Rhetoric, Part One: Ethos

11.10.2021 |

Episode #7 of the course How to write a great speech: Linguistics, drama, and rhetoric by K.C. Finn


In the first two sections of this course, we’ve looked at creating structure and language for your speech and working on its emphasis, natural pace, and breathing to deliver it well. At this point, it’s going to be useful to work up a draft of your speech so that we can enter the editing phase with this last section in mind. We’re about to enter the world of Rhetoric, where we’ll add small touches to your draft that will make a huge impact and take your speech up to its fullest potential.

For Lesson Seven, we begin the exploration of Rhetoric with one of its three main strands: ethos. A better understanding of the ethos of your speech will enable you to connect your identity to it more deeply, which makes the overall experience more genuine and meaningful for both you and your audience.


What Is Ethos?

The original idea for ethos is one of Aristotle’s three “modes for persuasion”, which are devices we employ when speaking and writing to help people follow our speeches and believe in what we are saying. Ethos refers to the characteristics of a person, for example, their skills, personal qualities, relationships, and/or qualifications. By using these qualities and referring to them in a speech, we can inspire trust in our audience and show them that our speech comes from a place of knowledge and experience.


Who Am I?

What is it that makes you qualified to make the speech that you’re trying to write right now? Remember, qualifications don’t have to be formal pieces of paper, they can also come from important life experiences, travel, communication, where you were born, and how you identify in the world. Deciding on your ethos in terms of the purpose of your speech can help you to define it.

For example, if your speech is about why you should be admitted onto a particular program of educational study, you might express relevant qualifications which you already have to enhance your suitability. If you’re making a personal speech at a family event, you might reference your relationship to other people at the event and past experiences that you’ve all shared, like holidays or nights out. In a more professional setting, your ethos might be defined in terms of the job titles you have held and the position you’ve worked in relation to other people, perhaps as a colleague, boss, teacher, or trainee.

Exercise: Take a moment to explore your personal qualities in relation to your speech. Make a list of relevant experiences, expertise, skills, and qualifications that might tie in with your speech.


Using Your Position in Speechcraft

Once you know what you’re about and why you’re the only person in the world who can make the speech you’re about to make, it’s time to add in some direct references to the speech draft you already have. Small phrases that connect you and your qualities directly to the meaning of your speech can make a lot of headway.

Here are some key tips for adding ethos to your speech:

Try not to repeat references – once people know you have experience in an area, you don’t need to tell them again, or you may lose their interest.

Vary your references to show different sides of your identity – if you are ex-army personnel, but also a caring parent, make reference to both where appropriate to show off your diversity and attract different audience members.

Do most of your ethos referencing towards the start – adding in ethos elements is a great way to introduce yourself and build trust with the audience in the early part of your speech. Once it’s in place, you don’t need to overdo it!

Exercise: Where you see an appropriate opportunity to do so, you can add in small references to your ethos to add that trustworthy undertone to your work. Moments as casual as ‘When I lived in Belgium for a year,’ or ‘During my time in the army’ can add personal touches, authority, and assumed skills to your speech without overdoing it.

In Lesson Eight, we take the next step in the world of Rhetoric by engaging with logos, which centers on the reason and logic behind our words.

Until then, make sure you know who you are!



Recommended reading

To learn more about writing with a strong sense of ethos, you can check out this useful article.


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