Sunday, September 21, 2014

Team Ethos

A Note on Ethos: Phil Davison Edition

By Faith Thomas

Although it can certainly be spelled out through a variety of definitions, the most basic way of explaining ethos is describing it to be "the character of a speaker." (Rhetoric in Civic Life, 152) This can be composed of multiple factors (such as reputation, apparel, syntax, virtues, etc.) which all work together to enhance an audience's perception of the rhetor.

Of course, when these elements are either ignored or mismanaged, the rhetor's ethos can suffer. A sound example of this can be found in the speech given by Phil Davison, a candidate for Stark County Treasurer in 2010. (Video featured below.)

With an intense orchestral score, less frantic pacing, and an entirely different topic, Davison's speech would've served as a great climax for your typical Hollywood Blockbuster. Unfortunately, Davison is presenting his speech to a committee, not a crowd of engrossed moviegoers, which presents his first issue.


Just as football needs players, as doctors need patients, and as Justin Bieber needs incarceration, rhetors need an audience. Without it, their rhetoric is futile; after all, isn't the point of rhetoric to persuade? If there's no one to persuade, discourse has lost its purpose.

While rhetoric loses its purpose without an audience, it loses its effectiveness when the audience is incorrectly addressed. If you're reasoning with a toddler, you don't go off quoting Shakespeare or Homer. If you're writing your master's thesis, you avoid slang and Twilight references. And if you're Phil Davison, and you're campaigning to become Stark Country's treasurer, you don't scream at a GOP committee like Bo Pelini giving a "pep-talk" to his players at halftime.

In his speech, Davison's tone of voice (which he won't apologize for, FYI) is simply inappropriate for his audience. As Jay Heinrichs says in Thank You for Arguing, "Persuasion doesn't depend on being true to yourself. It depends on being true to your audience." Even though Davison may be an extremely "aggressive campaigner" who enjoys milking as much use from his vocal cords as humanly possible, the audience is searching for a treasurer who can fulfill their needs in a professional, composed manner. As a result, his ethos - his credibility based on the audience's perception - suffers.

Unfortunately for Davison, his ignorance toward the audience wasn't the only fault in his presentation. However, by keeping his audience in mind, many of his other problems could've be reduced or corrected.


In the first sixty seconds of his speech, Davison attempts to inflate his ethos by listing off numerous reasons as to why he's qualified for the position of treasurer.
  • He's serving his thirteenth year as a Minerva Council Member,
  • He has a Bachelor's in Sociology,
  • He has a Bachelor's in History,
  • He has a Master's in Public Administration,
  • And he has a Master's in Communication.
All of these are impressive achievements, especially when combined. However, in the wise words of Jay Heinrichs: "Unless you happen to be a god - or at least someone with enough power to give a State of the Union address - reciting your résumé is not the most effective way to enhance your ethos.When candidates run for public office, voters typically prefer humility over overconfident vanity. After all, the government is meant to serve its people, and a modest candidate is more likely to make good on that promise. 

Of course, bragging isn't completely ineffective, so it's impossible to say pride is Davison's clear-cut downfall. But reciting a résumé lacking a degree pertaining to mathematics and finance - skills that are crucial for an aspiring treasurer - may present some issues of its own.

An easy solution to the pitfall of boasting, while still informing the audience of the rhetor's accomplishments, is bringing in a second speaker to give character references. This effectively illustrates the rhetor's status while maintaining the illusion of humility.


Another benefit of having a second speaker introduce the main rhetor is an effect known as mystification. Mystification, which calls for distancing the rhetor from the audience (Rhetoric in Civic Life, 156), helps enhance the rhetor's authority.

Take Batman for example. After bulldozing enemies and exacting justice time and time again in Gotham City, his identity still remains anonymous to the city's populace. By donning a mask, Batman is able to conceal his identity and further distance himself from the audience in a way that mystifies them. The result is augmented ethos; most people view him as a heroic guardian of justice rather than an ordinary man who wears a cape and tights for fun.

While wearing a mask during his speech to promote his authority probably isn't a realistic option for Phil Davison, other roads toward mystification are certainly available - some of which, he already employs. Although he nervously paces away from it, Davison does have a podium to separate himself from the audience. The podium itself is an object of mystification; it divides the speaker from his audience and grants him natural authority.

If only Davison could stop anxiously pacing and stand still behind it for two seconds. Which brings us to the next point, which is one of appearance and composure.


Every speech is a performance of sorts; the speaker is its performer. The audience - whether it be a crowd at a public theater, fellow students in a class, or the barista who's hesitant to put extra shots of espresso in your coffee - already has expectations for the rhetor, and while the speaker may have a little leeway with how he or she adheres to these assumptions, if not met, expectations can really damage a reader's ethos.

One of the simplest ways to begin to meet these standards are through decorum. Decorum, according to Heinrichs, is the art of fitting in; performances are all about conforming to what the audience wants to see. In Phil Davison's case, the audience wants to see a professional, collected, intelligent politician in whom they can trust. Davison instead presents himself as a gunho, aggressive, volatile man who may adhere to their political ideals but not the image they have of a treasurer.

What's unfortunate is that decorum, when executed poorly, can be one of the quickest ways for ethos to diminish. If Obama showed up to his State of the Union address in a dinosaur onesie, his authority would suffer. But on the flip side, what's fortunate about decorum is that it's also one of the easiest ways to build ethos. 

If Phil Davison had worn a paler tie to balance out his aggressive personality, or kept his suit jacket buttoned, or spoken to the committee with a respectful - rather than brazen - tone, his authority would've profited.


While Phil Davison demonstrated several positive traits (his fervor, his commitment to the party, his experience, etc.) throughout his speech given to the GOP committee of Stark County, several missteps hurt his ethos.

  • In politics, being true to yourself is less important than being true to your audience. Davison, unfortunately, failed to acquiesce to the standards of his audience.
  • He pridefully listed off all of his accomplishments. (A list which happened to be lacking the major qualifications for treasurer.)
  • Davison didn't separate himself enough from the audience to create a power gradient. In other words, he missed opportunities to bulk up his authority through mystification.
  • There were issues in the decorum of his presentation (specifically regarding his tone - which, remember, he won't apologize for).

Of course, performance doesn't solely depend on ethos. Ethos, logos, and pathos all work synchronously in any sort of presentation. But all three components are necessary in the delivery of an effective speech. Unfortunately for Phil Davison, a combination of performance-based missteps caused his authority and credibility to suffer. There's no doubt that his deflated ethos lost him the nomination for Stark County Treasurer.

On the bright side for Davison, or any other rhetor, persuasion is an art that can always be improved.


Palczewsky, Catherine Helen., Richard Ice, and John Fritch. Rhetoric in Civic Life. State College, PA: Strata Pub., 2012. Print.

Heinrichs, Jay. Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. New York: Three Rivers. 2007. Print.

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