You speak, they feel: the power of “Pathos”

White people


We love well formulated, carefully ordered and exquisitely selected words, but what we usually remember, are emotions – how a speech or a performance made us feel. Did it make you laugh, make you sad, did it motivate you, scare you, disgust you or make you happy? Words carry meanings, but emotions carry words – they give colour to words and help us grasp what we are told on more levels than only on the logical one. According to Aristotle, this is pathos – using and evoking emotions in your speech as a means of persuasion. 

Emotions speak to us on an unconscious level and they can heavily influence whether your audience is going to be convinced or not and, more importantly, if they are going to accept your appeal or message. This doesn’t only apply to motivational speeches where you want to make your audience hyped or demonstration speeches where you want to make them angry, but to almost every other speech type as well. If you are talking about an idea of yours, your audience is going to be much more interested in it if they see your excitement and passion when talking about it, thus making them feel the same. If you are holding a speech at your company’s anniversary, you will undoubtedly make your colleagues care more about the company if they can feel your own affinity for it. If you can make them feel, you will make them care. And you will make them remember.


Recognise a chance 

To use pathos to your advantage, first you need to find an opportunity to include an emotional appeal into your speech. When can you use it and to which purpose? The most common place for it would be the introduction. When I was in AIESEC, an international student organisation, I held a lot of speeches where I promoted student exchanges. I would always begin the speech with a story from one of my own exchanges:

Seven years ago, I was on a student exchange in Turkey. I was staying in a family, and although I enjoyed seeing the architecture, learning about the history and eating kebabs, what I absolutely enjoyed the most was spending time with this family. Every day in the evening we would be sitting in the living room, with the father of the family sitting next to me. He was a policeman and a quite serious man. However, every day he would ask how my day was. He’d ask in Turkish, so my hosting-brother Mehmet would translate the question to me and then I would say what we had done that day and how it was. I couldn’t speak Turkish so I spoke in English and although the father couldn’t understand a word of English, he was carefully listening to every word, saying “evet, evet” (meaning yes, yes) and holding my hand! Then Mehmet would translate what I had said and then he would actually react saying, “oh that’s nice, wow that’s great”. These people were so friendly that sometimes I think this family treated me better than my own family!
This is how I learned about how rich and different cultures can be and that to really learn about a culture, you have to be there to experience it. 

Using an emotional appeal like this – a story that’s funny, but also touching in a way – in the introduction of your speech can win your audience’s attention, curiosity, interest, as well as make the topic more palpable, more material and thus more immediate. Another common place for an emotional appeal would be the conclusion. Ending a speech on an emotional note lends the speech an elegant rounded structure as well as leaves a strong impression, especially if you can manage to connect it to your introduction. In my example, I would usually end my speech with this:

In my experience, an exchange was exactly that – an exchange: for one week Mehmet and his family gave me a home in Turkey, and next year we gave him a home for a week in Croatia. We gave him a bit of ourselves and our culture and they gave me a bit of themselves. And sadly, those two weeks were maybe the shortest weeks in my life. But fortunately, the memories and the friendship I still keep and treasure, even after seven years. Thank you.

Feel, don’t tell

What we did in this example was to tell a story. Storytelling is probably the most powerful way of eliciting emotions. Through stories you are able to create images in the mind of the listener and let them not only hear what you have to say but experience it in their imagination. Making your speech visual, often by means of subtle but vivid details opens up the mind and imagination of your listener, thus making them more susceptible to emotions. Further on, if you can make them identify with what you’re talking about, if you offer them a chance to relate to what you’re saying because sometimes in their life they had felt the same or had the same thoughts or wishes, you will not be presenting something to them anymore. You and your audience will be experiencing it together.

In my example, I counted on my audience being language or culture students who wanted to travel, meet people and learn about cultures, so I wanted them to imagine actually being there. Furthermore, I would always imitate my hosting-father in a polite, but funny way, showing how he was holding my hand in his hands and nodding his head full of attention.

Don’t be hesitate to use nonverbal and para-verbal means to communicate feelings. When talking about something that excites you, smile a lot. Use your hands and raise your voice. When talking about something sad, lower your voice. Allow yourself a slower tempo, pauses and a deep sigh when needed. Remember, the audience won’t feel an emotion if you don’t feel it yourself. 

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