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: […]