Connecting Emotionally: Pathos Examples in Public Speaking

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Recently on our blog, we went over ethos, pathos, and logos, the three principles of speaking that go all the way back to Aristotle. With that in mind, we’re doing a blog series analyzing examples for how to use these principles yourself. Today we’re digging deep into the emotional and starting with pathos. If you’ve been struggling to connect emotionally with your audience and need some pathos examples to inspire you as you work on your signature talk, this is the article you’ve been looking for! 

From bygone eras of dramatic rhetoric, to political activism, to modern TED talks, we’re breaking down six examples of stirring appeals to emotion. These examples of pathos are all from very different and diverse contexts, but they have one thing in common. They elicit a strong emotional reaction–positive or negative–from their audience members. As a successful persuasive professional speaker, you can too! 

Pathos: an Appeal to Emotion

As a refresher, pathos is a term popularized by the philosopher Aristotle to refer to an appeal to emotion. Pathos is how you influence your audience’s emotional state throughout your talk. If that sounds weird and hypnotic, think again! No matter what you say, it’s eliciting some kind of emotion (preferably not boredom) from your audience. By using pathos correctly you can leverage those emotions to contribute to your point. 

Pathos helps you relate to your audience, pull at their heart strings, and leave a strong impression of your message. Listeners of a speech full of pathos will remember your message even when they forget the words you said. It’s a fact, strong emotions correlate to enhanced memory! Depending on your industry, you might primarily rely on the other tools of rhetorical persuasion, ethos and logos. All the same, utilizing pathos can set a dry and data-driven or otherwise unemotional talk apart from others. Whether or not your speaking brand is characterized by emotional rhetoric, learning from incredibly pathos–driven speeches can help you during your next speech preparation.

As we’ll elaborate in these examples, pathos can also be the primary sense by which a speaker persuades. In that case, it’s all the more important to understand how to apply this rhetorical appeal to your own content. Unfortunately we can’t give you a step-by-step for how to make your message emotionally appealing (get in touch with our team here if you’re looking for help with that). But we can give you enough pathos examples to fill your mind with great strategies for doing so. 

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“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend me your Ears!”

We’re not your AP English teacher nor are we called The Roman History Lab. So why do we start with this speech from one of Shakespeare’s most famous historic plays? While the professional speaking scene has changed a lot in the last few hundred years, good speaking hasn’t changed all that much. Why not start with one of the classics! 

If you haven’t read Marc Antony’s speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar recently, it’s worth a read or a watch again. This is a timeless example of powerful pathos. The plebeians of Rome are rejoicing over the death of Caesar as Marc Antony, Caesar’s beloved friend, begins the funeral address. He dives right in with a bid for the emotions of his audience by reminding them that his purpose is not to praise Caesar (or so he says), but to bury a friend. Who hasn’t felt that kind of grief? Who can deny his sincerity? Marc Antony now has his audience in the palm of his hand. 

“When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept” he reminds the Romans, giving them cause for self-reflection. Was not Caesar their benefactor? Was he even a better person than they were? As Marc Antony’s appeal “You all did love him once” was not stirring enough? He finishes off “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, / And I must pause till it come back to me.” Absolutely gutting! Unsurprisingly, this speech successfully turns the Roman populace back to Caesar’s side, and they drive out the conspirators responsible for his death.

“Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death!”

Humor us for one more trip back to your high school classroom. The ending declaration of Patrick Henry’s speech to the second Virginia Convention is one of the most famous utterances in American History. Perhaps it would shock you too to learn that we don’t technically know what he said in his speech. There were no contemporary transcripts, and the earliest known text of the speech is from a posthumous biography that reconstructed it from witness testimony. All we know is that Patrick Henry finished off with something like “give me liberty or give me death.” And it was convincing enough to sway the convention toward assuming a posture of defense against the British. 

So what does this tell us about pathos? Patrick Henry had powerful opponents who wanted to play things safe. Safety is attractive, and there was a lot of pushback to his inflammatory rhetoric against the British. If he had delivered a monologue of facts and data about the British preparations for war, the listeners would likely have nodded along while internally rolling their eyes. However, Henry readily admitted that he understands the perspective of hesitancy in light of the “painful truth.” He focused not on proving his opponents wrong, but on lighting a fire of indignation in their hearts. Refusing to respond to the warlike activities of the British would be an attitude of weakness. 

Accusations of weakness are powerful–if often misused–occasions of pathos. By finally declaring his preference of liberty over death, Patrick Henry left his audience in an awkward position. Do they admit they prefer to live as oppressed subjects? Few could resist such an emotional appeal! For what it’s worth, we do not recommend enacting a fake stab to the heart (as Henry supposedly did with a paper knife) to emphasize your point. However, you can learn a lot from his mastery of his audience by appealing to their desire for freedom rather than merely using logical argumentation. 

“The Last Lecture: Really Achieving your Childhood Dreams”

Finally, we’re moving on to more modern pathos examples! Randy Pausch is responsible for many of the Computer Science innovations that make modern software and virtual reality possible. In his 40s, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given just a few months to live. His last lecture, delivered to a packed auditorium ten months before he died, is a powerful testament to how having big dreams can bear fruit in your life, whether or not you accomplish them. 

The entirety of Pausch’s lecture is quite long, but it is worth the listen (or read). This speech is literally dripping with pathos, as Pausch opens by showing his cancer scans on the screen. As he goes through the list of his childhood dreams and how he achieved them–or what he learned from not achieving them–every member of the audience has to sit with the reality that his life is being cut short. That’s a pretty heavy atmosphere for an hour long lecture. So how does he break up the emotional landscape? With humor of course!

Many speakers forget that humor is a great way to leverage pathos. Mixing up humorous and serious rhetoric will help your audience stay engaged and provide them with a dynamic emotional experience. While Pausch delivered this lecture, he cracked jokes, did pushups, and displayed humorous slides. Together the tragedy of his diagnosis, his witty use of humor, and his fascinating stories of professional and personal ambition create a masterful example of pathos in public speaking. 

“The Power of Vulnerability.”

Brene Brown’s famous TED talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the most watched TED talks of all time. With relatability and humor, she investigates the relationship between vulnerability and human connection with a good bit of storytelling thrown in. 

Brown cites her academic research throughout her talk, but uses pathos to relate her message to real experiences. One way she does this is by walking her audience through her own emotional journey. Sitting in a therapist’s office and feeling concern about the path ahead is an experience that many people share. By sharing her own story, she reminds her listeners that she isn’t just some academic in an ivory tower–she’s an average person who struggles with vulnerability just like you or me. 

In a talk dealing with emotions and mental health, pathos is an obvious strategy. What Brown does so well is combining pathos with her in-depth research. We can all take a page out of her playbook when it comes to both vulnerability and persuasive speaking!

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“Plus Size? More Like My Size.”

Ashley Graham is best known for being the first plus-size model to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition. Before that, she was already a renowned model bursting aside stigmas and barriers with success after success. In 2015, she delivered a TEDx talk in Valencia, Spain where she used pathos to connect with audience members who have struggled to love their bodies. 

She opens by facing away from her audience, looking at herself in a tall mirror, speaking words of affirmation to her body. “You are bold, you are brilliant, and you are beautiful. There is no other woman like you. You are capable.” These are words that many women struggle to say to themselves. Ashley Graham tackles the struggle of loving yourself head on, telling her own story of breaking out of the box that defined her as a “plus-size.” With stories both relatable and heart-wrenching, she explains how she grew to love herself and how her audience members–of any size–can do the same. 

When you’re speaking on something sensitive and personal like body image, combining pathos with your own story is an incredible tool. By relating your own emotional experiences, you can empower your audience to look inward and follow you along on the journey. A powerful speech doesn’t have to be long–like Ashley Graham’s example of pathos, you can pack a great deal of meaning with a few well-chosen words.

“How Dare You!” 

Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019 made headlines as she demanded that world leaders cease to ignore the climate crisis. with her impassioned plea on behalf of younger generations. Thunberg’s words are an example of a speech that relies almost entirely on pathos to make its point. The entirety of her message is a wakeup call. Others have done the research (which she mentions in passing), but her goal is to awaken her audience to the plight of younger generations who have to live with the consequences of poor climate policy. 

Toward the end of her speech, she exclaims “You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.” By speaking on behalf of a larger group (the younger generation), she applies intense emotional pressure on the older leaders. Her speech simultaneously inspires guilt for things yet undone and urgency for righting wrongs as fast as possible.  

If you’re anything like our typical readers, Greta Thunberg’s particular style is likely not applicable to your own speaking business. Most industries and audiences will not respond well if guilt is the primary emotion your talk elicits. So why do we include this speech in our list of pathos examples? Because sometimes a harsh, unexpected phrase (like “how dare you?”) can go a long way toward communicating the depth and importance of your message. If you are a speaker who encourages some kind of transformation or awareness, a little pinch of guilt might be the kick in the pants your audience needs. Like it or not, the science shows that the negative emotional experiences stick in our memories longer than the positive. If you want your audience to feel a sense of urgency, a measured dose of negative emotion can do the trick. 

Conclusion

Pathos might seem like an odd topic for a group like The Speaker Lab, when we usually talk about things like creating client pipelines, networking, and marketing! It’s true, we like to focus on the business side of being a professional speaker, because many speakers fail to create that crucial foundation. But incredible content and delivery is the best marketing strategy no matter what you speak about! 

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