Of the three modes of persuasion, pathos is often seen as the least impactful when compared with its counterparts, ethos and logos.
Yet we shouldn’t be too quick to discard pathos, the persuasive tool that appeals to our emotions. It’s done wonders for advertisers, writers, and certainly politicians.
When something pulls at our feelings and emotions, we can be quick to react. Whether that reaction is buying a car, watching a film, or simply changing ideas, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of pathos to influence our actions.
Pathos is a tool of persuasion that is used to appeal to readers’ emotions by arousing positive or negative feelings.
It can be used in rhetoric, literature, film, and other forms of expression. While pathos is used to draw an emotional response, the other rhetorical appeals—ethos and logos—appeal to credibility and logic, respectively. All three were coined by Aristotle in 350 B.C.
By learning to use pathos in your writing, you can develop stronger persuasive arguments and even create richer narratives.
How to Use Pathos in Writing
The following are tools that you can use to incorporate pathos in your writing. They can be effective in both narratives and nonfiction.
Incorporating sensory details—also known as “showing, not telling”—is an effective way to create strong images and draw emotions from your readers.
In advertisements for products like food or cars, companies don’t just tell us what their product looks like—they show us. They also show people’s emotions while they use their products.
While you likely can’t show actual images in your writing, you can create them in your reader’s mind by using sensory details.
For example, if you’re trying to persuade readers that stricter environmental laws are important, you might open with sensory details describing a recent oil spill and the devastating damage it caused.
By getting a strong visual of the disaster, your reader will feel like they’ve actually seen the mess and they’re more likely to feel compelled to take action.
Strategic Word Choice
Word choice is very important to successfully using pathos. This is because the words we read and hear trigger certain feelings.
Positive words can evoke feelings of excitement, possibility, and happiness. Negative words can just as effectively evoke fear or worry, bringing audiences to change their behaviors in order to avoid whatever bad outcome has been described.
If you’re trying to evoke an emotional response from readers, don’t rely on weak, ordinary language to get the job done.
If you want to describe a situation as “bad,” use words like “horrific” or “appalling” instead. Similarly, if you want to convey a positive experience, you might try describing it as “breathtaking” or “unforgettable.”
Anecdotes are another effective way of evoking emotion.
An anecdote is a short story within an essay or work of literature. Since it takes a narrative form, it can be a great way to draw readers into your argument or main story before backing it up with facts and research.
In your persuasive writing, you might use a personal anecdote (a story of something you’ve experienced) to appeal to your readers’ emotions. Because you experienced the event firsthand, you’ll also add a sense of credibility to your work.
Examples of Pathos
If you turn on your television or open a book today, you probably won’t have to search long before coming across an example of pathos.
The rhetorical appeal is used frequently in literature, politics, and advertisements.
Pathos in Literature
“He had meant the best in the world, and had been treated like a dog—like a very dog. She would be sorry someday—maybe when it was too late. Ah, if he could only die TEMPORARILY!”
—The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
This excerpt draws pity from readers as the narrator explains how Tom was treated like a “dog” by the girl he loved with honest intentions. Tom is so overcome that he wishes he could die briefly just so she might feel sorry for him.
Because love, rejection, and pain are universal concepts that most of us have experienced, this application of pathos is an effective appeal because we can all understand how Tom is hurting.
Pathos in Politics
“It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”
—Barack Obama, keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention
This speech, delivered by then-Senator Barack Obama, speaks to the experiences of everyday Americans. It sparks feelings of patriotic pride—that we can come from anywhere and from any circumstances and still have hope for a better life.
It also echoed the hopes of many Americans that things could get better following the invasion of Iraq and the first term of the Bush administration.
The speech was intended to appeal to voters who might still be on the fence between presidential candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush.
Of course, pathos is also used in political rhetoric to invoke fear and worry.
In the media, many situations are quickly labeled as “crises,” such as an “economic crisis” or “immigration crisis.” The goal, however, is always the same: to get voters to take action.
Pathos in Advertising
In Cheerios’ “Good Goes Around” campaign, smiles, sunshine, and bright colors echo with positivity as consumers are encouraged to associate the cereal with these good vibes.
This is a very common strategy used throughout advertising. Marketers appeal to our emotions in order to get us to start diets, donate money, or buy tickets to see a film.
While ethos and logos can be equally important in advertising, we’re most likely to take action when we feel personally invested in something—which is why pathos is an indispensable tool for advertisers.
Use Pathos to Improve Your Writing
Whether you’re writing to persuade or entertain, pathos can enrich your writing and help you to forge emotional connections with your readers.
Start practicing today to see if you can apply the three modes of persuasion for more effective prose.
Which techniques have helped you improve your writing? Feel free to share in the comments below!