From my book “Writing to Persuade”: How to Use Emotion Effectively in Argumentation

Why is it so difficult for most people to express their emotions in such a way that others will listen?

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Even if you feel like hitting someone, there are more effective ways to argue

Because emotions are so poorly understood and integrated by humans under almost all circumstances, we have a tendency to overreact at first. Instead of thinking through what is at issue, we overreact based on our feelings about the issue.

If we weren’t upset about something, or emotionally invested, after all, it’s unlikely we’d want to change someone else’s mind in the first place!

Before we ever begin to speak or write, we’re already experiencing some level of emotion. Most of the time, however, if you listen to the high-pitched, screechy voices of the truly upset as they talk, you’ll notice that they’re wandering all over the place with their attempt at argumentation.

What they’re telling me, when they wander all over the place and lose the thread of what they’re trying to say is that they have never worked through their feelings about the subject they care deeply about. There’s nothing wrong with this; in fact, if you didn’t feel upset, sad, angry, depressed, or any of the other range of emotions on the human spectrum, I’d be concerned.

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Spock’s skepticism, while useful for a science officer, leaves a lot to be desired when you want to persuade regular old humans on Earth.

We should care; we shouldn’t be inured to emotions or strong response to events. Right at this moment, in fact, I’m arguing that because emotions are crucial to what it is to be human, we must learn more effective ways to include them in our writing, so that we’ll be heard, not tuned out.

However, our responsibility as writers, especially when we want to influence others and change their minds, is that we take time to sort out what it is we’re upset about. We must know what is at issue—easier said than done. We need to know precisely what it is we want to see change, what we want our listener or reader to do. We need to keep the emotional intensity without overwhelming our listener or reader with raw, unthought-out opinion, blaming, shaming, and other forms of overly emotional manipulative maneuverings.

If you’ve ever read Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (one of the most important books I’ve ever read on this subject) then you’ll know that there is no “bad” emotion; instead, there are emotions we express poorly, or simply do not understand. Once you’ve gotten a better handle on your emotions, and how to channel them into productive expression, then you’ll be able to write much more effective argumentation. No argument should ever, in my experience, try to balance its weight on data alone, because human beings, whether it’s consciously acknowledged or not, are highly emotional people.

Instead, keep in mind that the most effective arguments rely on logos (data, intellect and reason; logic); ethos (where you establish your authority and believability; that you, in fact, have the moral high-ground and are therefore authorized to speak to the subject; ethos therefore means your reputation as a writer, influencer, or speaker, is germane to the argument); but most importantly, in my opinion (largely because it is so often downplayed, which is clearly a mistake) is pathos, the appeal to emotion that Aristotle wrote so eloquently about in his Poetics, and Plato was, let’s be honest, pretty afraid of (a long story, which I cover in The Mythologized Writer, which is being prepared for publication).

There’s no need whatsoever to become Dr. Spock, and eliminate your emotions altogether; instead, the goal is to balance them with the other elements of successful argumentation (appeals to ethos and appeals to logos) to create a fully balanced, well-thought-out argument that has its issue clearly identified. Instead of beating someone over the head with your feelings, in other words, take those emotions and channel them into an argument effective precisely because you’re impassioned about the subject. Never lose the passion—just the negativity and shouting.

So here, in a nutshell, is what I say to students and those who’d like to write with more coherence about their feelings:

When relying on Pathos/Emotion:

Distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate emotional appeals.

Problem: Educated people aware of the techniques of persuasion are often deeply suspicious of emotional appeal—this is also a learned social prejudice. We must distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate emotional appeals.

Solution:

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do my emotional appeals substitute for knowledge and reason?
  • Are these stereotypes that pit one group against the other?
  • Am I offering an unthinking reaction to a complex situation?
How to use emotion in argumentation

Emotion is the trickiest form of appeal to use when convincing others of the importance of your assertions. Be cautious, since it is easily misused.

Show, don’t tell. Telling others how to feel, or how they feel, is insensitive, and will be poorly received.

You will expose your bias and make your opponent aware of your emotions. Be aware of this ahead of time, because people hold their biases as truths, when in fact they are actually strong beliefs that can be changed.

Legitimate emotional appeal supplements argument rather than substituting for it, drawing on knowledge and personal experience. Its use can create empathy or sympathy in a negotiation that has broken down.

You must know what attitudes and feelings your audience already possesses towards the issue at hand. Which of these lend emotional support to your case, and which work against your purposes?

You will want to emphasize those feelings that are consistent with your position and show why others are understandable, but inappropriate.

Instead of telling your audience how to feel, evoke emotion through these rhetorical techniques:

  • Provide concrete examples
  • Give personal experiences
  • Show sharp contrasts and comparisons between your experiences and theirs.
  • Sentence rhythm and intentional repetition (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech).
  • Alliteration: Recurrence of a sound which begins each subsequent word—Aunt Annie’s alligator attacks Annabelle.
  • Simile: Compares one thing to another— “The river is like a raging animal.”
  • Metaphor: States that something is another thing— “The river was a raging animal.”
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5 thoughts on “From my book “Writing to Persuade”: How to Use Emotion Effectively in Argumentation

  1. There’s a Persuasive chapter in my textbook on Developmental English. I have a section called “The Four Persuasive Strategies.” The strategies are Give an Example, Predict Results, Prepare for Objections, and Demand for Fairness. Sometimes I fear that my multicultural content won’t be accepted. See you on Twitter!

  2. Pingback: The Rhetoric of Twitter | A Daily Journal of my Comp/Rhet Dissertation

  3. Pingback: Just Farmers » Lose the Argument, Win The Cause.

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