Friday, November 1, 2013

Pathos: Employing the Emotional Appeal

Aristotle, in his seminal work Rhetoric, said there are "...three available means of persuasion". Being Greek, he called these ethos, pathos, and logos. Assuming you don't speak Greek, allow me to translate. Ethos is what we might call speaker credibility. Pathos literally means 'the passions" and is generally translated as emotional appeals. Logos, as you can probably guess, refers to the logical appeal.

In today's post I will focus on pathos. Human beings have the capacity for logical behavior but more often than not, our decisions are based on emotion. While we like to believe that we consciously choose our behavioral path based on sound reasoning and rational decision making, very often we are being moved by more vague forces...feelings. Sometimes we call it intuition or a hunch, more often we just act without a whole lot of conscious choice.

A neat video I saw recently outlined six principles which highlight some of the forces at work in driving our behavioral choices. In each case, the principle in question influences the behavior of most people. They work on us as "shortcuts" to reasoned, logical decision making. Undoubtedly those six features can be used by public speakers in a variety of ways.

But how do we appeal specifically to the emotions of our audience members?

One way is to employ the notion of emotional dissonance. When persuading an audience, I call this creating the "cringe moment" where you introduce some aspect of the status quo that is emotionally upsetting. It should be something unpleasant about the situation which is happening or will happen if we don't adopt your proposal.

A key feature of dissonance is that when we experience it, we want it to stop. So you create it when discussing the "problem" then give the audience some way to assuage the unpleasantness by them adopting your "solution". In that way we get them to take the action we desire of them.

Another way to employ emotional appeals is to tell stories. I have written at length about the benefits of storytelling for public speakers, here, here and here. But it is worth noting that whatever the situation you are trying to change is (and persuasion usually involves some change) we need to put a face on it. It may be a human face or the face of a puppy, but we need real-life examples to make us feel something. Tell stories that will move your audience.

And speaking of putting a face on something, one of the most powerful tools in creating emotional appeals are visual aids. Most people waste the potential of PowerPoint by filling their slides with words. Photos and video are what it is best used for. Want to persuade us to stop texting while driving? SHOW US the wreckage photographs of those who insisted that they could drive and text simultaneously. Want us to adopt a pet from a shelter? SHOW US photographs of the lovable furry little creature who will have to be put down because of overcrowded animal shelters. Want to persuade us to travel to Peru? SHOW US photographs of the natural wonders and bustling street life of that beautiful country. Visual aids are for seeing, not reading. The visual image is emotionally compelling in a way that words can't match.

That's not to say that words can't elicit emotion though. Words have connotations--individual felt-meanings--that can elicit powerful emotional responses. We need to be conscious of our word choices and the feelings they create in the guts of our listeners. Real estate professionals have long known this. The property you are trying to sell is a "house", while the property you may buy will be your "home". And of course a small house will be referred to as a "cozy cottage". The government refers to civilians killed in battle as "collateral damage". And of course our Department of Defense was formerly known as the Department of War, despite no real difference in the functioning of that organization. What we call something can make a tremendous difference in the emotional response it evokes.So choose your words wisely, use your thesaurus, for maximum emotional impact.

One final word of caution on emotional appeals. Don't overdo it. People resent it and will shut down on you if you lay it on too thickly. They sense you are manipulating their feelings and will reject both your message and you.

I apologize for the long post today...I could talk about this stuff for hours (a fact my students know all too well!). But used ethically and in moderation, the emotional appeal is a powerful tool for speakers. I encourage you to make special effort to include emotional appeals in your persuasive messages.

That's all for today folks. Be well, speak well, and as always, thanks for reading.

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting work see Semiosphere Consulting.