“I’m tired of the rhetoric, because nothing gets done.” A senior civil servant allows himself a candid moment over morning coffee. In one sentence he articulates why more than two-thirds of citizens are dissatisfied with the UK political system and why voter turnout and public trust in government have steadily fallen since the mid 1980s. Party leaders may evangelise about their achievements from the steps of parliament and the podiums of pressrooms, but, no matter how much budget is pledged or red tape cut, they remain unconvincing.
Political polarisation, spin doctoring and scroll-down news consumption have contributed just the right conditions for the Trumps, Salvinis and Bolsonaros of this world to invent their own truth in plain sight. No longer is it necessary to set out a logical argument. No longer is it necessary to demonstrate the strength of your character. Consulting a qualified expert before announcing public policy is no longer required. Instead, the truth is simply what they believe it to be at any given moment. Truth is a tweet or a slogan that evokes an emotional response from their base.
Though Trump has been ridiculed for displaying the eloquence of a ten-year old when measured against the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale, he is a master of pathos – one of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion. Trump uses pathos to appeal to the emotions of his audience to the point where the absence of Aristotle’s other two modes, logos (logic) and ethos (character) barely feature as talking points among his supporters. Using pathos alone as a rhetorical technique is an effective way of creating trust and empathy among audiences with specific fears and emotional needs, but it is equally as effective at isolating everyone else to whom your message represents a complete abandonment of sense.
We may all be, similarly to the aforementioned civil servant, “tired of the rhetoric”, but the irony is that we long to hear from an orator capable of leading us from post-truth to a vision of the future where compassion and common sense prevail. It’s the reason Mhairi Black’s maiden speech in the House of Commons went viral; the reason why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s first speech on the floor of the US Congress broke digital viewing records. We all want an “unbought and unbossed” Shirley Chisholm for our times.
We want our leaders to ditch rhetoric but to still give phenomenal speeches – and that’s a big ask. The words that change history are rarely off the cuff remarks. A contemporary of Churchill once said: “Winston has spent the best years of his life writing impromptu speeches.” Truly great orators take their audiences from despair to hope with what they say, but, equally, how they say it.
The lesson for those who wish to lead convincingly in business and politics is that pathos is to rhetoric what oxygen is to combustion. To leaders with a moral compass, pathos is the very means to turn a crowd from apathy to activism. Emotional appeals made in the right moment, in the right way, by the right people have the power to preserve and perpetuate democracy.
When Martin Luther King Jr’s chief of staff Wyatt Tee Walker urged Dr. King to replace his “I have a dream” refrain with “normalcy never again”, one of the greatest orators of the 20th century listened carefully. His trusted staff had heard the dream climax to his speeches in every city on their way to the Capitol and they thought the march on Washington required something new.
The next morning, looking out at some 250,000 faces gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King let his instincts guide him. He paused for a moment, considering the normalcy ending Walker had spent hours drafting the night before and instead opted for the immortal words of a dream that still moves us today.
- Laura Westring, head of communications at Amiqus and FutureX, founder of leadership communications agency Vocalcoach and former European Commission speechwriter