Persuasive Strategies Using Pathos

Learning Objectives

Define persuasive strategies using pathos.

You probably have seen the TV commercials for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals featuring celebrities such as the singer Sarah McClachlan and images of sad, abandoned animals. Those commercials have been running for years and are notable because they have raised a staggering amount of money for the ASPCA.[1] How do those commercials make you feel when you watch them? Would they be as effective if they didn’t appeal to our emotions?

Convincing an audience to believe something or do something often can’t be achieved by only appealing to their sense of reasoning. Persuaders also need to know how to appeal to emotions in an effective and ethical way.

When we talk about appealing to emotions, we are talking about pathos: the emotions a speaker is able to appeal to and awaken in their audience. Common emotions speakers try to raise in their audience include sympathy, joy, humor, anger, and fear. One of the most common ways to bring emotional appeals into a speech is to use memorable examples. Stories, for example, can be compelling in the way they can personalize an otherwise general or abstract issue.

For instance, people who fundraise for charities or nonprofits often share with potential donors concrete stories of specific people to illustrate how donations can materially change lives for the better. These stories can tap into the emotions of the audience and help the audience identify with the subject of the story.

Politicians frequently use stories to grab an audience’s attention and move them to feel emotion. In almost every State of the Union Address for decades now, for example, the president illustrates policy initiatives by using stories of real people who are often invited to the speech and are sitting in the audience. Those stories are often the most powerful and remembered moments of the State of the Union Address.

To Watch: John MCCAin, “Joe The Plumber”

In politics, one of the classic appeals to pathos is to use one person’s story to argue for or against a policy position. During the final debate in the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican candidate John McCain invoked a small-business owner named Joe Wurzelbacher to attack Obama’s proposed tax initiatives: “What you want to do to Joe the Plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased.” Several times during the debate, McCain and Obama sparred about how Obama’s tax and health-care policies would affect “Joe the Plumber” (at 0:05 and 2:18 in the clip below). McCain was hoping that viewers of the debate would be outraged by the idea that this hard-working tradesperson would see increased taxes under the Obama plan. Whether or not the plan would actually increase taxes on the average plumber (an idea energetically disputed by Obama) is beside the point: McCain’s “Joe the Plumber” story is an appeal to pathos.

You can view the transcript for “The Final Three-Minute Debate | TIME” here (opens in new window).


Word choices are also key to effective emotional appeals. Vivid, powerful, and emotion-laden language can be very effective in moving an audience. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a classic example of the way a speaker uses vivid word choices to appeal to the emotions and values of an audience.

Emotional appeals can be very effective, but they can also be overdone or used poorly. When using emotional appeals, be sincere and respectful of the audience. Emotional appeals can backfire when the audience perceives the speaker is being phony or manipulative. Also don’t rely solely on emotional appeals as doing so can be seen as less persuasive than an argument that balances emotional appeals with the use of good reasoning and evidence.