Years ago, Heinrichs was at a bank with his three-year-old daughter, when his daughter threw a temper tantrum. Heinrichs responded by telling his child, “That argument won’t work, sweetheart. It isn’t pathetic enough.” His daughter abruptly ended her tantrum. The word “pathetic,” as Heinrichs used it, means “emotional.” His daughter was trying to use emotion to sway Heinrichs’s behavior.
Pathos is perhaps the least respected form of persuasion, but it’s probably the most effective, too. Humans may like to believe that they’re rational and reasonable, even if, when push comes to shove, they’re more strongly motivated by appeals to their senses of sympathy or fear.
Pathos is a powerful rhetorical tool. Sometimes, when a speaker discusses a frightening possibility, the speaker’s words alone can make an audience feel frightened, too. One important principle of pathos is, “When you want to change someone’s mood, tell a story.” Single words or ideas rarely have an effect on someone’s mood—a cohesive narrative is more effective since it gives the audience a vicarious experience. Stories and jokes are also usually most effective when they’re told in the first person.
People intuitively identify with other people’s stories when told in the first person; therefore, a great way to build pathos, whether in a big speech or a joke, is to tell lots of good stories.
Another effective technique of pathos is self-control. Often, a persuader who seems to be trying to hold back emotion will be more persuasive than one displaying strong emotion. This leads to one of Cicero’s key points: “when you argue emotionally, speak simply.” The senator Daniel Webster once prosecuted a case in which a captain had been killed in his sleep. Webster delivered his closing argument to the jury as if he could barely conceal his own outrage. The jury agreed to hang the accused, a young farm boy with no previous criminal record.
Strangely, the perceived suppression of emotion can be more powerful than the expression of a strong emotion. This rule is especially common in weepy romantic movies—the characters’ inability to weep or express their sadness makes audiences more likely to cry. The same principle holds true for political speeches like Webster’s, emphasizing that politics and entertainment use closely related forms of rhetoric.
It’s often best to wait before deploying pathos, particularly when making a speech to a large group of people. It can be disarming to begin with an emotional appeal—it’s better to work up to it. Daniel Webster once argued a case before the Supreme Court; at a crucial point in the speech, his voice cracked ever so slightly, triggering the Chief Justice of the court, John Marshall, to weep.
Even though emotions are involuntary and often uncontrollable, emotional appeals often need to be rehearsed and planned. Thus, Webster’s emotional appeal was probably the product of hours of careful preparation, but Marshall’s tears were spontaneous.
Humor is perhaps the most persuasive emotion, in part because people with a good sense of humor are often seen as being able to “stand above petty squabbles.” The problem with humor as a persuasive technique, however, is that it doesn’t always persuade people to act—they laugh, but do nothing. Aristotle argued that emotions such as love and compassion are better motivators than humor.
Here, Heinrichs reminds readers of the “Ciceronian” distinction between convincing an audience and getting them to act: humor is convincing, but not a good motivator.
Often, successful speakers appeal to their audiences’ tribal instincts by appealing to 1) their patriotism, 2) their anger, or 3) their desire to fit in with a group, or “emulate.” The best way to make a crowd angry with someone, Aristotle argued, was to show how that person had ignored and belittled their desires. Aristotle also showed that patriotism could motivate people to act together. Patriotism doesn’t have to be about a country; it can appeal to any group with a common bond—for example, a soccer team. Yet it’s important to distinguish patriotism from idealism. During the Revolutionary War, few people were genuinely interested in the Founding Fathers’ ideals; they mobilized because of their patriotic desires to defend their country from British military aggression. Finally, speakers often use pathos to appeal to their audience’s desire to emulate others (nowadays, it’s rare to think of emulation as an emotion; however, the Greeks believed it was). For example, impressionable children may wish to emulate role models’ behavior.
Many of the emotional appeals that Heinrichs discusses in this section revolve around differing conceptions of the group. People want to feel that they belong to a given group; therefore, a good rhetorician can appeal to a big crowd by either criticizing someone the crowd doesn’t like or alluding to the crowd’s common identity (their patriotism, so to speak). It’s worth noting that these kinds of emotional tactics are meant to appeal to people’s more basic, “tribal” instincts—not their reason or morality. Thus patriotic appeals like this can easily lead to violent or immoral action.
The appeals to pathos that Aristotle discussed have one thing in common: they work best in a group setting. It’s also important not to advertise a speech’s intended emotion too explicitly—for example, any good comedian knows not to say that the joke they’re about to tell is hilarious.
Pathos is often strongest in a big group because the desire to belong underlies many different kinds of emotion. Refusing to identify a joke as funny is a good example of the distinction between “showing” and “telling.” It’s better to be funny than to tell other people that something is funny.
Emotional appeals are a form of seduction. Therefore, it’s important to recognize the importance of desire in rhetoric. Advertisements regularly use sex appeal to make their products seem more attractive. Heinrichs’ wife Dorothy enjoys a BBC mystery show that combines gardening with crime, and refers to it as “flower porn,” because of the close-ups of flowers and plants. Shortly afterwards, Heinrichs convinced her to book a vacation to Hawaii by showing her pictures of beautiful Hawaiian flowers, appealing to her love for flowers. Heinrichs used a form of seduction to convince his wife.
Perhaps the most powerful and persuasive emotion of all is desire, whether lust or the more general desire to belong to a group. Advertisers use desire to manipulate their consumers by associating consumers’ love for a particular thing (beautiful people, for example), with a particular product.
Appeal to desire is one of the most basic forms of persuasion. One of the businesses for which Heinrichs works as a consultant sells workout programs. The company uses the “appeal to desire” strategy by using ads to associate their product with things for which customers lust: sex, beauty, and, more abstractly, independence and freedom. With the help of rhetoric, businesses or speakers can appeal to their audience’s desires, associate their position with those desires, and thereby convince their audience to agree with their position.
Heinrichs often presents himself to the reader as a “common man” with a wife and family. But he’s also a highly successful business consultant who uses his rhetorical skills to train businessmen to succeed in their fields—reinforcing the point that people can use rhetoric to succeed in many different fields of human endeavor.