Informative to Persuasive: Pathos

Part one of this post is here. Read it first if you haven’t already. There are a couple of exercises in there too, which I’ll continue with, so have your notes ready if you want to take part.



In part one, I talked about how facts by themselves aren’t very persuasive because we have a mental immune system that protects us from changing our minds.

In Rhetoric, Aristotle described three main modes of persuasion: logos (reasoning, words, and logic), ethos (the speaker’s credibility), and pathos (the emotions and psychology of the audience).

Last time, we looked at ethos. To convince your audience, you not only need to get your facts straight, but you need to gain their trust. You need to look credible and help them believe that you have something in common; that you have their best interests at heart.

Unfortunately, showing that you’re credible and that you have the audience’s best interests at heart still isn’t enough. Even then, facts aren’t that persuasive. We often decide what to believe first and then add the facts on later, to support our decision.


How do we decide? Emotionally. And that’s where pathos comes in. Pathos is the emotional appeal of your speech. You need the logos – the facts – to act as decision support but the pathos is what does the work.

When you present, do you want to bring your audience along with you? To see eager eyes and receptive faces? Do you dream of standing in the centre of the red circle at TED and getting to the climax of your speech, knowing that the audience is right there with you? You need feeling, pictures, stories.


Make Me Feel it

My wife came home from the supermarket one day with a picture of a little girl from Guatemala. I can 100% guarantee that if World Vision had been handing out spreadsheets detailing third-world poverty instead of photographs of cute but undernourished children there would have been no deal. World Vision and Joseph Stalin agree on one thing: One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

A statistician will tell you that anecdotes don’t prove anything. But statistics are paralysing. A marketer will tell you that a single child’s face – a tragedy you can avert – will arouse more feeling and compel more action than any number of spreadsheets.


How can you take your data and distill it into an emotionally compelling focus? World Vision takes a problem that seems too difficult to tackle – world poverty – and reduces it to a single child. No, you can’t solve world poverty, but you can help this one child. For just a dollar a day …

Make Me See It

What was Donald Trump’s number one policy during his 2016 presidential campaign? Every time I ask this question in a group, everyone calls out in unison, “Build a wall”.

Of course, it’s not a fully fleshed out policy. Will it be a wall or a fence? Will it run the entire length of the border? Will there even be a wall – is it just a metaphor for enhanced border security, whatever that means? It doesn’t matter. The point is that the wall is a physical object you can picture. Adding details to the policy would have detracted from the picture firmly cemented in your mind.


What was Hillary Clinton’s number one policy during the campaign? It’s very rare that anyone can answer this question with any confidence. Nobody doubts that she had policies, and that they were probably well-researched and well-developed, but nobody can remember any of them. There’s literally nothing to see here.

Pictures are powerful. Is there a concrete manifestation of your idea that you make me see? What image can you bring to my mind?

Tell Me a Story

Stories are memory glue. We’re far better at remembering stories that we are at remembering facts. We’re social creatures and we use a lot of brain power working out who did what to whom and why.

In the previous article on ethos, I told you that I had my mortgage with the same bank as Richie McCaw. A moment ago, I told you about my wife bringing home the picture of the Guatemalan girl. In the previous two sentences I didn’t tell you to use stories, I told you how I had used stories.

Stories, especially personal stories, illustrate the point you’re trying to make. They’re also far easier to remember. Since long before Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, or Survivor: Borneo, or the invention of writing, people have been sitting round campfires after dark telling stories. It’s part of who we are. How can you wrap your point up into a simple story to help it stick in my mind?


» Exercise

Look back at the questions you answered in part one of this article: what do you want me to believe and why should I like, trust, and believe you?

Now that you know what you’re going to say and you can help me think that you’re worth listening too, think about how you can make is stick with feeling, pictures, and stories.

What shared emotions can you arouse?

What visual elements can you make me see in my mind?

How can you make it personal? What stories can you tell?

The answers to these questions, along with the logical argument and personal credibility from part one, will give your writing or speaking a powerful boost.

Give Your Ideas a Chance

Saying that facts aren’t persuasive is not the same as saying that facts don’t matter. The point is that if you want your ideas to survive, they need to be nurtured with your credibility and your emotions. We need to hear and understand your ideas, but we also need to see them and feel them.

Use Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion to go from informative to persuasive and give your ideas the chance at life they deserve.

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