emotional intentions at a paraverbal level. Generally there are many aspects of the voice that allow the speaker to create variety, e.g., pitch, volume, speed. Such variations can be used to emphasize certain aspects in a speech and to create a more dynamic performance.

Howard Giles and Peter Powesland cite in Speech Style and Social Evaluation (Social Psychology) various studies on the influence of non-content (paraverbal and nonverbal) vs. content cues on the evaluation of persons in relation to their voice. These studies suggest that “good voices” (vocal qualities) are attributed with favorable qualities of the speaker. Additionally, their research suggests a clear indication that noncontent cues have a stronger influence on evaluation than content cues. One study found that speech content “contained more information than vocal qualities about speakers’ ‘benevolence’ (e.g. kindness, tolerance), while vocal qualities were found to provide more information than content for judgements on factors relating to ‘social attractiveness’ (e.g. likeability, sociability) and ‘competence’ (e.g. intelligence, confidence).” [Giles, Howard; Powesland, Peter F.: p.4]

Some factors of the voice are quite “fixed” (sound), whereas others are very dynamic or can be changed easily, e.g., speed and pauses. Pauses are one of the most important speech elements. They can have different reasons and can be used differently, e.g., thinking pauses or pauses to raise tension. Generally, a fast talking speed creates more intensive emotional effects. Yet this is also dependent on other factors. High speed is associated with temperament, being active, determined, but when used inappropriately also with nervousness and restlessness. Slow speed can be seen as relaxing, celebratory, but also as monotone, inflexible, boring.


A great example of ethos can be seen in the movie Other People’s Money. There is a speech in front of the shareholders of the company. Both appeal to different persons in their argument and appearance. Take for instance how both use the stage. Lawrence “Larry” Garfield (Danni Devito) walks up, plays with the microphone cable and walks confidently around it, whereas Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson uses a very sincere and upright stance, moving only a bit around. Look also how the speak and show present each other. Larry walks and talks about money, Jorgy walks and talks about respect.

Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson

Lawrence “Larry” Garfield

One Response to Ethos

  1. Pingback: European Rhetoric Online « European Rhetoric

Comments are closed.