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It’s Time to Get Pathetic

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. Pascal

I generally try to post new articles on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but as of last night I had no clue what I was going to write about today. That quandary was resolved when I woke up about 5:30 after a series of very vivid dreams with a clear idea for today’s topic, in fact for a series of topics. My dream actually involved sharks, and my reluctance to dive into murky water to retrieve something I had lost because I suspected they were waiting to snack on my bony body.

I think the reason I woke up convinced that it was time to write about pathos is that the dream reminded me how reluctant we sometimes can be to dive beneath the surface of logic and explore the sometimes dangerous passions, feelings and sentiments that lurk below. Ironically, I did not have a plan to write this article, but something outside my conscious process took over.

Pathos was Aristotle’s name for emotion and sentiment, which form one of his three pillars of persuasion. I’ve written several posts about the critical importance of logos and ethos, but in some ways, those are the easy ones—pathos is much messier and harder to pin down, but it’s time to bite the bullet and get touchy-feely.

We have to get pathetic if we truly want to move people to action and change the world. Man is less of a rational animal than a rationalizing animal; we often decide on gut feel and then use our logic to explain and justify our decisions. Logic can change minds but feeling is usually needed to drive action. (The bulk of the word emotion is motion) Even for seemingly straightforward business dollar and sense decisions, using only logic is like going into a boxing match with one hand in your pocket.  Here are a few examples of how important pathos is, which I will begin spending more time on in upcoming posts:

Getting things changed internally: Most change management efforts fail. John Kotter, one of the premier writers on change in corporations, says “People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” He goes on to say that this is just as true in corporations that pride themselves on their data-driven analytical cultures. In his book, The Heart of Change, he tells the story of a middle management group who were trying to get the company leadership to agree to consolidate purchasing.Their business case predicted over $1billion in savings, but no one seemed to pay attention. So, the executive in charge had an intern go out and buy one pair of each type of glove that was approved for purchase, and piled them onto a boardroom table. When he brought in his intended audience, they saw a mountain of gloves—424 pairs in all! That got the CEOs attention. As Kotter says, successful long term change in companies is not a product of analyze-think-change; it is driven by see-feel-change.

Personal change: Is there anyone who does not understand intellectually that smoking or obesity are bad for you? Do you think people need just a little more logical argument to get them to quit or to exercise?

Sales and persuasion in general: In sales, an old saying says you have to sell the sizzle, not the steak. Salespeople have long known that emotion and feeling is a huge part of any purchasing or investment decision, and their instincts have been corroborated by many scientists including two of my favorites: Robert Cialdini, who has studied the unseen triggers that shape our decisions, and Daniel Kahneman,  who was the first non-economist to win the Economics Nobel Prize, for showing how message framing can affect choices.

Presentations: No matter how logical your case, your presentation is not going to succeed if the audience is not paying attention or can’t remember it when they try to convince others. While I’ve stressed before that the plural of anecdote is not data, I’ve also seen presenters go too far in the other direction, filling their presentations with unassailable facts and statistics, and then reciting these to glazed eyes and distracted minds.  You’ve got to engage their minds before you can convince them. A great way to do this is by telling relevant stories, or as film producer Peter Guber calls stories: “state-of-the-heart technology”. I’ll have much more to say about stories and other ways to make your presentations more compelling in future posts.

Society and politics: The relative balance between logic and emotion is a key theme of David Brook’s new book, The Social Animal. Brooks tells us that the Enlightenment of the 18th Century had two principal branches, French and British. The French philosophers stressed the need for rationalism and logic to guide the development of society, while the British philosophers including David Hume and Adam Smith focused on the “moral sentiments”. Brooks argues that the French influence drove grand schemes to reorganize society (remember the Communist Utopia that these geniuses told us was just around the corner?), and excessive government belief in imposed order ignores human nature and culture to the detriment of all of us.

Because my principal focus in this blog is on persuasion in the business world, I still believe that content is king. But it’s more of a modern constitutional monarch, which does not reign supreme but must coordinate everything through two powerful prime ministers: ethos and pathos.

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2 Comments
  • You’re right, Matt. that’s why persuasion is not a science–it’s a practical art that has to take into account individual circumstances. One size definitely does not fit all.

  • Matt Bolger

    Thanks Jack – great post, and great summary of fascinating and important topic. The balance between logos / ethos / pathos you highlight here is critical, because every theorist and every individual has their own preference, but modifying them to the occasion is a must.

    Thanks & looking forward to the rest of the series.
    Matt

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