Happy? Bereft? Apprehensive? Pleased? Excited? Calm? Troubled?
Few of us are void of emotions. We may express them or bury them, acknowledge or overlook them, transform or retain them, but they are there, affecting what we think, believe, and do. They are an element of communication, a part of what and how we signal, speak, write, hear, understand, create, and interpret messages of all kinds.
Presenters and writers who remain aware that their audience comprises sentient beings recognize the centrality of emotion in communicating effectively. Used appropriately, emotion helps connect and engage audience members, helps influence how they receive messages, and helps persuade them to accept those messages.
A sound persuasive strategy, then, may include an emotional component (what the Greek philosopher Aristotle called the appeal to pathos) as well as appeals to ethos (credibility) and logos (logic or reasoning).
All three appeals can and should be used to help establish and maintain a connection with an audience. But pathos can also be put to especially good use when messages touch on attitudes, values, and beliefs. Most messages do.
Use what you’ve learned about your audience’s disposition as well as the dimensions of your common ground to select tactics that will help your presentation or document support your persuasive purpose.
Here are four such tactics.
Consider how the words you use may affect your audience. Some words summon stronger or more distinct emotions than others. The most evocative words are concrete and specific; they create vivid images in the mind and carry emotional connotations. Speaking of a disease, for example, you could note that one symptom is a rash that includes scattered lesions. Or you could describe the symptom as a rash characterized by scattered pustules, a description likely to trigger a stronger reaction than “lesions.” Determine the reaction you want, and then search for accurate but rich, resonant words that help you get it.
Offer direct quotations, stories, anecdotes. If, for instance, you are drafting an analysis of a customer or client satisfaction survey, quote participant comments that are likely to rouse desired emotions in your audience. Or compose a story whose plot, characters, setting, or other elements relate to your message but also help create the emotional tenor with which you want audience members to receive it. An anecdote—a short but revealing account of a particular event or incident—can often serve the same function.
Conjure delight, surprise, joy, emotions that help engage your audience and predispose its members to accept your message. Good moods are more expansive and open than sour or neutral ones, so as long as a smile or laugh fits within your message and overall purpose, use a little humor to connect and persuade. A play on words, a short narrative, or a relevant digression can inject humor into a presentation or text. But we do warn against using jokes, and the nature of some topics precludes humor entirely. Be judicious.
Include analogies, metaphors, similes, and other forms of figurative language. Such language uses words in a non-literal way to create images that produce fresh insights, that generate new perspectives and possibilities.
By foregrounding our associations to the images words create, figurative language stirs emotions that then impact our acceptance and understanding of a message. Comparing a corporate policy to a garden that needs weeding, for instance, plants the image of a plot of land filled with wanted flowers and foliage but marred by noxious organisms. That image evokes dissatisfaction, discontent, alarm, all of which may prompt an audience to embrace a recommended action.
Tapping into emotions does not mean toying with them. It means recognizing their rhetorical strength, their place in persuasion. They can wield as much power in communication as they do in our lives. Channel it—ethically and effectively.