18 Paths to Pathos:
How to Connect with Your Audience
In this article, we explore how to build strong pathos in your presentations through a variety of emotional pathways.
Pathos Superhighways: Your Primary Paths to Emotional Connection
All roads are not created equally. Freeways move lots of traffic fast; country lanes often guide just a single, meandering car.
Similarly, all pathways to emotional connection with your audience are not created equally. Some paths are more effective and more commonly used to connect emotionally. Let’s review these superhighways from which you can create the pathos of your presentation.
- Themes and Points
- Analogies and Metaphors
- Delivery Techniques
#1: Select Emotional Themes and Points
You always have choices to make about which points to include in the time allotted. Be sure that some of them carry emotional power.
Example: Suppose you have identified fifteen reasons why your audience should consider public speaking training. Unfortunately, your short speech only allows you to discuss three or four of them. Which do you choose? “Conquer your public speaking fear” probably evokes stronger emotions than “Learn to speak with more precision.”
#2: Choose Words which Add Emotional Emphasis
Some words are emotionally neutral, while some are emotionally charged. Exercise judgment to select the words which fit the emotional tone that works to your advantage.
Example: Consider the difference in words used to label a suicide bomber on opposing sides of a political war. What emotion does the label “terrorist” evoke? What emotion does the label “martyr” evoke? Which one would best complement your speech?
#3: Use Rich Analogies and Metaphors
Analogies, metaphors, and other figures of speech not only make your speech more interesting, but often allow you to make an emotional connection by tapping into emotions already felt by your audience.
Example: If you speak about gang violence, you might plainly state that “We have a problem in our city…” On the other hand, you might say “We have a cancer in our city…” The latter analogy draws on your audience’s pre-existing feelings about cancer, and makes them want to eradicate the cause!
#4: Tell Stories
Stories are often the quickest path to the greatest emotional connection with your audience. Carefully crafted stories allow you to evoke any of a wide range of emotions. This may explain why stories are often the most memorable components of a speech.
#5: Use Humor
Humor is closely related to storytelling, because you usually arrive at humor through stories. Nonetheless, humor merits special mention. Humor in a presentation evokes emotions such as joy and surprise, and often triggers secondary emotions such as calmness and friendship. If your audience is laughing, they are having fun. If they are having fun, they are happy to be listening to you and they are attentive. As an added boost, humor makes your audience like you (at least for a moment), and that boosts your ethos too.
Nearly every presentation would benefit from more humor. How can you add humor to yours?
#6: Connect through Visuals
Maybe you have slides with photographs. Maybe you have a prop. Either way, a concrete visual element opens many more emotional pathways than abstract words alone.
Examples: Consider the following pairs, and ask yourself which creates the stronger emotional impact:
- Saying that “smoking damages lung tissue” versus Showing a slide with a photograph of tar-like lung tissue
- Claiming that cords from window blinds pose a risk to children versus Showing (with a prop) how the cords might strangle a baby doll.
#7: Model the Emotion with Your Delivery Techniques
The emotional effectiveness of stories, humor, visuals, and other “content” tools often depends greatly on your delivery. Great delivery magnifies emotions; poor delivery nullifies them.
Example: Words from your mouth or slides on a screen may induce sadness in your audience, but the effect is multiplied when combined with sadness on your face, in your posture, and in your voice.
Additional Paths to Develop Pathos in Your Speech
Now that you are familiar with the core pathos tools, we can sample some of the additional tools at the disposal of a skilled speaker. Many of these build on top of the core building blocks above.
#8: Analyze Your Audience
Without doing any audience analysis at all, you always know two things:
- Everyone in your audience is human.
- Most humans share many emotional triggers.
As a result, you can always achieve moderate success applying the first seven tools.
But to hit a pathos home run, you’ve got to analyze your audience. Are they old or young? Technical or non-technical? Male or female? Rich or poor? Liberal or conservative? These and many other factors will impact which emotional triggers will have the strongest impact. Do the analysis!
#9: Evoke Curiosity with Marketing Materials
When your audience feels an emotion, they are motivated to act. If the emotion is pity, they are motivated to address the situation (e.g. perhaps by donating money to your charity).
In a similar way, if you make your audience curious through your marketing materials, they are motivated to act. How does one act on curiosity?
- Show up to the presentation.
- Pay attention.
- Take notes.
- Engage with the speaker and follow along.
So, make your audience curious. Include a bold claim or a startling statistic. (Of course, you need to follow up in your presentation.) Focus on the benefits to be realized by your audience, and their curiosity will attract them to your speech.
#10: Evoke Surprise (in the Introduction and elsewhere)
A great way to connect immediately with your audience is to start with a surprise. I admit there’s no logical reason to suggest that a speaker who starts with a surprise will deliver a more valuable presentation. But, we’re not talking logic here (that’s the next article on logos). A surprise gets your audience excited. Getting them excited makes them listen.
Surprise can be effective elsewhere, particularly as the length of your speech grows. Like curiosity, your audience is motivated to act on the surprise. How? They try to resolve how this surprising element fits with the rest of the presentation. To do that, they have to listen.
Note that I’m not talking about deliberately confusing your audience. Surprise is planned, and is usually followed quickly by an explanation. Confusion, on the other hand, results from poor planning, and usually lasts beyond the end of your presentation, at least until the Q&A.
#11: Use Vivid, Sensory Words
Tool #2 above advised the use of emotional words. One way to do this is to concentrate on concrete, vivid, sensory words. When you use sensory words, your audience feels emotions they have associated with those words.
Example: When you mention “the touch of your father’s flannel shirt” or “the aroma of your grandmother’s kitchen”, you’ve done more than just mention fabric and smells. You have evoked emotions which, depending on your audience, probably include loving memories of childhood.
#12: Be Authentic
Remember that the goal of pathos is to connect with the audience and share emotions with them.
To share an emotion, you’ve got to feel it too.
Pathos is not about tugging emotional strings as if you were a puppeteer. You get zero marks for that. Actually, you get negative marks for that, because your ethos gets destroyed when the audience realizes you are toying with them.
Be honest. Share your presentation in a way that your audience will feel as passionately as you feel.
#13: Match Your Vocal Delivery to the Emotion
Vocal delivery is one clear clue to how you feel about what you are saying. Your tone, volume, pace, and other vocal qualities should mirror your emotions.
- Anger might be accompanied by a loud, defiant voice.
- Sadness or despair might call for a softer voice.
- Optimism or excitement might be matched by a quickened pace.
#14: Match Your Gestures to the Emotion
Your body is another clue for the audience to gauge your emotions. If you are telling a story about love or joy, your body shouldn’t look like a mannequin. If you are revealing your own disappointment in a story, your shoulders should probably droop, and you shouldn’t be smiling.
Some speakers find it difficult to do this because they are speaking about past events where the emotions have dulled with the memories over time. The emotions were felt then, but aren’t as easy to summon now. You’ve got to show the audience how it felt in the moment. Remember that they are hearing this story for the first time.
#15: Connect with Your Eyes
Eye contact isn’t a scorecard. Your aim isn’t to collect check-marks from each person who you look at over the course of your presentation.
Meaningful eye contact is about connecting with one person at a time. Your eyes should express your frustration, your contempt, or your joy. In the ideal case, the person you’re looking at will mirror your emotion back to you. That’s connection!
#16: Eliminate Physical Barriers to Connect with Your Audience
In most speaking situations, your goal should be to reduce barriers between you and your audience. Get out from behind the lectern. Move closer to the audience. Ask them to sit in the seats near the front.
The closer you are to your audience, the more personal your presentation feels for them. The more personal it feels, the greater your chance for emotional connection. For much more on this topic, read Nick Morgan’s excellent article: How to Connect With Your Audience by Moving Closer.
#17: Eliminate Competing Emotions in the Environment
There usually are a myriad of competing elements in and around the room which are evoking emotions in your audience. For instance, a marching band practicing outside might be annoying your audience. If this annoyance is strong, it may prevent you from evoking competing emotions with your presentation.
The solution is to take charge and eliminate or minimize these causes whenever you can so that your audience can focus on you.
- Hunger and biological needs create strong emotions. Take appropriate breaks if you deliver lengthy training.
- Excessive noise, temperature extremes (either too hot or too cold), or poor lighting make your audience uncomfortable and perhaps even angry at you or the organizer. Do whatever you can to optimize the conditions.
- Speaking over your allotted time may make your audience nervous or anxious if they’ve got to pick up their kids. Stick to your time bounds.
- Hecklers — and your response to them — can evoke many emotions. Learn how to handle them smoothly and professionally.
#18: Avoid Tripping Emotional Land Mines
Situations where you aren’t familiar with your audience are potentially dangerous. Perhaps you’ve been invited to speak at a company which has just experienced massive layoffs. Perhaps you’ve been invited to speak to an audience of a different culture. In either case, you’ve got to be careful not to say something (or gesture something) which accidentally triggers an emotion that you had not intended.
If you’re lucky, you’ll just say something that provokes unexpected laughter. If you’re not, you’ll say something that deeply offends your audience to the degree that they tune you out completely.
Your best defense against this is extensive audience analysis. Do your homework. Sometimes, it may still happen despite your best efforts. In this case, it’s important that you are actively reading your audience. If you have evoked an unintended emotion, you can usually tell. It’s wise to address it and, if necessary, apologize for the unintended offense.
What do you think?
The methods listed above are far from exhaustive. There are many other ways to connect emotionally with your audience as a speaker.
What other techniques do you use? Please share your ideas in the comments.
Next in This Series…
In the next article of this series, we focus on logos, your logical argument.