An Ancient Copywriting Lesson for Modern Times, Courtesy of Rick Santorum’s Nephew

Recently, fellow copywriter Robert Stover introduced me to the concept of ethos in sales copy.

Ethos literally means “character.” In other words, we often judge the persuasiveness of a sales message based on the character of the person who is doing the selling.

While the idea that some sales people are more trustworthy than others is not new to me, the formal concept of ethos is. In fact, it is one of three core components of argument discussed in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the other two being logos and pathos.

There are three components that make up ethos:

phronesis – practical skills & wisdom
arete – virtue, goodness
eunoia – goodwill towards the audience

The first two are straightforward. The final item on this list might also be called motive. Why does the speaker want to persuade me? What does he stand to gain or lose?

Taken together, these three components make up ethos. Some people naturally have low ethos while others naturally have high ethos.

But ethos can also change based on context.

A person who has high ethos in one area of expertise may have low ethos in another because he lacks knowledge and experience. Even though such a person may be good and have the best intentions, his lack of expertise will negatively affect his perceived strength of character.

Real Examples of Ethos

Let’s look at the ethos of some real people…

Bernie Madoff would now have very low ethos if he tried to counsel you regarding your investment decisions. After all, he is serving 150 years for financial fraud.

But Madoff might have high ethos in another situation… for instance, if he were giving you advice on how to get around the Federal Correctional Complex at Butner, North Carolina, where he is imprisoned.

How about a real example of a person with high ethos? Very well.

Here is a brief letter written by John Garver, the 19-year-old nephew of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum. You might think Santorum’s nephew would write a letter encouraging voters to support his uncle, but you’d be wrong.

Take a look:

The trouble with my uncle, Rick Santorum

If you want another big-government politician who supports the status quo to run our country, you should vote for my uncle, Rick Santorum. America is based on a strong belief in individual liberty. My uncle’s interventionist policies, both domestic and foreign, stem from his irrational fear of freedom not working.

It is not the government’s job to dictate to individuals how they must live. The Constitution was designed to protect individual liberty. My Uncle Rick cannot fathom a society in which people cooperate and work with each other freely. When Republicans were spending so much money under President Bush, my uncle was right there along with them as a senator. The reason we have so much debt is not only because of Democrats, but also because of big-spending Republicans like my Uncle Rick.

It is because of this inability of status quo politicians to recognize the importance of our individual liberties that I have been drawn to Ron Paul. Unlike my uncle, he does not believe that the American people are incapable of forming decisions. He believes that an individual is more powerful than any group (a notion our founding fathers also believed in).

Another important reason I support Ron Paul is his position on foreign policy. He is the only candidate willing to bring our troops home, not only from the Middle East, but from around the world.

Ron Paul seems to be the only candidate trying to win the election for a reason other than simply winning the election.

This year, I’ll vote for an honest change in our government. I’ll vote for real hope. I’ll vote for a real leader. This year, I will vote for Ron Paul.

John Garver is a 19-year-old student at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. John is a strong supporter of Ron Paul despite his love for family member Rick Santorum.

Garver’s letter is what inspired this post to begin with. Since Robert Stover had just recently talked to me about ethos, this piece of writing immediately stood out to me as having high ethos.

The author is a university student (knowledgeable), seems to be a good person, and is pure in motive. (Clearly, Garver could face some unpleasant repercussions by sharing such an unexpected opinion.)

3 Questions to Ask to Strengthen Your Ethos

Although I also happen to support Ron Paul, my purpose here is not to persuade you one way or the other. Rather, I want you to think carefully about the ethos you project in your sales messages.

  • Are you coming across as experienced and knowledgeable on the subject you’re writing about?
  • Will your readers perceive you as a good person? Does your likeability shine through the words of your message?
  • Are you writing with sound motive? Are you acting for the primary benefit of your prospects?

These are important questions to answer.

The next time you write a sales message, think about how you can convey a stronger ethos, a stronger character. It could significantly improve your results.

-Ryan M. Healy

11 Comments

  • Jane Sanford

    January 5, 2012

    Exactly, Ryan. Prospects, like dogs and children, can spot weak ethos a mile away – and will avoid it. Thanks for the reminder to keep the bar high!

    • Ryan M. Healy

      January 5, 2012

      You’re welcome, Jane! Thanks for the comment. :-)

  • Mike

    January 5, 2012

    What a wonderfully clever way to demonstrate your ethos Ryan.
    Now I know why you have one of the three blogs I’ve ever commented on.
    Well done.

    • Ryan M. Healy

      January 5, 2012

      Thank you, Mike. Appreciate the compliment. :-)

      Just noticed you’re in the Sarasota/Bradenton area. I was just down there in Sep/Oct 2011. Stayed a month on Siesta Key.

  • Mike Robinson

    January 6, 2012

    Love the Garver letter – it demonstrates your point excellently!

  • Jeremy Reeves

    January 6, 2012

    Good stuff Ryan!

    It’s cool to see Ron Paul getting more spotlight. A few months ago I thought he had absolutely no chance of winning.

    Now I’m starting to think that America is FINALLY starting to wake up.

    Just took a bit too long ;)

    Jeremy Reeves