Even though the days of selling snake oil are gone, some companies come across as being just as manipulative as those mustachioed charlatans.

Which is why, in the digital age, people are more skeptical than ever, and companies must learn how to earn their audience's trust. In rhetoric, earning an audience's trust is key to persuasion and must occur early on in the discussion.

In our previous post "You See What I'm Saying?" we discussed how messages are passed from a message sender to the recipient and back. These message pathways are repeated until the conversation is complete. When the audience is physically in front of the communicator, it's easier to get the message across because most of our understanding comes from from visual cues.

But, when we write, so much can be misconstrued. In rhetoric, we learn that there are three ingredients that we can include into any communication which will help get our message across. These are known as ethos (reputation), pathos (emotion), and logos (reason).


For simplicity's sake, ethos can be thought of as the writer’s knowledge, experience, and goodwill which makes the reader trust him. It's a reputation that is built over time. It persuades the reader to trust in the writer, take his experiences and knowledge to heart, while reassuring the reader of the writer’s good intentions. The perceived goodwill of the writer is important because audiences are suspicious of being manipulated.

Source: Clark Stanley's Snake Oil
Source: Clark Stanley's Snake Oil

An example of ethos is my use of the phrase, “When I taught English 1101.” I wanted my reader to immediately know my experience teaching rhetoric. Knowing I have some scholarship and experience in this area helps audiences trust that I have authority to write on the subject. Trust is important to establish early on, but it isn’t the most important part of the relationship between writer and audience. That is where goodwill comes in.

Goodwill is a necessary but often overlooked component of discourse in the corporate world. It's something the company gives away that is of value to the audience. It's important that it is given freely. Otherwise, the audience will believe that they are being manipulated.

One method for creating goodwill that is increasing in popularity is blogging. Through blogging, companies and individuals offer advice, for free, to the greater community. This sharing of knowledge with no expectation of return creates goodwill. And with that goodwill comes a good reputation.

Good reputations are hard to build and easy to destroy, so companies must be careful to only present information in an ethical manner.

Although ethos is what earns the audience's trust, pathos is what connects the audience to the message. To learn about pathos, read our post "Engaging Audiences with Emotion"