Friday, April 25, 2014

Not THAT Many Violins! When Pathos Goes Awry

In my last post, I talked about appealing to emotion in your nonprofit communications. I briefly mentioned that while emotion is necessary, it is also dangerous. 

While tugging at heart strings is all well and good, too much of a yank can actually work against you. So today I'm writing about the dangers within pathos.

Objects in Our Materials May Appear Larger Than They Actually Are

A heart-warming story doesn’t have to be grand in scale. It could just be a really nice thing you were able to do for your clients. Things that are sad don’t have to be made tragic. Things that are great don’t have to be made the greatest. Don’t downplay the impact of your actions, but don’t inflate them either. It gives the readers the sense that you’re manipulating their emotions, and makes you appear untrustworthy.

I Wouldn't Refer to Myself as "Devastated" Would You?

A good general rule is always assume your clients will read everything you write about them. People who have no problem talking about how your organization changed their lives may not take too kindly to being referred to in ways that make them seem pitiful or pathetic. They are not a prop in your story--it’s a story the organization and the client share. The easiest way to avoid offending clients is by letting them tell the story themselves. ‘“I felt like there was no hope,” said Amy’ packs a punch, while "Amy was absolutely hopeless" may feel like a punch in the gut to Amy herself.

All of the Feels, None of the Facts

You can't leave out facts and authority--people need more than emotional reasons to get involved with your organization or make a gift. People can have an emotional response to a communications piece without taking any action. They feel the feelings, and move on. Without concrete reasons to give, volunteer, or do something, feelings are just feelings.

Even if a one-time hit in the emotions does result in one time action, if you're looking to build a relationship you're also going to have to prove you're trustworthy, responsible, effective and strategic. 

 Have you ever felt your heart strings got pulled on too hard? How did you respond?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Graham Crackers and Feelings: The Appeal to Pathos

What do graham crackers have to do with love? Maybe not much, all by themselves. But Honeymaid, a company that makes this favorite snack of kindergartners across the nation, recently pulled off a darn fine appeal to emotion. (It’s also a powerful use of visuals, but more on that another time).

If you haven’t had a chance to see the video yet, here’s the scoop: Honeymaid made a commerical which featured all kinds of families. The campaign, “This is Wholesome” made a lot of people happy, and some other people very angry, because it included same-sex couples, among other families. Reactions were strong. Honeymaid received a lot of comments, but transformed them into a broader expression of love that certainly transcends graham crackers.

The commercial works because it tells a real story with an emotional component, features a change, and has a positive, hopeful outlook.

Commercial advertisers are not the only folks dealing in emotions.Emotions are a powerful part of explaining what a nonprofit does. Making people think is good, but making people feel is what makes them really start to care about your work.

In rhetorical terms, convincing someone to do things based on their feelings is known as the appeal to pathos. When you do it right, it’s highly effective--your audience feels good about your organization, and concerned by the problems you’re addressing.  

Emotional storytelling can:
  • make people care about what you do
  • demonstrate the “real-life” impact of your work
  • make you memorable

Find the Story
Honeymaid has a clear story--they made a commercial, people responded, lots of people hated it, but even more loved it. We could sum up the story they’re telling with: love is greater than hate. 
Human beings love stories. We can’t help it. We’ve been telling stories pretty much since the dawn of time, and each time we create a new medium for communication we use it to tell stories. 

A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should have a central character the audience can identify with. Something needs to happen in a story--usually a change. 

Find the Feelings
It’s a lot easier to tell a story with emotion if the story has some emotional element. Luckily, most human stories do. Clues for identifying a story with emotional punch include:
  • Was an injustice righted?
    Thanks to our housing counselors, Anna and her children were able to stay in their home.
  • Was there a change because of a specific action?
    Before he joined our after-school program, Tim spent his afternoons throwing rocks through windows. Now he paints murals and builds mosaics all over the neighborhood. “I like making stuff more than breaking stuff,” says Tim.
  • Was there an emotional change because of a specific action?
    "Before I saw a legal aide, I felt powerless and trapped. Now, I feel like I’m the person in control of my life.”
  • Did something extraordinary happen?
    Honeymaid received 10x more positive responses to their commercial than negative responses. And they also had some artists make a giant paper sculpture out of them, which isn't an everyday thing.
  • Is something super adorable?
    Pictures from our annual Puppy and Toddler dance contest now on our website!
Find the Hope.
Honeymaid encountered intense negative feelings, but the story they’re telling is about love. They changed the story into a positive one.

Nonprofits solve problems. Whether you provide services for the underserved, improve your community with art or help the environment, a nonprofit exists to do something.  Something that wouldn’t get done without the organization. That means that building the case to support your organization often means writing about things that are actually really sad. Poverty. Neglect. Great big problems in society. Dead kittens. Things can get kind of bleak.

It doesn’t help to tell a heart-wrenching story if all it does is wrench hearts. You must provide some hope to the reader--how are you fixing the problem? How can they help? How did your services change the life of the subject of the story?

With Great Power... 
Of course, you can go too far with emotional storytelling. If you leave out our good friends logos and ethos, your communication can fall apart. But that's for another day.

Which emotional appeals work for you? Seen any good uses of the appeal to pathos executed by nonprofits lately?