Documenting the Coming Singularity

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Art of Persuasion: Ethos in Rhetoric

The Greek word ethos refers to someone’s character. One of Aristotle’s three pillars of persuasion, it is an essential part of any successful argument. In the minds of an audience that you need to convince of your point’s verity, there is that question upon which their ultimate decision rests: Is this speaker credible on this subject? Of course it’s unlikely that the question is consciously being posed in this particular way, but rest assured that it is there. You may also rest assured that if you do not answer it decisively in the positive, you will find it almost impossible to prevail in your attempt to persuade.

In a former life, I was a preacher. I preached in various cities and countries for 14 years as my full time career. It was my job to persuade and I worked very hard at it. I preached to audiences filled with individual people, many of whom were convinced by my arguments. Of course it is also true that many more were not. In any case, I learned a great deal about what I am relating to you here.

In case you missed that, I was just attempting to establish my credibility with you. But establishing credibility is only one facet of the use of ethos. There is another question that your audience has about you: Do I like this person? It stands to reason that if I dislike you as a speaker, I will most likely reject everything you say. At the very least, convincing me that grass is green will be an uphill battle if I can’t stand the sight of you. But how do you get your audience to like you? By exemplifying likeable traits. Do you come across to people as likeable? Do people perceive you as sincere, humble, self-assured, brave, caring, et cetera? Or do they see you as snobbish, stiff, conceited, cowardly, fearful, or selfish? Some of us are not very aware of how we are portraying ourselves by the words and mannerisms we use in our speech. If this is so, getting the help of someone whose judgment and honesty you trust can be extremely valuable.

I once knew a speaker who regularly belittled and insulted (not by name, but if he was aiming at you, you knew it with absolute certainty) anyone who didn’t see things his way. Those who agreed with his viewpoint, at least many of them, received these taunts with great enthusiasm. On the other hand, he lost many people’s goodwill in the process. A very helpful exercise is to read, listen to, or watch great speakers in action, so you can learn how to win over your intended hearers. Remember: If they like you and trust you, you will have a much greater chance of convincing them that you are right.

Each of these three techniques have a certain degree of effectiveness, but in sum, their power cannot be compared with the power of the three used in concert. Logos: Logic. Pathos: Emotion. Ethos: Character.

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