Ethos: The Power of Rhetoric, pt 3

Good morning, lovely learners! Time to rise and shine and, well, learn.
Today's post is the last in three I've done on Aristotle's Rhetoric Trifecta. We've done pathos--persuasion by emotion--and logos--argument by logic--but now it's time to end this with a final powerhouse punch: ethos.
Ethos is persuasion by authority. A little strange, sure, but if you tilt your head and squint your eyes a little, you'll see why I think this is the most important strategy of the three.
See, you can have the cutest, big-eyed puppies campaigning for you, and dozens of scientists out spouting statistics and studies, but unless you yourself come across as someone who knows what they're talking about--as a reliable, trustworthy source of information--no one will listen to you.  So appearing to your audience, whether in writing or in person, as someone worth paying attention to must be a top priority.
Let's take this blog and my profile on Wyzant as an example of ethos at work. I'm (primarily) a writing and test prep tutor. But unless I 'prove' my credentials, who would hire me as a tutor?  No one, that's who. So how do I guarantee that I know what I'm talking about?
Well, there are three ways to go about it. The first, and most obvious, is to list my achievements and experience so as to present myself as knowledgeable and expert in my chosen field.  I hate bragging, but sometimes it's what you have to do. (What is a resume but a list of your qualifications? That's the ultimate show of ethos.) On my profile, for example, I've written this to support my claim to be an English expert:
"I scored 800 on the verbal SAT back in the day, 5's on my English AP exams, and have been accorded numerous academic honors in college in addition to my work in the Writing Studio at my old university, on the literary magazine at two schools, and as a freelance copywriter, so I like to think I know what I'm talking about..."
With this sentence, I prove that I have test-taking and prep experience through my test scores, went to college to learn how to write/communicate effectively, was taught in a class how to tutor, and managed to write so well, other companies pay me to do it for them. That's showing my expertise in my subject and as a tutor; that's ethos at work.
Other people do something similar. Next time you read an article or blurb on the web, scroll down to the bottom. Chances are, you'll find the writer's name, title, and other work there to prove that the writer is competent and experienced enough to merit reading.
The second method is to quote other reputable people to back up your own argument. Ever wonder why your teachers make you look up at least three additional sources (and two of them have to be published books, rot their eyes)?  Well, that's why: you just don't have enough experience yet to be believed, so they're asking you to draw on others' wisdom to bolster your own observations.
The danger to this is using bad sources, because anyone can say anything and--if they say it confidently enough--you can fall for it. I mean, if someone told me that nuclear reactors worked by putting lots of guinea pigs on a treadmill and feeding them vitamins so they'd run at "nuclear speed!!", I'd probably fall for it because I have no clue how nuclear reactors work. There're a couple of ways to counter this, though:
  • Check the credentials of the person writing or telling you something. If they have letters after their name or three decades of experience in the field, I'm inclined to believe them; if it's your uncle Joe over for Thanksgiving dinner after a couple of beers, I'm less so.
  • Wherever possible, use print sources. It's a pain and outdated and the information there was probably published like three years ago, but there are many checks on what ends up printed and published and placed in your public library. On the internet, there are less checks.
  • Look at the publishing entity and see how legit they are.  Are you more likely to believe something published in the National Enquirer or the New York Times? Go with something that has a print edition, too, if you can manage it.
  • If using internet sources, check the URL. Websites ending in ".com" can be okay, but more reliable options may be:
    • .gov--"government." These resources are government-funded, which mean they won't be purposefully misleading. They may have a political agenda they want to push, though.
    • .edu--"education." These are from universities and colleges. Sources published from well-known academic hot spots are great, though be warned: I wouldn't necessarily want to use an English thesis published from, say, MIT, or a blueprint on advanced robotics from the local community college.
    • .org --"organization." This site is probably for a non-profit, so they're probably not selling you something, but they will have strong ideological biases, so be cautious.
    • .net--This, too, is probably a non-profit sort of site, though some people use them to sell things indirectly, so again, maybe not the best choice.
  • Use your gut. Are you grabbing it from reddit from someone who claims to be a scientist or psychologist or politician? Are you grabbing the first hit you find on a web search? Are you pulling down the first book with "eggs" in the title?
Use common sense when applying sources, because if you misuse them, you're the one who comes across badly, not them. Remember Al Gore and Inconvenient Truth from last blog? (Told you they'd come back!) He misinterpreted and stretched the truth of his sources, and as such, his credibility as a global warming advocate was shot to pieces. In the end, he probably lost more support for his cause than he won. He might be right, but no one will ever listen to him again.
But the third and final way? If you're gonna talk the talk, then walk the walk. If you're going to ask someone to believe your argument, you have to appear as someone worth listening to, beyond the list of letters at the end of your name or the sources who can back you up.
If you're giving a speech, this means dressing up and practicing until you pronounce everything clearly and, well, without any sort of accent for which your audience will think less of you. (I was once docked points for saying "y'all" in a formal presentation.) If you're writing an essay or an article, this means perfect grammar and fluid construction.
It's superficial, I know, but how often was former President Bush derided for mispronouncing "nuclear"? Did many people take him seriously? What happens when you read a comment on a blog covered in "ur" with lots of "!!!?!!!1!?!"--you blow it off, right? The appearance of education implies competence, and it's the easiest way to sway your audience.
After all, the easiest way to prove I know how to write--and write well--it is to write blog posts. Handy, no?


Ashley S.

Test Prep and Essays and Math, Oh My!

50+ hours
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