Article Category: Speechwriting

What is Pathos and
Why is it Critical for Speakers?


American psychologist William James wrote:

The emotions aren’t always immediately subject to reason, but they are always immediately subject to action.

Emotions — whether fear or love, pity or anger — are powerful motivators for your audience. An audience emotionally stimulated in the right way is more likely to accept your claims and act on your requests. By learning how to make emotional appeals, you greatly improve your effectiveness as a speaker.

In this article of the Ethos, Pathos, and Logos series, we turn our attention to pathos, and the role of emotion in persuasive public speaking.

What is Pathos?

The word pathos is derived from the ancient Greek word for “suffering” or “experience”.

Think about other words from the same root:

Three Pillars of Public Speaking
  1. Ethos, Pathos, Logos - Introduction
  2. Ethos - Speaker Credibility
  3. Pathos - Emotional Connection
  4. Logos - Logical Argument
  • Pathogen and pathology describe the source of a patient’s disease or suffering.
  • Empathy is the ability to share the emotions of another person.
  • Sympathy describes a similar ability to share emotions, usually negative emotions such as pain or sadness.
  • Antipathy equates with strong, negative emotions toward another.
  • Something that is pathetic is likely to arouse either compassion or contempt.

All of these related words focus on the concept of shared experience or shared emotions.

As a speaker, your goal is to create a shared emotional experience with your audience. Pathos describes your ability to evoke audience emotions and strategically connect these emotions with elements of your speech.

Pathos: Evoking Emotions In Your Audience

This leads to the obvious question — what emotions can you evoke?

The simple answer is “all of them,” but that isn’t too helpful.

There are a numerous theories of emotion. Philosophers and psychologists have attempted to itemize and categorize emotions into convenient buckets for thousands of years.

According to translator George Kennedy, Aristotle provides “the earliest systematic discussion of human psychology” in On Rhetoric. Aristotle identified the following seven sets of emotions, with each pair representing opposites:

As a speaker, your goal is to create a shared emotional experience with your audience.

  • Anger and Calmness
  • Friendship and Enmity
  • Fear and Confidence
  • Shame and Shamelessness
  • Kindness and Unkindness
  • Pity and Indignation
  • Envy and Emulation

By comparison, twentieth century psychologist Robert Plutchik proposed a set of eight basic emotions along with eight advanced emotions. He, too, arranges them in opposite pairs:

  • Basic Emotions
    • Joy — Sadness
    • Trust — Disgust
    • Fear — Anger
    • Surprise — Anticipation
  • Advanced Emotions
    • Optimism — Disappointment
    • Love — Remorse
    • Submission — Contempt
    • Awe — Aggressiveness

Many others have offered different categories of emotions.

It isn’t important to find the correct classification of emotions; indeed, there may not be a correct classification. Instead, the goals of a persuasive speaker are to:

  1. be aware of the wide range of emotions,
  2. decide which emotions to evoke, and
  3. learn how these emotions can be evoked in your audience.

Pathos: Why Evoke Audience Emotions at All?

If evoking a particular emotion was the final result, it would quite a useless endeavor. Randomly making the audience feel anger or joy or fear or hope will not, in itself, get you anywhere. Emotions do not persuade in solitude.

Aristotle knew that the emotion must be linked with your speech arguments. For example, Aristotle defines anger and describes what causes someone to become angry. He then encourages speakers to associate that anger with one’s opponent:

[...] it is clear that it might be needful in a speech to put [the audience] into a state of mind of those who are inclined to anger and show one’s opponents as responsible for those things that are the causes of the anger and that they are the sort of people against whom anger is directed.

In other words, make your audience angry, and direct that anger at your opponent. If your audience is angry at your opponent, they will be more receptive to hear your ideas.

Just as having high ethos makes your audience more likely to be persuaded, pathos can also make your audience more susceptible to being persuaded. By making an emotional connection with your audience:

  • Your audience will be more likely to understand your perspective (via the shared emotion or experience).
  • Your audience will be more likely to accept your claims.
  • Your audience will be more likely to act on your call-to-action.

Positive Emotions versus Negative Emotions

If you utilize pathos well, your audience will feel the same emotions that you do. Your audience will feel the pain, the joy, the hope, and the fear of the characters in your stories. They will no longer be passive listeners. They will be motivated to act.

Are all emotions equal? In other words, will any emotion do? Will my audience adopt my views equally if I make them feel surprise as when I make them feel anger?

No. The evoked emotion must be appropriate to the context. In general, you want the audience to feel the same emotions that you feel about your arguments and the opposing arguments.

One convenient way to see this is by looking at the difference between evoking “positive” emotions versus “negative” emotions.

  • Positive emotions (e.g. surprise, joy, awe) should be associated with your claims, or your “side” of the persuasive argument.
  • Negative emotions (e.g. fear, contempt, disappointment) should be associated with your opponent’s claims.
    • Sometimes, you may have a human opponent (e.g. a political debate).
    • Other times, your opponent may be the status quo which you are seeking to change.

Why is Pathos Critical for Speakers?

In summary:

  • If you utilize pathos well, your audience will feel the same emotions that you do. Your audience will feel the pain, the joy, the hope, and the fear of the characters in your stories. They will no longer be passive listeners. They will be motivated to act.
  • If you do not utilize pathos well, your audience will not be motivated to disrupt the status quo. They will be more likely to find fault in your logical arguments (logos, the topic for a future article). They will not feel invested in your cause.

How do you Develop Pathos?

Three Pillars of Public Speaking
  1. Ethos, Pathos, Logos - Introduction
  2. Ethos - Speaker Credibility
  3. Pathos - Emotional Connection
  4. Logos - Logical Argument

In this article we defined what pathos is and why it is important, but there are still several major questions:

  • How do you develop it?
  • Is it your speech content that creates pathos, or your delivery?
  • What are the most effective strategies you can employ?

These questions are addressed in the next article of this series — 18 Paths to Pathos:
How to Connect with Your Audience
.

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