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Thought Leadership

Pathos and Persuasion: Why Emotions Are Critical for Influencing Others

Businessperson speaking to interested colleagues

Cultivating the support of colleagues is vital for kickstarting any initiative in an organization. To that end, leaders whose goal is to persuade key stakeholders often craft appeals that lean heavily on logic and reason under the belief that these “objective” tools of influence are the most powerful. However, although organizations often encourage this logic-driven approach to persuasion as a best practice, research shows that appealing primarily to emotions rather than to reason can be more effective in swaying an audience.

In this article, we will explore the growing research consensus that stirring an audience’s emotions is key for winning influence.

The Power of Persuasion

Greek philosopher Aristotle identified three areas of persuasion: appeals based on the logic of the argument itself (logos), the character or moral authority of the speaker (ethos), and the emotional state of the audience (pathos).

According to conventional wisdom, appeals to logic, facts, and figures are the most objective and impartial. As a result, organizations often encourage employees to leverage logos under the assumption that it is the most effective tool for winning influence. Further, thanks to the Internet and mobile devices, decision-makers have a nearly endless supply of data that they can draw upon to make the “best” decisions.

However, merely pointing to quantitative findings is often a failing strategy for persuading others. This is because data alone lacks “sales appeal.” As author Scott Berinato discusses in Harvard Business Review, data teams often experience frustration when focusing on numbers because they “know they’re sitting on valuable insights but can’t sell them.” Similarly, executives often cannot find value in data teams’ findings and are disappointed by a lack of “tangible results” after investing time and resources into data science. This gap between logos (in this case, data) and audience engagement exists because it fails to create an emotional connection with stakeholders.

The key to overcoming the limited ability of logos to persuade lies in utilizing empathy to create buy-in. Both within the workplace and beyond, humans simultaneously appraise all situations with both reason and emotion. As former Forbes Council Member Lisa Zigarmi explains, feelings are a core part of the human experience, and eschewing them during decision-making is “not only impossible, it’s imprudent.” In other words, utilizing a combination of logical reasoning and emotional appeals is more persuasive than logic alone.

Woman Speaking At Meeting in Community Space

Putting Pathos into Practice

While appeals to pathos can be just as (or even more) persuasive than appeals to logic, how leaders utilize emotion in the workplace is key. Here are three methods to try the next time you need to persuade an audience.

1. Use Storytelling

Research shows that stories create strong connections between speakers and audiences. In the white paper Mastering the Art of Leadership Storytelling, UNC professor Heidi Schultz reveals that “fMRI scanning suggests that ‘speaker’ and ‘listener’ brain patterns synchronize more closely during a story being told and listened to. This increases the connection between storyteller and story consumers.” Narrative building is especially important for sustaining attention and building empathy, especially when a speaker is tasked with persuading a non-technical audience.

To incorporate storytelling into your proposals, start with a human-scale problem. For example, if a new product feature alleviates a customer pain point, promotional materials should highlight the frustration that customers feel with the current state of a tool. Audiences will identify with this unpleasant emotion and feel even more motivated to reach for your product as a solution.

2. Employ the Right Emotions

Employing the right emotions can create connection and meaning between an idea and an audience. To make the greatest impression, highlight for your listeners only the most relevant emotions relating to a decision. Returning to the example of promoting a new product feature, advertisements should avoid addressing a customer’s emotions throughout the day, as they are not relevant. Instead, advertisements should focus on the specific moment in which a customer interacts with the tool, how this creates frustration, and how the new product can alleviate this frustration.

In addition, if you want your listeners to be excited to support your ideas, elicit this response by expressing your own enthusiasm during the presentation.

3. Be Authentic

Research suggests that employees connect more with leaders who constructively channel emotions because they are perceived as more authentic. According to leadership coach Kristi Hedges, respondents to a research survey cited emotional authenticity as the most inspiring feature for leaders. Further, this sincerity supports employee morale, fosters strong team dynamics, and nurtures a positive organizational culture.

While emotions can stir empathy and connection, it is important to never mislead an audience. Consider the story of Theranos. Founder Elizabeth Holmes created an engaging narrative focused on her childhood fear of needles as her motivation for revolutionizing a medical technology that supposedly minimized the amount of blood patients would need to provide for medical testing. The heady combination of this inspiring narrative pitch, a desire to positively impact patients worldwide, and the opportunity to reap impressive profits left investors and influential leaders clamoring to become part of the Theranos story…until Holmes’ business was eventually revealed to be little more than smoke and mirrors.

Smiling businessperson shaking hands

Unifying Pathos and Logos

Displaying, embracing, and utilizing our emotions while in the workplace is not only normal, but also desirable, for doing so in a constructive way can create better organizational outcomes. Research shows that leaders who are seeking to win influence should not eschew either logos or pathos. Instead, the most effective way to persuade an audience is to use strong emotional connections that are supported by logic. This two-part recipe is a powerful tool for motivating others to support your next big idea.