Ethos in Action: Appeals to Character and Credibility in Public Speaking

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Today we’re continuing our series digging into the three modes of rhetorical appeal popularized by Aristotle. We have already explored examples of pathos, where speakers an appeal to emotion to sway audiences. Next along comes ethos, which Aristotle describes as an “appeal to character.” Today we’ll be covering some striking ethos examples. Alongside, we’ll explain how you can learn from these speakers’ techniques to apply them to your own speaking platform. 

We will explore five speakers who offer uniquely illustrative examples of ethos. From world leaders, to scientists, to entertainers, the impact of these speakers largely comes from who they are, not just what they say. You can use your character to make an impact in the same way–let’s dive in!

Ethos: an appeal to character

In case you haven’t read Aristotle’s Rhetoric in a while, here’s a refresher. As it’s the root of the term “ethics,” ethos sounds like it refers to an appeal to morality. However, in the rhetorical sense, ethos refers to the character of the speaker. Relying on your expertise, authority, or credibility to make a point are all appeals to ethos. Listeners are far more ready and willing to believe a speaker whom they trust. A speaker who utilizes ethos leverages their unique perspective and expertise to make their point. Your character colors the reception of your talk whether you like it or not. Why not learn to use it to your advantage? 

Directly referencing your experiences is one way to leverage ethos with your audience. For example, we always encourage speakers to recount (where applicable) past cases where they have helped clients similar to the present audience solve problems related to the topic of the talk. Doing so establishes that you are someone who fully understands your listeners’ industry and that you have their best interests at heart!

Another common way ethos is used in the public sphere is when a well-known expert or public figure advocates for a cause or perspective. The audience is already inclined to trust them in one area, so why not another? Super bowl ads, anyone? Celebrities whom you know and like endorse products you probably haven’t given a second thought to and suddenly…it’s there, in your head. Political campaigns often depend on ethos as well. think of the stir it creates when a celebrity (or a former opponent) endorses a candidate! Appeals to a speaker’s character take many forms…as you will see in the examples that follow. 

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Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill’s address to the U.S. Congress in December 1941 is a great starting point for our ethos examples. Occurring just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, this talk was an opportunity for Churchill to welcome the U.S. into the ranks of the Allies. In light of the tensions of the situation, he makes a great effort to speak as a friend, not a foreigner. 

To this end, Churchill reminds Congress that his own mother was American. He calls himself a “child of the House of Commons,” assuring his listeners that he understands the American political structure. He reminds his audience that the King himself has sent him to meet with the president–an appeal to yet another character’s authority, albeit one not present. As a result, his credibility and trustworthiness are well-established as he moves on to speak of the war.

Throughout the speech he emphasizes the power that the U.S. and Great Britain wield when they are on the same team, and the urgency of upholding that unity. By reminiscing on his family roots as part of his introduction, he has placed himself on the American team. Speaking with credibility requires knowing your audience and appropriately demonstrating that you are on your audience’s side. 

If you enjoyed this example of ethos, we highly recommend diving deeper into Churchill’s many speeches for inspiration. As the Nobel Prize committee put it, he truly was a master of “brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values” 

Malala Yousafzai

Since becoming the world’s youngest Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai has become a household name for human rights advocacy. Her speech before the U.N. in 2014 is a great example of how a speaker’s ethos can impress a point. While her story of being shot in the head by the Taliban certainly exudes pathos, her youth as well as her traumatic experience make her radically stand out from other activists. 

Age is one of the determinations of ethos that Aristotle covers in the Rhetoric. Whether a speaker is old or young will result in a markedly different impression on the audience. Malala’s willingness to endanger her own life for the sake of education at such a young age creates a much greater impact than similar motivations of an adult, however noble. Hers was likely the first eyewitness account of its kind that most of her listeners had heard. When so much of the world has fortunately left behind overt barriers to women’s education, the privileged easily forget about young girls struggling for permission even to go to school. 

Her words on women’s activism similarly rely on ethos to carry their weight. 

“There was a time when women social activists asked men to stand up for their rights. But, this time, we will do it by ourselves. I am not telling men to step away from speaking for women’s rights rather I am focusing on women to be independent to fight for themselves.” 

Coming from any other speaker, this might seem to burden women unduly. But Malala has walked the walk and talked the talk. She has already risen to the occasion–and is calling for others to stand up beside her. 

Prince Harry 

Prince Harry may be a royal no more, but throughout his history as a public figure he has continuously used his status to bring attention to climate change. Whether visiting universities, wildlife habitats, or the United Nations, he has consistently preached the same message. While it’s no surprise that people like to hear from someone as high profile as he, why has he become a climate justice speaker of all things? 

While Harry himself is no climate expert, he is part of one of the most well-known families in the world. Furthermore, his listeners know that he has had access to some of the most privileged educational opportunities of anyone alive. His status essentially acts as a megaphone for the cause as he points listeners to existing research on the climate crisis. While the jury is still out as to whether Harry’s own activism is performative or genuine, he is emblematic of a greater truth about ethos.

Don’t sweat it if you’re not the literal son of a reigning monarch. You can apply Harry’s strategy to many different situations. Are you a respected expert in one field already? Do you feel that a certain issue or cause deserves awareness or advocacy within that field? By leveraging your reputation and credibility, you are well-positioned to be the catalyst for change.

Lily Gladstone

Celebrities often use their platforms for activism they are given a public forum. You can find this use of ethos all over the place, but we’ll focus on one particularly recent example! Actress Lily Gladstone used her speech at the SAG awards to advocate for causes important to her, addressing both her in person Hollywood audience and virtual viewers around the world. This particular awards ceremony carried special weight after the months-long SAG-AFTRA strike brought actors’ rights and concerns to the public eye.

Lily’s Screen Actors Guild award for best lead actress–the first of its kind won by a Native American actress–comes on the heels of her win at the Golden Globes last month. She is in the limelight, and she is ready to use it! She opens with a few words in the Blackfoot language. Not only is this an homage to her people who have historically had few opportunities to appear on such a stage, but it reminds her audience how historic a moment this is. She acknowledges the tough year that actors have faced, commending her fellow actors for their storytelling. Finally, she encourages her listeners to share stories, show empathy, and speak up for each other.

The actress is a well-suited advocate for these exhortations because of her professional and personal background. Her unique life experience, such as growing up on a Blackfeet reservation, gives her a platform of ethos like few other actors. As an icon in an sphere that has historically struggled with inclusion, she is making an impact just by being herself. If you’re interested in learning more about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the speaking industry, listen here

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Jill Bolte Taylor

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor isn’t a world leader, celebrity, Nobel prize winner, or royal. Her TED talk “My stroke of insight” is an amazing ethos example for very different reasons from the others we’ve listed. In fact, it combines two powerful sources of ethos. Bolte Taylor is both a professional brain scientist and a stroke survivor. This rare combination allows her to weave in scientific information about the difference between the right and left brain with her personal testimony. 

Most people know and love someone who has had a stroke. It’s estimated that one in four people will have one in their lifetime. But few people have experienced both the debilitating loss of self control and the profound sense of understanding that Jill Bolte Taylor describes. She helps to demystify strokes from both the experiential and scientific perspectives. Her talk is hopeful, rather than alarming–she draws conclusions about how society can become more harmonious through better understanding of the right and left brain. 

Hopefully, you haven’t experienced a traumatic medical event with grueling years of healing. Or maybe you have, but it doesn’t have an obvious connection to your field. Many speakers don’t realize how their unique stories can add an interesting or helpful angle to their talk. Audience members want to feel like they know you, even if they’ve never heard of you before you step on stage. Connecting personal stories to your message can create that feeling. This is what ethos is really all about–making your audience comfortable trusting you!

Conclusion

Now, before you slam your laptop shut and say “That was useless, I’m not a celebrity!” hear us out. These ethos examples aren’t supposed to give you a step-by-step template for appealing to your own character and credibility, because we can’t do that! (We can help you with step-by-step templates for other things, like speaker bios). Your identity, your experiences, and your expertise are entirely unique. Depending on the industry within which you speak and the topic you speak on, how your character shapes your content, delivery, and impact will vary hugely. 

What we mean to drive home with these examples of ethos in public speaking is that having established credibility will not only give you greater persuasive power over your audience, but will help you get access to bigger and bigger platforms. Sure, you’re probably not going to be as famous as Prince Harry or Malala. But if you position yourself as an expert and build your personal brand intentionally, you can be the “celebrity” in your particular niche.  All thanks to ethos.

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