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How to Craft a Good Pathos Strategy

I argued in a recent article that all three of Aristotle’s famous appeals are important. 

I noted that Ethos is the appeal to trustworthiness. It involves a speaker’s credibility, authority, and character. Logos is the appeal to logic. It involves a speaker’s evidence and reasoning. Pathos is the appeal to emotion. It involves the speaker’s emotional impact. I illustrated how these three appeals can work together partly by posting this illuminating Pinterest image:

But I also pointed out that each one of the three appeals should play the starring role at a different stage in your message. The sequence is important. I said that pathos should come through clearest during the conclusion of your message.  

Here’s what I wrote about PATHOS:

The rule of primacy and recency is important. . . People tend to remember what they feel more than the facts they learn. So send your audience off with some emotional impact. Here are some tactics for doing so: 
Remind them of their values. What are your audience’s underlying values and how does your message reinforce them? Telling your staff it’s time for recertification is one thing, but what values does recertification support? That the worker cares about their craft? That the worker wants to provide the best service to the customer and community? That civilized communities are built on a commitment to high standards of care and skill? Make these larger points.   Tell a story. No matter how often research reaffirms the power of storytelling, people forget to tell stories. Stories trigger emotion, build connection, and increase desire. If you can end your message with a story that is brief, relevant to the topic, and carries a little emotional weight, you will be far more persuasive. Here’s how to tell a good one.   Visualize the outcome. Maybe you want to convince your audience to adopt shelter animals, and maybe you’ve proven that doing so is easy, affordable, and good for the owner’s quality of life. But you might also help the audience visualize a world where roughly a million animals per year are saved from euthanasia and hundreds of thousands of people are finding therapeutic outlets through pet ownership.  

With these principles and tactics in mind, let’s continue analyzing Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” Address. 

EXAMPLE (cont.): Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” Address: Pathos Analysis 

As I noted previously, Barack Obama’s famous “A More Perfect Union Address” illustrates the power of the three appeals and their proper sequence. Obama’s speech is a carefully crafted response to a controversy surrounding his former Christian pastor, Jeremiah Wright, whose comments on U.S. history had rubbed some Americans the wrong way. When Obama was first running for the presidency in 2008, the controversy became serious enough that Obama felt he needed to address the matter publicly. His speech “A More Perfect Union” is the speech he came up with.  

After establishing his ethos at the beginning of the address by showing he had a unique perspective and good intentions, Obama launched into a series of logical arguments, using a variety of evidence and reasoning to make his case. Once he finished making his case, he created a pathos-driven conclusion, because he knew that his audience would remember how they felt when the speech ended.

Remind them of their values.

“I would not be running for president if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation – young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history.” 

The key emotion Obama is targeting at this point in the address is hope. He wants to point his audience away from the resentment and cynicism that characterized the attacks on him and his pastor, and to point them to a place of understanding and optimism. He uses himself as an example of this transition from cynicism to hope, noting that he often overpowers doubt by looking to the next generation.  

Tell them a story.

“There is one story in particular that I’d like to leave you with today . . . There is a young, 23-year-old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, S.C. . . . And Ashley said that when she was 9 years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided she had to do something to help her mom. 
“She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches – because that’s the cheapest way to eat. That’s the mind of a 9-year-old. 
“She did this for a year until her mom got better.” 

Notice the way Obama uses a story that is short, but relevant to the topic and his particular goals with the audience’s emotions. He uses vivid detail (mustard and relish sandwiches) to help the audience imagine the scene. The story he shares creates a hero (Ashley) out of a normal, mundane person. Ashley is a stand-in for all Americans. She transcends her normal constraints by moving beyond criticism and cynicism to patriotic engagement. The audience feels her movement from darkness to light, despair to hope and action. 

Visualize the Outcome

“So she told everyone . . that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too. . . 
“(Ashley’s effort) is not enough to give healthcare to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children. 
“But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the 221 years since a band of patriots signed that document right here in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.”   

Now that Obama has selected particular emotions to target, and has embodied those emotions in a true and vivid story, he can bring it all home by creating an expansive vision for the future. We don’t just move out of darkness into light; we move into a broad horizon of hope, a limitless future of unity and progress. 


This address by Barack Obama was praised almost immediately as a new touchstone of American political oratory. Scholars called it “an extraordinary speech – not because of any rhetorical flourishes, but because it was honest, frank, measured in tone, inclusive and hopeful.” Fair enough, but in fact, it was full of rhetorical composition and care. One knows a rhetorical strategy works when one does not notice the strategy working. Obama’s rhetorical effectiveness is reinforced by the fact people do not notice, at first glance, what strategies he is using. 

And although there are dozens of rhetorical choices we could point to, I have focused on Obama’s masterful use of the three appeals and their proper sequencing. 

I would also note, again, that these appeals and this sequencing is not reserved for high-style political oratory only. Ethos, logos, and pathos are effective tools for any persuasive address at any level. When someone is able to establish trust, make a reasonable and focused argument, and capture the emotion of the audience, that person is unlikely to fail. 

Ben Crosby is a professor of rhetoric and a communication skills consultant. He teaches courses in public speaking and presenting, argumentation and debate, technical and professional communication, persuasion and selling, and the history of rhetoric.

His work is regularly published in his field’s top academic journals and conferences. He is also the author of Presentations as Performance: A Professional’s Guide to Better Speaking.

Ben’s areas of expertise are Public Speaking, Presentation Skills, Argumentation, Sales Training, and Professional Writing.

In his free time, he spends time with his wife, Rebecca, their four kids, and their cat, Arza. He is an avid Utah Jazz fan.

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