October 18, 2019
Balanced Storytelling Helps Nonprofits Get Others to Change

By Shaun Adamec

Shaun Adamec
Mission-driven organizations need to tell their story, often as part of a larger effort to get people to change behavior, which is why they should employ a balanced approach that appeals to their audiences' character, emotions, and reason.

This approach dates back to Aristotle and ever since has been practiced by some of history’s most gifted orators. Aristotle’s “ingredients for persuasion” offers an essential outline for any organization whose mission involves convincing people to change their behavior – whether that means donating to a cause, becoming more aware of an issue, or changing the way we interact with the planet.

Ethos is an appeal to your audience’s character, or their ethics:

It establishes your credibility with the audience. Why is your organization positioned to be an authority on your issue, and why should the audience trust your public messaging versus those who may have another perspective?

  • “As a cancer survivor, I can attest...”
  • “We employ dozens of our volunteers right here in our offices.”
  • “Ninety five percent of teachers that worked with us expressed a desire to have us back.”
Pathos is the appeal to an audience’s emotion:

It is the tug at the heartstrings that mission-driven organizations are often very good at. This appeal can take a variety of forms depending on your issue and your audience. You may want your audience to be angry about an issue, or feel empathy towards a certain audience. You may want them to laugh, or cry.

  • “Find your inner champion, and support these youth teams today.”
  • “Imagine a child hungry, alone, afraid. Now imagine it’s your child.”
  • “In the richest nation on earth, it is criminal that anyone should go without their basic needs being met.”
Logos is an appeal to reason:

Embodied in logos are your facts, statistics, and logical arguments for your cause. You’ll see this commonly in “Facts vs. Myths” publications, or in academic papers.

  • “Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women.”
  • “More than 20,000 low-income families came through our doors this year.”
  • “Your $1,000 can help provide three kids with the after school program they need.”
Mission-driven organizations commonly make the mistake of speaking publicly on only one of these three levels. When presenting a mission to your strategic audiences, use these definitions to ensure that you’re using all three. This balance characterizes a well-formed argument.

For example, if your organization relies heavily on pathos, without also establishing credibility with your audience and offering a well-reasoned argument for your point of view, you risk the audience walking away feeling manipulated or exploited emotionally. You also leave those common questions that are inherent to any audience unanswered: Who are these people and why do they matter? Why is this perspective better than others? Why should I trust this messaging?

If you find your public messaging relying too heavily on logos, you may be turning off your audience with condescension, and ignoring perhaps the most valuable and valid tool you have when it comes to persuasive messaging: emotion. While it is undoubtedly true that you can cite dozens of statistics to make the case for your issue, it’s also true that there is an emotional element to that argument that is just as valid. Yes, you heard me right. The emotional argument is just as valid as the logical, rational one. As communicators, and as humans, we cannot and should not ignore that reality.

Your public communication may rely too heavily on ethos if your materials, public messaging, or speeches spend an inordinate amount of time outlining your organizational history, or the biography of your founder. There is a place for this kind of messaging, but never in the absence of the real and emotional arguments that make the case for your point of view.

Balancing ethos, pathos and logos is an art as much as it is a science. As you develop your public communications, be sure to keep this delicate balance in mind.

Shaun Adamec, founder and president of Adamec Communications, which helps organizations of all sizes develop communications strategy, refine public messaging, and protect their reputation. Email him at shaun@AdamecCommunications.com or call 617-888-2213.
November 2014

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