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It was the National Tournament of 2017, my final and most important high school tournament. I sat outside room E217, waiting for the first Lincoln-Douglas flight to finish for round five. My opponent still hadn’t arrived, but when the first flight let out, I was surprised to see not only the debaters exiting, but the judges too. It was a single flight, and I realized I had gone to the wrong room (E217 instead of F217). I scrambled to look for the room and I was relieved to see the judges and my opponent still in the room. Thing is, they had finished the first flight 20 minutes before and they said were just about to walk out after filling out the ballots for my forfeit. I thought they were joking. They weren’t. They stopped and prepared for the debate, scolded me, and we had the round. I could tell the judges weren’t pleased with me, with the occasional sigh and rushed mentality through the debate.

I made the same mistake I had committed the day before.

In round three of debate, I came into the second flight, after lunch, with my mind not fully engaged. I had left my sheet with my judges’ paradigms in the cafeteria (at NSDA Nationals, LD & Policy Debaters have the questionnaires/paradigms which all the judges are required to fill out). So I asked for their judging philosophy and was met with criticism. “Why haven’t you looked up our paradigms? You should’ve done your due diligence before the round, like your opponent.”

These two rounds were similar in two ways. 1) They were my only two losses in prelims, and 2) I had destroyed my ethos, my persuasive credibility before I even had the time to make the case for my position. Now the results may have been the same had I not made those mistakes (my opponents were very well-spoken and persuasive), but losing my ethos certainly didn’t help my advocacy. It matters and is not gained back easily.

What is Ethos?

Here at Ethos Debate, we seek to foster effective communication skills which will serve you well not only in the present but through your future and whatever endeavors you pursue. Classical rhetoric is lasting, and it is the reason nearly every textbook, article, and teacher on public speaking will make use of the three pillars of rhetoric “coined” by Aristotle—logos (appeal to reason), pathos (appeal to emotion), and ethos (appeal to credibility). Ethos involves both the character of the speaker, as well as credibility of research or experts used to justify a certain claim or argument.

Why Ethos?

Aristotle argues that “[p]ersuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. . . his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.” Just in the same way that how you express an idea affects how an audience will receive that message, one’s personal character and credibility, or ethos has enormous consequences on how willing an audience is to accept your message or to value your argument above your opponents’.

There’s a reason why first impressions matter so much in job interviews, a classroom, or friendships. How you greet someone, enter the room, begin your speech, and treat your opponent is something the judges notice and take to heart. I know my judges did.

How to Establish Your Ethos

Seeing the importance that ethos, the appeal to credibility, has in persuasion as well as everyday life, debaters and speakers should be aware of little details which make a big difference in the perception of adjudicators and listeners alike. I’ll list a few ways you can establish and maintain your ethos in rounds (and in life!)

  1. Be kind. Treat your opponent, partner, and judge(s) well. Watch your demeanor in cross-examination. No one likes to listen to a rude, impatient speaker.
  2. Be prompt and professional. Come to the round on time, and with a professional, yet likable, posture. Set up your belongings quickly, and be prepared with flows or evidence for the opposing team.
  3. Be transparent and ethical. Don’t clip cards, try to win by cheap arguments, or accuse your opponent of dropping an argument they did not. Judges can tell when you’re lying and when you hurt your credibility, their desire to listen to you plummets.

Ethos Beyond Debate

But even beyond debate, ethos plays a great role in life and in one’s personal testimony. Many people who are searching for answers, for truth, will look not at the philosophical or evidential arguments for the Bible or the resurrection but will look to Christians to see if there’s anything different about them. It is our credibility, upheld and enabled through the Holy Spirit’s sanctification in us, in faith and grace, which other people see and hopefully have reason to turn to the Lord. A Christian who asks a friend to come to church and who swears, cheats, and lies may lose the ability to share the Good News with others.

I made two big mistakes hurting my ethos that could have cost me a break at Nationals. Who knows? But it’s over and there’s nothing I can do about the past. But I am cognizant of the power of ethos to win or lose a crowd, and I will seek to persuade with character first as I head on through life.

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