Guest blog for Engagement 2017 conference, published May 23 2017
What’s the best way to persuade others of your point of view? That’s the question academics, politicians, activists and many other change-makers are grappling with in our increasingly interconnected world. At a time when we are saturated on a daily basis with endless information and data, the question of how we carry out effective and persuasive engagement is becoming increasingly salient.
I worked for many years in academia, legal and policy environments, and I used to rely on straightforward methods of persuasion to make my case: facts, evidence-based data, well-marshalled arguments and rebuttal. But, after many years working on the complex policy area of immigration, I have come to recognise that whilst these can sometimes be effective forms of communication, they are not the only kind. And, what is more, they are not always the most appropriate when communicating on emotive and socially complex issues like identity and immigration. Indeed, persuading with facts and data can have the negative effect of polarising an issue, rather than winning people over. Instead, when we want to engage others with our message,
we need to think about a range of communication strategies, encompassing creativity and emotion, as much as rationality and logic.
Aristotle acknowledged this with his teaching about the three fundamental pillars of persuasion. Recognising the power and interplay of each of these pillars is an important starting point when thinking about the ways we can inspire and engage others. These are: Logos – i.e. grounding our arguments with logic, data and evidence; Ethos – i.e. instilling credibility and authenticity; and Pathos – i.e. creating emotional resonance with empathy and creativity.
There is a tendency, amongst academics and policy-makers in particular, to focus on the ‘logos’ and ‘ethos’ pillars. There is a safety and comfort in relying on the statistics and data that bolster our case and the rational basis of our argument. But there is often a reticence to engage using pathos. Perhaps it’s a feeling that it will feel too contrived or clichéd, or that it’s too far outside our comfort zone when seeking to persuade. But, used effectively, storytelling and pathos-driven narratives can be the Trojan horse of engagement. As human beings we are playful, curious, complex and creative. When we engage using narratives and values, we are able to connect on a deeper level and persuade others using intangible feelings of association and emotional resonance.
An example of pathos being used to great and powerful effect is illustrated by the approach of the Anthony Nolan Trust. The trust is a national charity pairing people who require bone marrow or stem cell transplants. Between 2015 and 2016 the Anthony Nolan Trust changed their approach on social media from functional, data-driven posts, to a communication strategy that incorporated first person, authentic storytelling. The transformation was dramatic, elevating their ‘likes’ from 50,000 to 80,000 and increasing post shares from the hundreds to the thousands. As a result, their profile and reach has increased significantly, which in turn is furthering their message and their cause. The very human way in which they are communicating is evoking a combination of ethos and pathos to powerful effect.
There is a common temptation to persuade others of our arguments using predominantly ‘evidence-based data’. Statistics and data are undoubtedly important tools of engagement; they can jar us and help to demonstrate impact. What is more, coming from a credible source it can seem like a winning combination. But, without making us feel emotionally connected these forms of persuasion often lack interest and appeal. We would do well to also remember the magic of stories and weaving of narratives that evoke empathy as powerful tools of engagement. As Maya Angelou reminds us:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”