The Emotional Appeal: Bambi

Contextual note: Pathos, Ethos, Logos, the trinity of types of suasion.

And for today, Pathos. The appeal to the emotions.

Once upon a time, when I was consulting in communications strategies, I had a client, a very nice organization, a non-profit who hired my company to provide advice and training for their directors in their pursuit of money, the annual capital campaign. They already had enough money to pay us, happily. They knew they could do better in these annual campaigns, so they were looking to tap into our expertise.

So the first thing we did was arrange to tour around their many sites in the greater San Francisco area, to get an idea of what they were asking for money to actually support. They were wonderful about the tour, very friendly, knowledgable, clearly passionate about their work -- and here's a surprise -- they were all friendly knowledgable and passionate. I began to wonder about their fabulous recruiting process -- usually there are a few clinkers. So we met tens and twenties of friendly, knowledgable and passionate staff members, and toured tens and twenties of sites, centers, and programs.

And what they did there, what they did for each community they became part of -- well, it was what was needed, whatever was needed. Childcare, preschool, after school teen basketball leagues, esl classes, temporary housing, a subsidized lunch, a safe place to meet up with your kids, parenting classes, swimming classes, summer school, elder outreach, social dancing, bridge tournaments, whatever.

Okay, so I'm ready to write a check at this point.

We go talk to the program directors -- the people who needed training in how best to ask for money in this capital campaign. We asked, "Who are you asking?" and it turned out to be foundations, big local companies, civic organizations, whatever, whereever. They had all the speaking dates and appointments, they just weren't sure what to say.

So, a little non-plussed (seemed obvious to us, but then, we're the experts...), we arranged for a three day training session and wrote the curriculum. And the day dawned, we all showed up and got to work on helping these kind people learn to ask for money by tugging on heart strings.

And it was really hard. They really didn't want to. They were hoping we'd give them charts, a cost benefit analysis, a way to reach the cynical and hard-bitten on their own terms. So, we also did that, but never swerved from our recommendation -- use pathos, not logos. Or if you just can't bring yourself to use emotion, then at least use ethos -- speak from your own authority as a person.

There wasn't any solid logic available to them, but they had a powerfully compelling case. They were just uncomfortable about presenting it that way.

We had twelve people to train, and they all felt this way -- it just didn't seem fair. It felt manipulative, it felt undignified. We showed them the video tapes of their arguments based on emotion -- they were good -- they'd work! And yes, they agreed that this was so...but still. And that was the end of the first day.

We went back to the office, puzzling over how to rehabilitate the argument to the emotions, how to make it professionally respectable.

The next day, we showed up with a newly edited tape for the group and we started off with a quiz: "We're going to show you an argument and you're going to tell us if it's to the emotions, to logic or based on a person's authority." Okay, they all agreed, as nice as ever. And we rolled the tape.

A minute later we stopped the tape and said, "Well?" The hands shot up, and we had an excited discussion. We rolled the tape again, stopping it after thirty seconds: another lively discussion. A minute, 30 seconds, a minute, a minute, 15 seconds. More discussion, more excitement.

By the first break, the group had figured it all out. After the break, we had them do their presentations again, leaning on the emotional appeal, as we'd taught the day before -- and they were GREAT! Dignified, professional, and very heart-rending. They told tales about specific children and how their organization's services had made a difference in their lives, specific seniors, people ill unto death, new immigrants, a whole collection of specific faces came out in their presentations, and it was great. They added on -- going to places we couldn't lead them (after all, we're not altruists, and can only think along those lines so far...). They talked about how grateful they were personally to be able to put their life's work into these types of meaningful programs -- they turned the corner on the pathos and brought it back to ethos. Very elegant.

And what unlocked them? We showed them commercials. Commercial after commercial and asked them to apply the concepts of persuasion that we'd taught them the day before -- how is this company trying to persuade you? What type of appeal? Did it work? Why did it work? How could they have made it work?

All the participants jumped in to this fascinating parlor game -- not just watching commercials, but evaluating them. And they saw that the argument to emotions is very powerful, very commercial, and it can be very dignified.

Somehow, the commercials gave their own campaign for donations a sort of commercial validity, and they saw that to fail to use all the tools that capitalism uses to sell a sponge would be no service to their noble organization.

They had a very successful annual campaign that year, and for years after.

Rhetoric and IA: I see no differences

Okay -- that's why I called it Rhetoric - IA. I actually have a university degree in Rhetoric -- it's right there on the diploma -- from Berkeley, no less. I really like the idea of becoming expert in rhetoric in the city that deplores its use. But it's okay, I'm a Berkeley native, so I guess whatever I do anywhere is a reflection on my home town.

I had a point to make, however -- I wanted to illustrate the complete overlap between the two disciplines, and it's a celebration of sorts because it looks like there's finally a real job that goes right to the heart of what I love. AND OH YES I love rhetoric -- it's engineering with words. I was an exhausted engineering student when I stumbled into my first rhetoric class: Rhetoric 30, taught by Dan Melia -- and I was a deer caught in the headlights after that.

It was an article of faith that half of the class (which was the introduction to the basic principles of rhetoric) did not stick around to the end, but I really didn't notice. I moved my seat from the back to the front row and came early and stayed late. It was amazing to me that people, other people, really thought this way, and I'd been hiding my bizarre compulsion to analyze communications all these years...and now I could get A's with it. After the first passion, I noticed that my former engineering classmates thought my new discipline was ridiculously difficult -- and yes, it's not for anyone who isn't just fine generating reams of prose. (et tu blogosphere?)

And people were passionate about it, too. Dan hated the deconstructionists -- and he thought I should too, but I was actually blown away by the ideas -- and I'm still deferring my judgment on this philosophy...maybe it's the way communication is indeed mediated by the web...maybe the writer disappears into the text...maybe the reader is the one doing the writing. That's what's going on in user experience one-on-ones, after all. But Dan was all about the page and the podium, not the web. And the medium is the message after all.

The deconstructed web is the coldest place of all (in media terms) -- particularly the web environment of an anonymous corporate site.

So the curriculum lead the little student sheep along the path of the classics -- We actually studied Aristotle in the same way a mechanic would study a Merck's Manual. Here's the piston, here's the camshaft, here's the pathetic trope, here's the catharsis, now you do it. Then we looked at Plato -- not all of him, just a few dialogues, but what dialogues they were: Gorgias!!! My darling Gorgias, gorgeous Gorgias.

Okay, now this is reealy important in today's evil world: Plato held that no one could be allowed to take up the hideously powerful tools of rhetoric unless they had first been grounded in and ground down by the puffing, strutting strictures of Ethics. Like handing a gun to a -- what? an evil person, I suppose. Here's a digression: long long before Jesus and his Good News, Plato was the earliest person I've read who clearly believed in the transforming power of having something explained to you. So, he didn't say that only good people should get to use rhetoric -- his desire was far more mechanical -- only people who had been lectured to about Ethics should get to use rhetoric. I hear and obey, master.

But, you know, Berkeley is always conservative and obedient, so, in tune with the Platonic stricture, we sheep were also dipped in the bath of Ethics before we were turned loose with our weapons. Now, this was in the early 80's, when Greed was Good -- in fact, it was at Berkeley, just across campus, in that same window of time, that Mr. Boesky was busy telling a B-School class that very thing. The rise of the faceless giant corporation -- what are one's moral obligations with respect to non-human entities? That wasn't covered.

Next time: Bambi, the pathetic.

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