Modes of Persuasion: Pathos

Pathos or the emotional appeal, means to persuade an audience by appealing to their emotions and personal interests. Pathos is the Greek word for both “suffering” and “experience.” The words empathy and pathetic are derived from pathos. A common use of pathos would be to draw pity from an audience. Another use of pathos would be to inspire anger from an audience, perhaps in order to prompt action. Pathos also includes positive emotions such as joy, excitement, or a sense of comradery. It’s important to keep in mind that “emotion” isn’t the same as “emotional,” and pathos doesn’t always have to draw highly-charged emotions; understanding, curiosity, and calmness are all emotions and all ways a speaker or writer may use pathos to appeal to an audience. It all depends on the context of the argument and what the author or speaker would like his or her audience to feel and, ultimately, do.


Pathos is developed with meaningful language, a compelling tone, emotion-evoking examples, inspiring stories, and/or implied meanings.

Pathos in Academic Writing

As with the other appeals, it all comes down to purpose and audience, and the easiest way to reach an audience is to create an emotional connection. Writers use pathos in academic writing by giving their readers a personal reason to continue reading and to think, feel, and do what the writer intends. Without a level of emotional appeal, academic writing, no matter how logical or credible, can be boring and ineffective.

a greek style university building.

In academic writing, knowing the audience is particularly important; a writer wouldn’t present information to a teacher or professor in the same way he or she would to a peer or even a parent. Balance is also important, as academic writing requires a solid base of logic and factual information to support the thesis, and pathos is what drives the reader to care about and remember that thesis.

Word choice, or diction, is especially critical when a writer is attempting to appeal to an audience’s emotions. A writer must not only consider each word’s denotations, or literal meanings, but also each word’s connotations, or the ideas and feelings the word invokes. For example, saying that obesity in America is a “problem” invokes different ideas than saying it’s an “epidemic.” Along these lines, details are also important. A writer should include relevant and specific examples to hold the reader’s attention and compel him or her to accept the thesis. The emotions that the words and details in a piece evoke should align with the context of the paper and thesis. If the writer would like the reader to see the subject as a problem and something that requires immediate rebellion, the details and diction in the piece should elicit feelings of anger or concern rather than humor or joy.

a student nervously biting her pencil and typing on her laptop.

Organization is also important. Writers use pathos at the beginning of academic pieces to hook their audience by igniting curiosity, evoking concern, drawing sympathy, getting a laugh, or simply sparking interest. This can be achieved with a provoking fact or statistic, a brief anecdote, or even an engaging metaphor or analogy. Beginning a paper with a quote or a question is also a way to appeal to a reader’s emotions; however, keep in mind that these are sometimes considered cliche and, depending on the reader, may not be as effective. Remember, it is important for a writer to know his or her audience and what will best trigger the desired response.

Finally, pathos acts as an effective bridge between the thesis and the logic, or logos, writers use to support their claims. Each time a writer presents factual information to support the thesis, the writer also needs to convince the reader to not only accept that information but to also care about and emotionally connect with it. This is best achieved with brief, relevant, and specific details and anecdotal examples. For instance, rather than just citing how many children in a school go home hungry each day, a writer can also briefly share a specific child’s story or use a rhetorical question to ask the reader to put him or herself into that child’s shoes. By emotionally connecting with the writer and the information in the piece, readers will more likely accept the writer’s thesis.

The ways a writer develops pathos in academic writing also apply to advertising, public speaking, and person-to-person sales.

Pathos in Advertising 

Pathos is particularly prevalent in advertising; in fact, many ads rely almost exclusively on it. Unlike academic writing, balance is not as important, and some may argue that a heavier dose of pathos over the other appeals is required. Be careful, though, because a modern audience will often turn away from ads that are obviously attempting to draw sympathy or are presenting something extremely graphic or controversial, and they will resist anything that’s too obviously attempting to get them to act solely out of emotion, especially when that action requires spending money or giving up time.

Take a look at how the New York City Department of Health uses pathos in this print ad about their quit smoking quitline. Consider the copy and the visuals.

an advertisement showing a man shoving a device into his throat, having to do so as a result of a medical condition.

Logically, words like “nothing” and “ever” are broad generalizations that in academic writing would wave red flags. However, in this case, they effectively appeal the the audience’s sense of fear, as the idea of being permanently changed is terrifying. Those feelings are meant to take over before logic kicks in or the viewing notices a the insignificant fallacy.

This ad is particularly effective because it’s not over the top. Here, Martinez looks subtly distraught and tinted with regret but mostly serious about his condition; his expression, like the text in the ad, is matter-of-fact and is meant to show that this can happen to any ordinary person, and once it happens, there’s no going back. It is what it is, which, in many ways, is more effective and close-to-home than something more dramatic or graphic.

Color and font choice also play into pathos in this ad. The fonts and color scheme, just like the subject of the ad, are simple, straight-forward, and black and white. There are only two options: quite or live with irreversible consequences. The creators of this ad effectively used pathos to invoke feelings of fear, sadness, urgency, and resolution to compel viewers to call the smoking quitline.

Pathos in Public Speaking and Oral Presentations

In public speaking and oral presentations, language, anecdotes, visuals, and delivery are the most effective ways to make an emotional connection with an audience. As with academic writing, context and balance are also important. Effective speakers begin their presentations with emotion-driven attention grabbers. These attention grabbers can be the same types of things one would use in academic writing, and they can also include compelling visuals, sounds, or audience participation. With public speaking, questions to the audience are more acceptable because the audience can react and respond. Anecdotes and personal details are also important in public speaking and can be effective ways to emotionally connect with an audience.

Because an audience can see and hear the presenter, a speaker also considers pathos in his or her delivery. Tone of voice, facial expressions, timing and pauses, and gestures can all evoke specific emotions and lead an audience to accept what the speaker is claiming. Speakers also use visuals and sound in this way.

Consider Martin Luther King Junior’s I Have a Dream Speech, which still compels people to feel compassion, inspiration, and a sense of urgency to act against injustices and inequalities.

The opening lines immediately evoke a sense of community, comradery, and legacy, which are all feelings that lead to excitement and a desire to participate or be a part of something, which is exactly what King hoped and successfully inspired his audience to do. King masterfully uses pathos to lead his audience to literally change history by presenting facts they likely already knew in a way that was emotionally-charged and personally important. His audience acted because they felt emotionally connected to King and wanted to continue that connection and the way the speech made them feel.

Pathos in Sales

In business or person-to-person sales, pathos is also an effective way to compel an audience to take action and, ultimately, invest in a product, service, or company. Effective salespeople will take the time to get to personally know their audience without getting too personal. They will figure out basic demographic information such as family status, income, education, and cultural background, and they will also find ways to make common connections through basic hobbies or interests. A salesperson shouldn’t get too personal, however, because that may make a client or customer feel uncomfortable about the salesperson or perhaps see him or her as unprofessional or manipulative.

a man and a woman shaking hands in a business transaction.

Think of effective real estate agents; they remember their clients’ names, they learn details about what their clients want and how their clients may use certain parts of a home, and they make sure to present each home according to what they know will most appeal to their client’s practical and emotional needs. A real estate agent will use pathos, for example, to convince a young couple to spend more than their original budget for a larger home by showing the potential for family growth and for long-term return on investment. The agent may share personal stories about how he or she made a similar investment and had similar feelings of hesitation, but is now satisfied with the results. By showing empathy and establishing a common ground, the agent will use pathos to appeal to his or her clients’ emotions to compel them to make a choice that may go against what they logically know they should do.

Be careful of advertisements and sales people who use pathos to unethically, and sometimes even criminally take advantage of others. For example, consider CNBC’s American Greed and how many of the cases include criminals developing personal relationships with their victims or manipulatively eliciting feelings of guilt, sadness, and sympathy by sharing tragic stories or showing sad images.

Take a look at the episode that exposes Jim Reynolds, who used pathos to manipulate people out of millions of dollars by making them feel compelled to donate money to help cancer patients. If you strip away the emotional phone calls, mailers, and in-person pleas, the logic behind what Reynolds was asking his victims to do wasn’t really there. The episode encourages viewers to “do your homework” when being asked to contribute to a charity, as scammers will leave out facts about their “charities” or where the money is actually going and will mislead their victims with heavy doses of pathos.

Beware of Charity Scams from CNBC's American Greed.