The 3 Elements of Ethos: Persuasion Basics

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thank You for Arguing" by Jay Heinrichs. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is ethos in the context of persuasion? How can you use the three elements of ethos to make a persuasive argument?

Ethos is used in persuasive arguments to establish trustworthiness and credibility as a speaker or writer. There are three essential elements to developing ethos: virtue, personal disinterest, and practical wisdom.

Keep reading to learn about the three building blocks of ethos and how to use them in a persuasive argument.

Use Ethos to Persuade Your Audience 

The first persuasive appeal, ethos, convinces your audience that you’re trustworthy and puts them in the mood to listen to you. In his book Thank You for Arguing, Heinrichs outlines three elements of ethos appeal: 1) virtue, 2) disinterest, and 3) practical wisdom.

Ethos Element #1: Virtue

The first element of ethos is virtue. When your audience believes that you share the same values as they do, they see you as someone virtuous, or trustworthy and aligned with their cause. Heinrichs explains that the key to appearing virtuous is meeting your audience’s expectations, or fitting in with them—from your appearance and manner of speaking to your interests and sense of humor. When your audience believes you’re in sync with them, they find you easier to like, listen to, and trust. 

(Shortform note: Psychologist Robert Cialdini’s Social Proof Theory provides some insight on why fitting in with an audience makes them easier to persuade. The theory posits that people who are unsure of what to do will look to others for guidance and imitate them. Cialdini identifies similarity as a motivator of the Social Proof Theory—people are most likely to look to and imitate someone they perceive to be similar to themselves or relatable in some way.)

Heinrichs suggests three areas in which to align with your audience: values, experiences, and appearance. 

1) Demonstrate shared values: Don’t talk about your personal values. Instead, speak to the values of your audience—even if you don’t necessarily believe those values to be true or right. People who think you share their values will naturally trust you more, making it easier for you to persuade them of something they’d normally be opposed to. For example, despite his wealth, Donald Trump succeeded in convincing working-class people that he’s one of them. As a result, his supporters strongly agree with his actions—even if they’d disagreed with the same actions previously.

2) Demonstrate shared experiences: Pay attention to your audience’s identity, then change the way you speak about your experiences to match. For example, you’re arguing that taxes should be raised to increase public school funding. Though you went to private school and your opponent went to public school, you can match your experience to his by explaining how your volunteer experience with underfunded city schools convinced you that greater funding boosts student success.

3) Demonstrate shared appearance: Heinrichs suggests matching the way you look and sound to audience expectations—in other words, dress like them and speak like them.      

Is Ethos Just Another Word for “Selling Out”?

Some may find Heinrichs’s suggestions for fitting in confusing or manipulative, misinterpreting his guidance here as encouragement to “sell out” or lie to get what you want. However, he doesn’t suggest that you betray yourself or lie about your values, experiences, or the way you look or sound. Rather, he’s suggesting that you find the existing parts of yourself that align most closely with your audience and highlight those points. In other words, he doesn’t encourage you to lie—he encourages you to be selective about what parts of yourself to show. 

This distinction matters because lying is a risky way to persuade others—if you’re found out, you lose all credibility and destroy your reputation. For example, respected journalist Brian Williams lied about having a dramatic, dangerous experience in Iraq. Once people discovered his lies, they lost trust in him as a journalist.

Ethos Element #2: Disinterest

The second element of ethos is disinterest: demonstrating that you don’t have any personal interest (financial or otherwise) in the argument. You only care about making the choice that’s best for the audience. Heinrichs outlines three methods for demonstrating disinterest. 

1) Come to a Reluctant Conclusion

Act as if you’d like to disagree with your conclusion, but have no choice but to accept it. Explain how you started from your audience’s viewpoint but had to switch due to overwhelming evidence. Heinrichs says that this makes your opinion seem balanced while making your opponent’s opinion seem unreasonable or ignorant.

(Shortform note: This method may not be as effective as Heinrichs suggests. Experts warn that making your viewpoint seem like the obvious choice, thereby sending the message that your opponent’s viewpoint is stupid, can make them feel defensive or angry. These emotions may drive them to double down on their argument.)

2) Emphasize Personal Sacrifice 

In discussing the consensus you want, emphasize how it’ll personally harm you—Heinrichs explains that this persuades your audience that the outcome benefits them, not you

(Shortform note: While emphasizing personal sacrifice may be persuasive, be careful not to overuse this tactic. Constantly highlighting the sacrifices you’re making for the “greater good” may lead people to believe that you have a martyr complex, and your claims of self-sacrifice will lose their credibility.)

3) Highlight Your Authenticity 

Smooth talkers often aren’t persuasive because they seem too sure of themselves—their claim to be acting in the audience’s interest appears scripted or inauthentic. Heinrichs suggests showing authenticity by appearing doubtful or insecure about your delivery or argument’s content.

(Shortform note: There are several psychological explanations for this tendency to root for an underdog, or someone who seems unsure of themselves. First, people find underdogs more relatable than top performers, and therefore more likable and influential (recall the Social Proof Theory—you’re more easily influenced by someone similar to you). Second, an unexpected success triggers stronger positive feelings than a predictable success.)

Ethos Element #3: Practical Wisdom

The third element of ethos is demonstrating practical wisdom: the ability to make the right decisions at the right time. This persuades your audience that you’re a trustworthy person worth following—any choice you make is the right thing to do. 

(Shortform note: Note that Aristotle didn’t name this aspect of ethos “practical intelligence” or “practical knowledge.” Practical wisdom isn’t about how smart you are—it’s about nurturing a careful relationship between theory and practice. The “practical” comes from practicing, and the “wisdom” comes from questioning the different parts of your practice and reflecting on whether they could be done better.)

Heinrichs says good persuaders use the following methods to show off their practical wisdom. 

1) Demonstrate Your Experience

Heinrichs notes that audiences almost always trust someone who shows evidence of real-life experience over someone who has book smarts. Talking about relevant experiences demonstrates that you have previous knowledge of how to effectively work through the issue.

(Shortform note: Heinrichs doesn’t note that this aspect of practical wisdom may not be useful to all his readers. Demonstrating experience is an area where women may have particular difficulty establishing a strong ethos due to the “Likability Trap”: Generally, the more experienced women are, the less others perceive them as likable.)

2) Break the Rules Strategically

If the rules aren’t the best way to get things done, don’t follow them—instead, Heinrichs urges, demonstrate your know-how by approaching a problem in an off-script way that a rookie would never think of.  

(Shortform note: Besides similarity, another motivator for the Social Proof Theory is expertise: You’re likely to seek guidance from someone that demonstrates that she understands a situation at least a bit better than you do. Breaking the rules strategically not only demonstrates that you know the subject at hand, but also that you’ve gained enough expertise to have a couple tricks up your sleeve.) 

The 3 Elements of Ethos: Persuasion Basics

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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