Establishing Ethos

Learning Objective

  • Recognize strategies for establishing appeals to ethos

Establishing ethos in your own writing is all about using credibility—either your own or that of your sources—in order to be persuasive. Essentially, ethos is about believability. Will your audience find you believable? What can you do to ensure that they do?

You can establish ethos—or credibility—in two basic ways: you can use or build your own credibility on a topic, or you can use credible sources, which, in turn, builds your credibility as a writer.

Credibility is extremely important in building an argument, so, even if you don’t have a lot of built-in credibility or experience with a topic, it’s important for you to work on your credibility by integrating the credibility of others into your argument.

Aristotle argued that ethos was the most powerful of the modes of persuasion, and while you may disagree, you can’t discount its power. After all, think about the way advertisers use ethos to get us to purchase products. Taylor Swift sells us music, and LeBron James sells us basketball. Their fame, names, and expertise are selling us products.

With the power of ethos in mind, here are some strategies you can use to help build your ethos in your arguments.

strategies for building ethos

If you have specific experience or education related to your issues, mention it in some way.

If you don’t have specific experience or education related to your issue, make sure you find sources from authors who do. When you integrate that source information, it’s best if you can address the credibility of your sources. When you have credible sources, you want to let your audience know about them. Introduce your sources with signal phrases that highlight their authority, such as, “Harvard Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Joseph Menson notes” or “According to a study by the University of Berkeley’s School of Economics.”  Highlight any other factors about the source that might accentuate credibility, such as the nature, length, or size of research studies.

Use a reasoned tone that is appropriate to your writing situation and will make you sound credible as a writer. Controversial issues can often bring out some extreme emotions in us when we write, but we have to avoid sounding extreme, especially in academic arguments. You may not convince everyone to agree with you, but you at least need your audience to listen to what you have to say.

Avoid logical fallacies that misuse ethos appeals, such as ad hominem, false authority, guilt by association, poisoning the well, transfer fallacy, name-calling, plain folk, and testimonial.

Kairos and Ethos

You can also use kairos as a strategy for building ethos. You’ll recall that kairos refers to a favorable moment for action. Most issues have energy or agency within certain time frames. Think about Martin Luther King, Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was the right speech for the right time. Choosing to write about an issue that has current energy and interest contributes to your ethos by presenting you as an engaged, aware writer who is willing to tackle important issues in critical times.

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