Documenting the Coming Singularity

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Art of Persuasion: Emotion in Rhetoric

The inclusion of pathos in rhetoric is an attempt to engage the emotions of your audience. Pure logic (logos) may be effective if you are Captain Kirk trying to convince an electronic probe, bent on destroying all imperfection, that it must destroy itself, since it has made an error in assuming that Kirk is its creator, and it is therefore imperfect (episode 37, "The Changeling," for those of you who aren't familiar with the story). Logic, by itself, worked on Nomad, but rarely works on people. When you use pathos, however, you must be subtle. People react negatively when they feel they are being manipulated. You will have engaged their emotions, but not in the way you had hoped.

The emotions people can feel are varied (love, pity, sorrow, affection, anger, fear, greed, lust, hatred), and so you must consider which emotion you need to engage to advance your argument. Let's say you are trying to convince your employer to give you a raise. You could appeal to his or her pity by telling the story of your kids not being able to get the presents they wanted for Christmas; or you could appeal to fear by hinting that you are being recruited by other firms. Again, you must avoid being heavy handed or the effect will be negative. (Just think about your reaction to TV ads asking for your donations to help starving children. If they overplay it, how are you likely to respond?)

Think about the emotions an advertiser is trying to evoke in you the next time you watch a commercial on TV. What are they appealing to? The guy who wants you to invest in gold is appealing to your fears…what will happen to all your assets when stocks crash and inflation runs amok! The car commercials appeal to your pride…think of how good you'll look in this car! Listen to the soundtrack that goes with the commercial. Doesn't the music augment the emotional appeal? Advertisers use pathos because it is effective.

As a further example, Robert Abbott shares the story of a magazine appealing to his emotions to get him to renew his subscription. The appeal is made in one simple sentence.

"The other day I received what's apparently the last issue of Fortune magazine before my subscription runs out. Now, I like reading that magazine, but I'm swamped with reading matter so I don't plan to renew.

Of course, I've received many reminders and offers about renewing; magazines try very hard to keep the subscribers they've got. So when the last issue came with a special promotional wrapper on the cover, I wasn't surprised.

But, what made this one interesting was a clever piece of copy that hit an emotional chord: inside the back cover of the special wrapper were the words, "You're about to be dropped from our list of active subscribers. Unless you act now."

Personally, I thought it was an effective piece of copy (even though I still won't renew). It made an emotional case for what is essentially a business-to-business offer.

Many people who write persuasive copy, whether in sales letters or internal memos, say the power of emotion will help us get the response we want from our messages.

They offer a rule of thumb that goes like this: people buy on emotion and justify on reason. In other words, when we act as buyers we think we're being rational in making a decision to purchase, or in choosing among different offers. But in reality, we make the decision with our hearts and then justify that decision with our reasoning powers.

In the case of the Fortune renewal message, I was about to be dropped - Imagine! Me being dropped! - from the list of active subscribers (I'm not sure what active subscribers are: do they also have passive subscribers?). But, the meaning comes through. I'm about to get dropped from an exclusive club unless I act now.

Which is where the emotion factor kicks in. Who wants to be dropped? Isn't that like being in high school again and not being part of some exclusive group? Isn't there an eternal desire to belong?

With this appeal to my insecurities and ambitions, the copywriters have forced me to think harder about my decision not to renew the subscription. I can't just make a 'business as usual' decision; it must be a personal as well as business decision.

If you sell, this idea won't come as much of a surprise. But, if you try to influence behaviors in other ways, you may wish to add emotion to your communication toolbox."

The best way that I know of to use emotion successfully is to use what evokes the needed emotion in me. If I am not emotionally affected by the story or illustration, I can have no confidence in its efficacy in my argument.

(Check back tomorrow as this series continues.)

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