Presentation Ethos, Mr Burns, a Dental Nurse, and Me

by Peter Watts

Credibility in public speaking is associated with the level of ethos that you command with your audience, customer, or patient.

Ethos is founded on reputation, it’s founded on the title before your name or the qualifications that trail after it. It’s bolstered by visible accoutrements such as your premises, your equipment, or your uniform. It’s your past track record and your client list. Ethos is that diploma you keep framed on the wall. When ethos is visible, ethos is easy. Once you’ve got the titles and the trappings, then you can ride on them. Right?


Most of all, ethos is similarity. It’s can people like you? People buy from people. Are you a likable human, or a cold diploma?

Allow me to illustrate, because I just met this phenomena in the flesh in my Dentist’s office. Or rather, I met her eyes in the flesh because every other bit of anatomy was covered in surgical-wear, and a gloved hand was sticking some cold whining torture tool into my gum-line. How’s that for all the accoutrements of ethos with none of the likability?

About ten minutes into treatment, I must have angled my jaw into the perfect position for oral penetration, because unexpectedly, from under my tormenter’s mask came a creepy but perfectly phrased “Excellent”. Joann the Hygienist had just delivered a grade A impression of the Simpsons character Mr Burns.

Treatment had to stop immediately. I was experiencing an overwhelming urge to respond with a Burns quote of my own:

“Release the hounds.”

Complete strangers till 15 minutes earlier, Joann and I had just established a level of intimacy born of our shared enjoyment in a TV character. Once that connection was established, all Joann had to do was slowly steeple and then drum her fingers together for me to become instant dental putty in her hands (fellow Burns fans will know what I mean!)

In this coincidence of connection, I was experiencing ethos at first-hand. While Joann had all the visible elements of ethos, the Burns connection suddenly gave us a shared cultural reference point. It gave us an aspect of similarity, and we are most readily inclined to favor and believe those who we regard as being similar to ourselves.

Doctors are held up as a prime example of ethos, and yet, how many Doctors find themselves getting sued?

As Malcolm Gladwell explored in his book “Blink”, there is an inverse correlation between the amount of time Doctors spend on social orientation with patients, and the likelihood of their later being sued for malpractice. Malpractice suits are the ultimate expression of the collapse of ethos. Ethos is collapsing through a lack of social connection.

Joann and I connecting over Mr Burns was maybe an extreme example, but the fundamental point remains. For complete credibility, connection is as important as  qualification.


  1. Hi Peter – again an excellent observation on life turned into a learning point. You are spot on in making the case for gaining Ethos – so many public speakers forget this and spend far too long on telling people “thank you for inviting me to speak, blah, blah, blah” and forgetting that connecting with that audience in the first few seconds is so vital if you want to grasp and keep the attention and ultimately influence them to some action. After all Aristotle was right about the process, Ethos is vital! “Excellent” post.

    Smithers: I’m so happy I could hug you.
    Mr. Burns: And have me smell like cheap drug store cologne the rest of the day? You may hug my shadow.


    • Love your Mr Burns quote! I’ve noticed a lot of people will hold up various examples of Homer Simpson’s rhetoric as examples of public speaking (or maybe as anti-examples?). I think it takes a truly refined observed though to notice that it’s Montgomery Burns who offers the truer inspiration 🙂 Maybe there’s a blog article in there somewhere!

  2. Great post! I don’t think your connection with Joann is as extreme as you say it is. We talk a lot about this connection in healthcare, especially as we become a more competitive model through healthcare reform. Additionally, top performing hospitals are also becoming extremely focused on patient experience and making those very connections.

    Interesting, my father used to create a sense of ethos in every sermon that he gave. He’d tell a story about us (his family) and then relate it to the message he was trying to get the congregation to think about that week. I never really thought about that until now, but what he was doing was creating that social connection and engaging the listener. Fascinating. Thanks for getting my wheels turning, as usual.

    • My absolute pleasure to be able to help with those wheels, and thanks for the comment. Now it’s your turn to make me sit and puzzle something. I hadn’t considered Joann in the wider context of “health industry”, and indeed, it’s a vital place to have that connection. There needs to be a therapeutic connection, but also, because there is only so much time in the day, and multiple patients need to be seen, that connection needs to be made quickly. Storytelling, as your father was doing it, is a good way to achieve it. The question then becomes how to apply which story, to which patient. My wheels are spinning now! Thanks for inspiring 🙂

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