Understanding Ethos: 5 Ways to Make Your Stuff More Credible

LogosEthosPathosEthos is a Greek term that roughly translates into English as “credibility.” In my book, it stands paramount to everything you ever create. The ethos of any document (the level to which anyone looking at it will deem it credible and worthwhile) is impacted by many things, some of which you have little control over and other things which you have total control over. Whether you are writing an essay for a class, developing marketing materials for your small business, or establishing a personal blog, ethos is what tacitly communicates to people that what you have created is accurate, believable, ethical, and otherwise worth listening to. Would you trust Tiger Woods on marriage advice? Hopefully not. He has no ethos in the subject. Would you trust a website that looks like it was built by a 7-year-old? I doubt it. But you might, just might, trust the endorsement of a new restaurant by celebrity chef Guy Fieri. That is, if you like his TV shows.

Literally hundreds of tiny little things can affect the ethos of the documents you produce. But if you address these five things every time you produce a new document, you’ll likely be much more credible to your audience.

#1: Reputation
Reputation is one of the most difficult things to earn and one of the easiest things to ruin. But the documents you produce (whether for yourself or for your small business) will be largely impacted by your and your business’s reputation. If you have done something to offend, annoy, anger, bother, or otherwise perturb the person looking at your stuff, your ethos will be standing on thin ice. Your audience will be looking for reasons to hate your documents and the information in them and you likely won’t be persuasive. It can take years to gain back the trust of an offended person, so keep a strong rapport with those you hope to persuade. On the flip side, if your audience loves you, you can produce almost anything and they’ll buy it. Keep your reputation strong, and your ethos will shine in the documents you produce. (This is why so many companies do many charity campaigns and community service. And it is why students who are sincere and nice and respectful tend to do better in college courses).

#2: Qualifications
Qualifications significantly boost your ethos but qualifications differ depending on your audience’s expectations. If you had a college professor that didn’t graduate from college–despite their successes in business–would you feel that they deserve to be teaching you? Of if you had a football coach that never played football, would it be harder to listen to their criticism of you? Qualifications come in many forms, but they do help people trust you and your business. This is why so many companies brag about how many years they’ve been in business, how many people have bought their products, and how many degrees and awards they’ve earned. Something about those accolades speaks “credible” to audiences. And that is why so many companies rely on resumes to hire people: they need a running list of qualifications. If you don’t have many qualifications (or if it looks like you don’t), your ethos will be weak.

#3: Audience Adaptation
Probably the most important thing you can do when creating a document is to be sure that you kept your audience in mind. Who will be reading/viewing what you created? Are they old or young? Rich or poor? Do they belong to a minority group or do they have a different culture than you? People from different demographics have different tastes, expectations, and even emotional reactions. If you fail to understand who your audience is, your document will fail. So how much do you need to know about your audience? AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. The more you know about their habits, their interests, their background, the stronger your ethos will be. Your audience will trust you if they feel like you know them.

#4: Good Design
Design is probably the most widely overlooked but critically influential aspect to your document’s ethos. It is important to design EVERYTHING you do. You wouldn’t show up to a job interview with an accounting firm wearing flip flops and cutoffs, so why would you turn in a report to your professor that hasn’t been formatted? Ugly documents create an immediate negative visceral reaction in viewers and they will almost immediately consider it not credible if it looks like crap. Can you imagine Apple being as successful as they are if their marketing materials and packaging looked awful? Similarly, can you imagine people taking your stuff serious if they don’t look professional? Good design is important in everything you do you promote your business or ideas: in documents, signs, marketing materials–shoot, even on the tips jar you keep on the counter. The better things look, the stronger your ethos will be.

#5: Strong, Error-Free Writing
Last, but not least, your documents need to exhibit strong writing. You may have incredible and creative ideas, but if they don’t sound right on paper, forget it. You need to master appropriate style and diction (choose the right words in the right context), interesting phrasing, clear organization and structure, and correct (or mindfully and intentionally incorrect for effect) grammar, punctuation, and mechanics. The more you exhibit strong writing, the more your ethos will expand. Strong writing communicates intelligence, creativity, and attention to detail and your audience will appreciate you for it. Poor writing communicates laziness and lack of intelligence (even if neither is true).