Aris­to­tle tells us that per­sua­sive appeals rely on logos, pathos, and ethos, aka logic, emo­tion, and character.

Unfor­tu­nately, most text­books and teach­ers act as if they are three sep­a­rate and exclu­sive appeals, as if you must choose one over the oth­ers, or as if they are essen­tially unre­lated to each other.

This is totally and fatally wrong.  Here’s the right way to think of these things, as quoted from Dr. Jonathan Shay’s essay, Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a Hand­book of Lead­er­ship [empha­sis mine]:

Aris­to­tle shows us that leader has three inter­re­lated means of achiev­ing his fel­low cit­i­zens’ trust:

  • Appeal to their char­ac­ter (éthos)
  • Appeal to their rea­son (lógos)
  • Appeal to their emo­tions (páthos)

These three are inter­re­lated, not sep­a­rate, because the goals of action arise from the troops’ ideals, ambi­tions, and affiliations—their char­ac­ter. Rea­son con­cerns the means to reach those goals. And the emo­tions arise pri­mar­ily from their cog­ni­tive assess­ments of the real-world improve­ment or dete­ri­o­ra­tion of their ideals, ambi­tions, affil­i­a­tions, and how fast they are chang­ing in the world.

Aris­to­tle has use­ful com­ments on the leader’s need to build trust through appeal to the troops’ char­ac­ter and emo­tion. He even explains how it is pos­si­ble to be “too ratio­nal,” los­ing the trust of those you are try­ing to lead. (See Garver’s, “Mak­ing Dis­course Eth­i­cal: Can I Be Too Rational?”)

Now, to be fair, Dr. Shay’s essay also exam­ines the impor­tance of the lead­ers Ethos as per­ceived by his followers/audience, but this is the aspect of ethos most every­one else already focuses on, with lots of solid con­tent on incor­po­rat­ing speaker/brand ethos into your copy.  What most peo­ple gloss over when dis­cussing ethos is the impor­tance of the audience’s ethos.

Why is this so important?

Because you want to appeal to prospec­tive cus­tomers’ best image of (and aspi­ra­tions for) them­selves.  Then show how your advo­cated course of action cor­re­sponds with that image.

And when you do this, you’re not ignor­ing pathos or logos, either.  The emo­tional appeal in your copy will stem from the gap between the reader’s ideal image of them­selves and the cur­rent (often frus­trat­ing and dis­ap­point­ing) real­ity.  While the logos will both demon­strate the cred­i­bil­ity of your pro­posed solu­tion while also demon­strat­ing your inher­ent respect for the audi­ence.  To quote a bit more from Dr. Shay’s essay:

The cen­tral­ity of ratio­nal expla­na­tion (“argu­ment”), rather than coer­cion or decep­tion, shows the leader’s respect for the troops, who are his or her fel­low cit­i­zens. You can’t sep­a­rate respect from good will… The per­sua­sive power that comes when a leader appeals to rea­son comes more from the degree to which it pro­vides evi­dence for the leader’s respect toward the troops than from the power of rea­son to com­pel assent, or hav­ing com­pelled assent, to guide or restrain behavior.

Or as I like to say, Facts need Drama and Drama needs Facts.

So, while I fully rec­og­nize that the char­ac­ter or ethos of the leader/speaker/brand IS indeed incred­i­bly impor­tant, I’d sug­gest that this is so only in rela­tion­ship to the ethos of the audience.

Start with the audience’s self-identity first, and the rest will fall into place.


  1. Rebecca Riedy on 04.28.2012

    As a VoiceOver actress (or “Voice Under , as it should really be called!) I am fas­ci­nated by your writ­ing as a means to get inside the heads of copy­writ­ers so that I can be their part­ner in deliv­er­ing their words as they intended. Since I started read­ing your blog, I have booked 7 national com­mer­cials. Thank you for the insight!!

  2. 1 of 11 Marketing Triggers: Ethos | Jeff Sexton Writes on 10.24.2014

    […] I’ve writ­ten about Ethos before but let’s start with the ABC’s of the topic: […]

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