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?


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.


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.


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.”

Why Authenticity Is More Important Than Ever

One of the rules we learn early on as writers is to use our ‘authentic’ voice when we write, but learning how to access that authentic voice is usually an elusive skill, not easily taught. It seems authenticity is like art: we know it when we see it.

If you don't feel quite this enthusiastic, don't worry.

If you no longer feel quite this enthusiastic, don’t worry.

When writing relies on tricks, gimmicks, gratuitous experimentation, or cleverness for its own sake, we feel manipulated, especially when it comes to replicating the voice of a child, I’ve noticed.

As a reader, I am particularly critical of reading books written from a child’s perspective, since children don’t have the vocabulary writers like to imbue them with. Also, children live very complicated lives, and can’t always make sense of what happens to them. I rarely feel as though I am reading a story authentically written from a child’s perspective. Children don’t seem to write a lot of stories for adult audiences, and the reason for that is key to what I’m trying to convey about finding one’s authentic voice.

Most advice about accessing your authentic voice tells you to rediscover your childlike sense of wonder. What happens, though, when guileless innocence is gone, and you are left feeling rather used up by life? Should you simply stop writing? Does this mean that you will never find your authentic voice? Maybe it means you are not meant to be a writer, because you can’t remember what it feels like to be a child, and, at least for the moment, the sense of wonder we associate with childhood floats away, a dimly-remembered colorful kite growing smaller and smaller on the breeze of all your yesterdays.

If, like me, locating your authentic self through a ‘childlike’ sense of wonder does not come easily, consider this: each day of your life, there has been at least one moment when you discovered something for the first time. It doesn’t matter how small—in retrospect—the moment might seem to you now. What matters is that you write about it from your own current, in-the-moment perspective. The ‘voice’ you write in has never seemed as important to me as the simple fact of the writing itself.

Most people stop themselves from writing, and then regret it later, because they trip over things like ‘voice’ and ‘authenticity,’ instead of saying to themselves some version of “I just need to write this down for myself.” That need is more authentic, in the moment, than worrying about what someone else thinks, and at least you’d be writing!

We are held to an impossible standard when we’re told we must somehow recreate our childhood sense of wonder, in my opinion. I remember feeling more confuddled by childhood than in a perpetual state of joyful wonder, and maybe you did too. 

The underlying emotional reality of authenticity is the feeling you get when you discover something new.  In essence, an authentic awareness of your own personal reality requires two things: being conscious, awake and aware of how you feel, and acknowledging your feelings instead of ignoring them or pushing them down, or denying you feel what you feel. If you want to deaden your authentic self, denying you feel what you feel is the fastest way to do it.

Authenticity is not about forcing yourself to do something you can’t. And if you can’t notice the world around you in a constant state of wondrous glee, I don’t blame you. Days of being in a bad mood are just as real as days of letting your thoughts wander into your inner rose garden; they may not feel as pleasant, but they’re just as real. Okay, maybe the sun isn’t shining on your inner landscape; maybe you don’t feel terribly imaginative. But consider that stories are written every single day about the most mundane things: washing dishes, cleaning up after children, changing flat tires.

Accessing authenticity when you’re no spring chicken becomes the question of one’s middle years

A great deal of writing is motivated by authentic curiosity. That means that most writing begins with curiosity about some subject or other; your curiosity leads you to do some form of research (either formal, through books and libraries, or informally, by observing your own or others’ behavior). We’ve all been told that this curiosity is fundamentally child-like, and of course children are curious, but so are adults.

You are, authentically, an adult. I have grown very tired of hearing, over and over, ad infinitum, how every single emotional state reverts back to our childhood. I disagree. Most of the emotions I experience now, I did not have the maturity or depth to experience when I was a child, if I could ever even remember them. If I were to write from my authentic childhood memories, I’d have to try to recreate that lack of sophisticated vocabulary, and that would mean my writing was highly inauthentic.

I say, start now, today, from where you are. If you want to begin with a state of wonder, let it be okay that your wonder might lack the same kind of wide-eyed innocence so valued by all the how-to books I read. I lack wide-eyed innocence; that fact does not make me inauthentic, nor should your maturity or age in years make you feel as though you cannot write ‘authentically.’ Seems to me that it’s more authentic to write about what you’re looking at through your kitchen window than it is replicating the experiences of yesteryear.

As an adult, if you want to jog the part of you that is far too jaded and experienced, all you have to do is take yourself out of your comfort zone. Go without electricity for 24 hours (a not uncommon experience here in the ‘great’ Northwest in the winter, it turns out). Stop eating meat. Don’t use your car unless you absolutely have to. Read a book you would never have read under any circumstances. Wear a color you usually avoid. Drink something electric blue. The key is to write about your response to anything you do, taking note of your feelings and what comes up for you as you try each new thing.

The primary difference between being an adult and seeing the world and being a child and seeing the world lies in how many things you have already done. As an adult, you have gotten used to doing many things a certain way, but it is disingenuous for us to pretend that as children, every single thing was new to us and we experienced each new thing that happened consciously and with total awareness. Childhood was not idyllic or even all that interesting for a lot of people, and is not necessarily representative of an emotional state we all want to hark back to. Maybe you felt idiotic and dumb as a kid; that’s okay. Just as many things are, or can be, new to you now. 

Therefore, never think you can’t write with new eyes, or authentically from a place of surprise and wonder—even if your sense of wonder is tempered by age and experience and is no longer dripping with the dew of your own personal spring morning.

All you have to do is step off the place where you currently stand, and do something even just a little bit different. You will have a new experience, and for most readers these days, reading about how you handled that new, yet very real, experience, is fascinating. This fact will always be true: humans want to know the real, true, authentic stories about other humans, fictionalized or not, and will always find those stories interesting. You might not believe that, but the next time you’re stuck in a long line at the grocery store and you catch your eye wandering to the bright cover of People magazine, you will be another moth drawn to the flame of the human drama.

Tell it like it is (for you), as they used to say. That’s as authentic as it gets—or needs to be, for that matter.