How Ethos Changes Everything: A Lesson from Aristotle for John Edwards

How Ethos Changes Everything: A Lesson from Aristotle for John Edwards

A jury on Thursday declared John Edwards to be not guilty of misusing campaign money, and deadlocked on five other charges against him. It is unlikely that the government will retry Edwards, so this may mark the end of Edwards’ legal battle against charges that he violated campaign finance laws by accepting enormous sums of money to hide his pregnant mistress from his wife, Elizabeth, who was dying of cancer. This was a case that turned most Americans’ stomachs — even those who defended Edwards’ actions under the law were disturbed by his lack of moral compass.

After the verdict (or lack thereof) was announced, John Edwards made a speech on the courthouse steps.

Edwards is a gifted orator, who first made his name as an attorney with a magical ability to connect with a jury. As one might expect, Edwards’ speech was crafted well, illustrating several rules of effective verbal persuasion. But that uneasy feeling that you may have experienced watching proves something that Aristotle first told us over 2,000 years ago: To persuade an audience, you must exhibit the highest moral character, or ethos. Your good reputation, once lost, will be difficult to regain, and your advocacy will suffer for it.

First, the good things. Edwards’ speech is easy to follow because it has a clean, clear structure. He makes only a few points, each separated from the other by a pause and an obvious transition statement. First, he thanks the jury for its service. Second, he apologizes for his moral transgressions. Third, he expresses love for his children and his parents. And finally, he hints as work that he plans to do in the future — perhaps to atone for sins, or perhaps to attempt a political comeback. A speech will be stronger if you choose a few simple points that you want to make, and if you write the presentation so that each is distinct from the other, as Edwards has done.

Edwards expresses humility by using simple language. He paints a picture of family life with his kids, Jack and Emma Clair, “who I take care of every day, and … get their breakfast ready, get ”em off to school, and then we get home at night and we all eat supper together.” He talks about his faithful parents, who “tromp up here from Robbins, North Carolina every day to be with me,” and his courageous daughter, Cate, “who loves her mother so, so much.” Choosing simple, everyday words can make a speech more powerful and a speaker more accessible.

As you watch the speech, you may find it difficult to take your eyes off Edwards’ elderly parents, standing to one side of him, and his daughter Cate, who stands on the other. Their faces, especially his father’s, show emotion that Edwards attempts to articulate, and it breaks your heart to see the pain that flashes in his father’s expression during various points in the speech. Good trial lawyers know that people are much more likely to believe things if they see them. This speech proves that point—visuals grab our attention. You notice what you see, and you remember it.

Which brings us to the way in which the speech falls short. The wordless emotion that Edwards’ family conveys seems so much more genuine than anything that Edwards himself can achieve, because we cannot forget what we know about Edwards. Even his apology is carefully crafted to protect him from legal trouble, which reminds you that this man is, of course, a lawyer: “While I do not believe I did anything illegal, or ever thought I was doing anything illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong and there is no one else responsible for my sins.” Would it be possible for him to say anything that could make you forget the pain that he has inflicted on his family, especially his dying wife, or the hubris that he exhibited in pursuing and the hiding the affair? Probably not. Listeners view every speech through the prism of what they already know about the speaker. Aristotle would tell Edwards that he needs to shore up that ethos of his. Go help those poor kids that Edwards speaks of at the end of the speech. His words might mean more once he does.

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