Ethos in Pop Culture: Dexter


It’s often difficult to teach and to explain ethos.  I find it the hardest of the three appeals to explain to my students because it is so complex.  If “ethos” is a new term for you, please first read Modes of Persuasion: Introduction to Ethos.  I’ve found that students better understand the concept of ethos once it is connected to something they understand: pop culture.

Dexter Morgan is the lead character in Showtime’s Dexter.  Let’s examine Dexter Morgan in light of Andrew Dlugan’s four characteristics that comprise ethos.

First, Dexter is trustworthy.  This is difficult to juggle because, if you’ve seen the show, you know that Dexter Morgan is a serial killer.  Dexter’s identity as a murderer must remain a secret from most of the show’s cast because, obviously, there would be no show if he got the death penalty for murdering hundreds of people.  Even though he lies to his family, co-workers, and friends about his serial killing tendencies, Dexter is always 100% honest to the viewer.  Audiences understand his thoughts and motivations because of the internal monologue, the voiceover, streaming throughout each episode.  Since we know his thoughts, we know he can be trusted to act in accordance with those thoughts.

The audience also trusts Dexter because of the moral code Harry Morgan taught his son.  Dexter only kills other serial killers, and he must find proof of a crime or multiple crimes before he murders.  The audience knows that Dexter will only murder people who “deserve” to die.  We have faith that Dexter won’t break or bend that code of ethics.  When he is tempted into murdering just for fun and not in accordance with Harry’s Code, Dexter can be trusted to shake off those temporary desires.  When Dexter does kill outside of Harry’s Code, he does so for credible reasons; for example, he kills a pedophile who is stalking his step-daughter, Astor.  On all fronts, Dexter is a “good” person.  Even though he is a killer, he only murders “bad” people who “deserve” death.

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The voiceover approach also leads us to the second characteristic of ethos: similarity.  Minus the murdering, Dexter is a totally normal, middle-class guy with a job, a family, and a whole lot of confusion about human nature and about other people.  He is often socially awkward and finds himself at a loss for what to say and how to behave.  To other characters on the show, he is good-natured, smart, down-to-earth, and friendly.  Dexter is “just like us,” except with one dissimilarity: his Dark Passenger.

Using the voiceover, Dexter explains his Dark Passenger as the dark, murderous tendencies within him.  Since the Dark Passenger has a name, intentions, and desires, the audience often feels like it is a distant, separate part of Dexter.  Still, the Dark Passenger exists… How does an audience create similarity with someone carrying such a darkness inside of them?

Dexter is constantly evolving and growing into a more human character.  The Dexter in season six has become much more human than the character in season one.  The journey to becoming more human is a long one.  The audience has seen Dexter realize he is capable of love.  We’ve seen him become a husband, a stepfather, and then a biological father.  He has transformed from a feelingless character to someone who is much more in line with our human values and ideals.

Dexter possesses authority over the audience, the third characteristic of ethos.  He is an authority at his job as a forensic blood spatter analyst at the Miami Metro Police Department.  Other characters in the show look up to him, ask him questions, and constantly praise his ability to do his work well (such as, most recently, Detective Mike Anderson and intern Louis).

More importantly, Dexter is an authority on being a serial killer – an ability only the audience and Dexter know about.  Dexter is methodical, smart, and quick.  He has never been caught.  Because of his skills as a serial killer, he is an authority on the subject.  He explains his techniques and motivations to the audience, so we understand his expertise.  We also know the procedure – Dexter first stalks his victims to find proof that they have murdered others.  After finding proof, he injects a serial killer with a tranquilizer and moves the unconscious body to a “kill room” that has been perfectly set up so as to leave behind no forensic evidence.  When the serial killer wakes up, Dexter explains the reason behind the abduction – often by using photographs of the serial killer’s victims to prove the death is a deserved one.  Lastly, Dexter stabs the killer in the heart, cuts up the body, and dumps it in the Gulf Stream to be carried into the ocean.

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In addition to being an authority, Dexter has a strong reputation built over six seasons.  Reputation is the fourth and final characteristic of ethos, and it goes hand-in-hand with authority.  Dexter’s methodical murdering process ensures the elimination of serial killers without leaving behind evidence.  Because the audience has seen the process so many times, we believe in his ability to select victims who deserve to die, and we allow him control over the killing process.  Dexter is the ultimate authority over serial killing because of his reputation: he has done it for so long without getting caught.  His experience as a serial killer is lifelong.  We know from the time he was a boy, he had murderous tendencies.  We know his father developed a code of ethics that he has a 30-something history of following.  For six seasons, Dexter has demonstrated time and time again his ability to kill serial killers in a swift, organized, efficient fashion.

What other television, film, or literary characters display ethos?  Since Dexter has been on TV for six seasons, his ethos has had time to develop.  Do you think it takes a long time for a character to establish strong ethos?  Can you think of any characters who have instant ethos?


Modes of Persuasion: Introduction to Ethos


Aristotle defined the three modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos.  In order for your message or your content to persuade others, your idea must appeal to the emotions and logic of your audience, and you must express your character and credibility to that audience.  From Ancient Greece to Orlando, Florida in 2012, these three modes of persuasion ring true for any and every presentation.

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Ethos is a Greek word meaning “character.”  In public speaking and presentation, ethos is the character and credibility of the presenter.  In his influential text, On Rhetoric, Aristotle defines ethos and explains the importance of this appeal.  Aristotle says ethos is comprised of three categories: 1) phronesis – skills and practical wisdom; 2) arete – virtue; and 3) eunoia – kindness and goodwill toward the audience (Source).  Nancy Duarte explains ethos in her book resonate.  Duarte says the point of ethos, the ethical appeal, is to “garner respect through credibility and character” (Source).  This means that ethos lies in the minds of the audience, so the presenter must remember to analyze what the audience needs in order for that presenter’s ethos to be successful.

Andrew Dlugan of Six Minutes considers ethos, pathos, and logos “the three pillars of public speaking.” He explains ethos perfectly in “What is Ethos? Why is it Critical for Speakers?”  Dlugan says an audience will measure ethos in four categories: trustworthiness, similarity (to the audience), authority, and reputation/expertise (Source).

We can also think of ethos as proof of your ability to lead your audience.  Leadership is best defined in John C. Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You.  Maxwell’s book includes laws such as the Law of Influence; the Law of Navigation; the Law of Respect; and the Law of Magnetism among 17 others.  Pick up your copy of Maxwell’s amazing leadership text here to develop your ethos.

Now that you know what ethos is, prepare yourself for an in-depth analysis of the first mode of persuasion.  This week, we will examine ethos in many mediums: pop culture, television advertising, print advertising, and, most importantly, public speaking.  We will dissect ethos in all three legs of the presentation stool: speech content, delivery, and visual presentation.

What do you most hope to learn about ethos this week?  What questions do you have so far about the first mode of persuasion?

Communication: Influence and Social Media


Neil Patel is the author of “6 Ways to Be More Persuasive With Social Media,” an article combining communication via social media and tips from the book Influence by Robert Cialdini.  Patel discusses reciprocation, social proof, liking, authority, scarcity, and commitment/consistency and how those concepts relate to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets.

Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion definitely apply to how influential you are on social media.  Many of Patel’s examples pull from ethos, the character or credibility of the user.  Patel explains that great ways to influence with social media include developing a polite, warm, and funny online persona; sharing with others by creating give-and-take relationships; displaying authority by highlighting achievements; and honoring commitments.  A great example of ethos over social media is Guy Kawasaki.  He takes the time respond to Tweets in a kind, warm way, so he creates relationships with people.  On his website, Kawasaki displays his most recent book, Enchantment, as a New York Times best-seller.  This shows his authority and credibility when speaking on certain subjects.  We can all learn from Kawasaki’s approach to social media.

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Patel also gives tips that I would categorize as logos: Aristotle’s logical orientation.  When giving a speech or presentation, your logos is the support for your cause/brand/argument.  It includes the organization of your material and the proof to support your cause.  Patel explains that with social media, proof comes in the form of numbers: a large group of people “liking,” supporting, commenting, and sharing your ideas and your brand.  Other ideas for garnering logos include great data (charts, diagrams), a clear process, facts and statistics, and source material including current and relevant articles, case studies, and stories.

Lastly, Patel advises you to persuade with social media in an area that Aristotle would define as pathos.  Pathos is the emotional appeal, and Patel emphasizes connecting with people in order to make them feel positively.  Make people feel happy and good about themselves by treating them respectfully.  Be kind!  Instead of hiding behind your Internet persona and being cruel to others, treat people online just as you would in real life.  This will allow those connected to you to associate your brand with feelings of happiness and positivity.

With the help of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion and Neil Patel’s tips on influencing with social media, your brand, your cause, and your message can be stronger and more effective.  Good luck!

Influence and Persuasion


While perusing Alltop today, I came across a fantastic resource: a visualization of influence.  The digram below links influence with connection.

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According to this diagram, influence is the ability to connect with others in order to persuade them your ideas are relevant, worthy, and, hopefully, awesome.  So while connection through all of the channels shown above must occur, the three modes of persuasion must also occur simultaneously.

First, your idea should be logical in that it is sound, organized, structured, and clear.  The logical appeal, called logos, provides facts and figures to support your claim.  If you make an argument (“this recipe is the best…”), you must provide evidence to prove that argument is indeed true (“…according to 750 chefs in Florida”).  How can you use logos to influence others?  Well, in the diagram above, the sheer volume of positive feedback is crucial as well as number of “likes” and amount of followers from social media outlets.  Ratings are also great sources for logos when sharing your ideas as long as the ratings contain data.

Next, your idea should convey emotion.  Your own passion and enthusiasm should be apparent, but your idea should also inspire the emotions of others.  Often, people throw logic out of the window completely when the emotional appeal becomes involved.  (Have you ever been in love?)  The emotional appeal is known as pathos, but think beyond “happy” and “sad.”  Human beings often feel several emotions at once, so really analyze what triggers (plural) your ideas are setting off for your audience.  Thinking about pathos and influence, look how many times “comments” and “discussion” are displayed.  The idea of making your audience so moved that they take the time out of their busy day to leave a positive comment or to engage in a discussion with others really validates your idea pathos-wise.  Comments are typically the result of a strong feeling.  You’ll never see, “I really don’t have any feelings about the Real Housewives series.”  Instead, you see tempers flaring and debates raging.  See what I mean here.  Over 600 passionate viewers wrote comments!

Lastly, your idea should display your ethical appeal.  Called ethos, this isn’t just about right and wrong.  In fact, “ethos” is a Greek word meaning “character,” so your ethical appeal is your credibility, your character.  Ethos is about the audience’s perception of the person behind the idea – the face behind the brand, so this appeal must be strong in order to influence others.  You’ll want to show others that you have wisdom and a well-developed skills set to promote your idea.  Your audience needs to see that you are a good, honest person as opposed to someone who will take advantage of them.

Learn more about the three modes of persuasion here.  Teachers: to learn more about how to apply ethos, pathos, and logos on the first day of a new class, see my blog post here.