Pathos: The Missing Emotion in Theresa May’s Speeches

by | 9 June 2017 | Communication, Emotional Engagement, Leadership, Public Speaking

I got my prediction for last night’s election result badly wrong. My wife and I played a game where we guessed the size of the Conservative majority and my guess was in 3 figures. See what I know.

That said, it does not take hindsight to say the Conservative campaign was poor. Theresa May started as the party’s biggest asset. By the end, she was struggling.

Something missing in Theresa May’s speeches

Looking back at her speeches, today and throughout the campaign, there is a sense that something was missing. People have focused on her “cracking” voice in her acceptance speech in her constituency. Her voice wobbles during her interview with Andrew Neill were clear. But I think the problem was more fundamental.

When talking about persuasion or rhetoric it is not long before you get back to Aristotle. He set out LogosPathos and Ethos as three modes of persuasion. We often encourage clients to use a balance of these three based on the needs of the people you are trying to persuade.

What Aristotle can teach us about persuasion

To keep things simple, let’s think of LogosPathos and Ethos as being Logic, Emotion and Credibility. Looking through Theresa May’s speeches she champions Credibility at every opportunity: strong and stable leadership, safety, security and certainty are her favourite terms.

Logic is light. She tends not to spend a lot of time giving out reasoned arguments but at least it gets some air time.

Emotion is the area that is pretty much completely missing. At no point during her acceptance speech or on the steps of Downing Street does Theresa May acknowledge the disappointment of the night’s results. Whatever your political preferences it is clear it was an awful outcome compared to expectations for her and for her party. By not even mentioning her feelings about this, the speech can seem remote or out of touch.

Sometimes you really do need to show some emotion

Looking back through the campaign, Pathos or emotion was consistently missing. I am not suggesting this is the reason for the result last night. It could be one factor behind the Prime Minister’s falling approval ratings. It is hard to warm to someone who shows no emotion. What I am suggesting is that when people know you must be hurting, failure to acknowledge any emotion makes a speech sound false. This could be what destroys the credibility that has been the basis of so much of her campaign.


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