Ethical Appeal – The Perception Game

This is the second installment in the “Old is Gold” series where we explore Aristotle’s various methods of persuasion. In this installment, we will discuss “Ethos”, the use of Ethical Appeal to be persuasive. Click here to read the first installment on “Logos”.


According to Aristotle, a speaker is persuasive if the speaker has Ethical Appeal. This appeal relies on the speaker having credibility –  the quality of being trusted and believed in. When delivering speeches, a speaker has credibility when the audience perceives the speaker to be competent and is of good character. Ethical appeal is so powerful that if done well, could be used as a persuasive tool prior to the speech and long after the speech ends.

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For example, even before hearing what is going to be said, you are more likely to believe:

  1. A doctor over a medical student on health matters as the former is deemed to be more experienced and knowledgable on the topic;
  2. Hannah Yeoh, our Deputy Minister of Women, Family, and Community Development over Mahathir Mohamad, our Prime Minister, on the topic, “Women’s Rights”, as the former has done a lot more work on the topic despite the latter being more influential;
  3. (if they were alive today) Martin Luther King over Hitler on ANY topic, because the former is believed to be of good character and died a martyr, while the latter was a murderer and died by his own hand. 

Ethical Appeal is also the only type of persuasion method which you can invest in and grow. The more you speak, the more competent you get, the better your reputation, the more credibility you gain in the process.


In general, there are three (3) types of credibility, inherent, progressive and concluding.

Inherent Credibility: This is the credibility that you have before even starting your speech – usually developed from reputation, past experience and how you look. This is why most speakers are introduced of their competence in a subject matter through an emcee or marketed heavily beforehand in order to establish inherent credibility.

Progressive Credibility: This type of credibility is gained as the speech progresses. Whilst a speaker’s inherent credibility may be lacking, the speaker’s credibility can be further established by delivering a speech well and by explaining his/her competence during the speech.

Concluding Credibility: This is the audience’s perception of the speaker at the end of the speech and will likely determine whether the speaker is believable and likeable. It is crucial for a speaker to build progressive credibility in order for the overall concluding credibility to be positive – leaving the audience with a sense of trust for what the speaker has said.


Having better credibility allows the audience to be more receptive to your ideas or arguments, and are more likely to agree with you. However, credibility exists on a scale, it may increase or decrease with time. Having less credibility does not mean you are less persuasive, it just means you may have to work harder to persuade the audience using logical or emotional appeal. 

Gaining Credibility

A speaker has ethical appeal if the audience believes in the speaker’s experience, knowledge and expertise as well as the speaker’s honest intentions, trustworthiness, and sincerity. To gain credibility, a speaker simply has to:

1. Advertise Competence.

This can be done through highlighting past experiences, research and/or knowledge in the topic. For example, on the topic of Global Warming, a scientist can have the same credibility as an environmental activist. The former, through expertise and the latter, through experience. This is usually done in the speech’s introduction and subsequently, the points related to the speaker’s experience. Hence, you don’t necessarily need to be an “expert” in the field to have credibility.

2. Relate to the Audience.

Highlight common values, beliefs and goals with the audience. Establish your goodwill by developing a connection with the audience. A common way to do this would be to relate the topic to a personal experience or anecdote. You may be the speaker of the talk but you are also a mother, sister or daughter – something the audience may also be able to relate to.

3. Deliver Speech Well.

Speakers who deliver a speech well appear more confident, prepared and intelligent on the topic. The audience will less likely believe a speaker who stumbles during the speech. Be sure to practice your speech beforehand!

4. Look the Part.

Speakers who look disheveled and unkempt would not be well regarded by the audience. Dressing well and looking presentable goes a long way in assuring the audience that the talk matters to you and that effort was exerted in preparing for the talk.

For example, 

You’re about to give a talk so you run onto the stage looking professional and confident, wearing a big smile on your face. You feel good because the emcee just spent 5 minutes introducing you and your list of achievements.

For some reason, the audience trusts you already – you gain Inherent Credibility

You start your speech, “Every day, 310 people are shot in the United States. Among these, 100 people are killed. You see, guns, whether accidental or intentional, take more lives than any other weapon or criminal combined. I’ve worked in the justice department for the past 10 years and have set up my own NGO in pursuit of ending gun violence. But I’m not just an officer of the law, I am also a wife and mother. Every day that my child goes to school, I fear for her safety, not quite certain that she’ll come back home safe. For my husband, I fear the power guns award criminals, where one life can quite easily be taken with just a trigger.”

You explain your experience in gun violence, establish your competence, and develop a connection with the audience, enhancing your relatability. The audience is drawn in by your cause, you develop Progressive Credibility.

As the speech draws to close, you conclude with a forceful call of action, rallying the people to act and to act now. You delivered the speech flawlessly, establishing eye contact, projecting your emotions and voice with ease.

You finish and the audience are on their feet. You’ve just established Concluding Credibility

This ethical appeal stays with you. The next time you speak, you will be speaking with enhanced Inherent Credibility.


Credibility is an extremely strong persuasive tool that speakers tend to overlook. It requires the least amount of effort but has the maximum amount of impact. It is also the only mode of persuasion that keeps giving – the more you deliver good speeches, the better your credibility. 

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Here is a video of Shaquille o-Neal introducing Samuel L. Jackson for the stage who in turn, introduced  Magic Johnson & Larry Bird to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award. These introductions were done to establish Inherent Credibility before the person steps on the stage. This is why it is commonplace for singers, celebrities and speakers to be introduced before they start a performance.

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