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3.2: Credibility and Ethics

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  • When Aristotle used the term ethos in the 5th century B.C.E. to describe one of the means of persuasion, he defined it as the “wisdom, sagacity, and character of the rhetor” (see Chapter 13 for more coverage of ethos and Aristotle’s other artistic proofs). Modern scholars of communication and persuasion speak more about “credibility” as an attitude the audience has toward the speaker, based on both reality and perception, rather than an innate trait of the speaker. Audience members trust the speaker to varying degrees, based on the evidence and knowledge they have about the speaker and how that lines up with certain factors:

    • Similarity: does the speaker have experiences, values, and beliefs in common with the audience? Can the audience relate to the speaker because of these commonalities?  
    • Character: does the speaker, in word and action, in the speech and in everyday life, show honesty and integrity?
    • Competence: does the speaker show that he/she has expertise and sound knowledge about the topic, especially through firsthand experience? And does the speaker show competence in his/her ability to communicate that expertise?
    • Good will: does the audience perceive the speaker to have ethical intentions toward the audience?

    In addition to these key areas will be the audience’s perceptions, or even gut feelings, about more intangible characteristics of the speaker, such as appearance, friendliness, sense of humor, likability, appearance, poise, and communication ability. Many of these traits are conveyed through nonverbal aspects, such as facial expression, eye contact, good posture, and appropriate gestures (see Chapter 11 on Delivery).

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    Understandably, the same speaker will have a different level of credibility with different audiences. For example, in regard to presidential campaigns, it is interesting to listen to how different people respond to and “trust” different candidates. Donald Trump entered the presidential race as a Republican nominee and quickly became a frontrunner in many of the early polls and primaries, eventually winning the Electoral College votes, to the surprise of many. Those who voted for him often stated that they value his candor and willingness to say what he thinks because they perceive that as honest and different from other politicians. Others thought he made unwise and thoughtless statements, and they saw that as a lack of competence and demeanor to be the national leader. Donald Trump is the same person, but different audiences respond to his behavior and statements in divergent ways.

    The point is that character and competence are both valued by those who like and those who dislike President Trump and contribute to his credibility (or lack of it). However, these groups express their values in different ways. When trying to develop your own credibility as a speaker with an audience, you have to keep in mind all four of the factors listed above. To portray oneself as “similar” to the audience but to do so deceptively will not contribute to credibility in the long run. To only pretend to have good will and want the best for the audience will also have a short-term effect.

    Not only does a speaker’s level of credibility change or vary from audience to audience, it is also likely to change even during the presentation. These changes in credibility have been labeled as initial, derived, and terminal credibility.

    Initial credibility is, as you would imagine, the speaker’s credibility at the beginning of or even before the speech. There are a number of factors that would contribute to the initial credibility, even such matters as the “recommendation” of the person who introduces the speaker to the audience. Any knowledge the audience has of the speaker prior to the speech adds to the initial credibility. The initial credibility is important, of course, because it will influence the receptivity of the audience or how well they will listen and be open to the speaker’s ideas. Initial credibility can be influenced also by the perception that the speaker is not well dressed, prepared, or confident at the very beginning. Initial credibility is why how you walk to the lectern and give your introduction matter.

    Derived credibility is how the audience members judge the speaker’s credibility and trustworthiness throughout the process of the speech, which also can range from point to point in the speech. Perhaps you have seen those videos on a news program that show a political speaker on one pane of the video and a graph of the audience’s response in real time to the speaker’s message, usually noted as “approval rating” as the politician speaks. This could be based on the perception of the speaker’s presentation style (delivery), language, specific opinions, open-mindedness, honesty, and other factors. The point of the derived credibility is that credibility is an active concept that is always changing.

    Finally, terminal credibility is, as you would think, credibility at the end of the speech. The obvious importance of terminal credibility is that it would factor into the audience’s final decision about what to do with the information, arguments, or appeals of the speaker – in other words, his or her persuasiveness. It would also determine whether the audience would listen to the speaker again in the future. The terminal credibility can be seen as a result of the initial and derived credibility.

    Terminal credibility may end up being lower than the initial credibility, but the goal of any speaker should be to have higher credibility. From an ethics standpoint, of course, credibility should not be enhanced by being untruthful with an audience, by misrepresenting one’s viewpoint to please an audience, or by “pandering” to an audience (flattering them). One of the primary attributes of credibility at any stage should be transparency and honesty with the audience.

    In conclusion, speaker’s credibility does not exist alone. It is supported by a number of factors, including Aristotle’s other two traditional forms of persuasion, logos (logic, evidence, good reasoning, lack of fallacious arguments) and pathos (personal and emotional appeals).