Logic or Emotion? Communication that motivates change

when our communication “resonates,” change happensIn a previous post, I asked you to consider whether it was logic or emotion that was the ultimate persuader for leaders, remembering Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals of logos, ethos, and pathos. Now I will begin to lay out how those appeals can be integrated with modern communication and leadership theory to persuade and influence those we lead.

Nancy Duarte is an expert in presentation design and the owner of Duarte Design, where she has served as CEO for 21 years. Her company creates presentations and trains leaders in their VisualStory methodology. This methodology applies storytelling and visual thinking to craft persuasive communications designed to shift audience beliefs and behaviors.

In her book Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, Duarte describes her research into some of the most important speeches in American history, speeches that resonated across time and space and motivated people to act. In her research she found an interesting correlation. Each of the speeches contains a common structure. Great communication, Duarte found, starts with “the way it is.” Then, it makes repeated contrasts between “the way it is” and “the way it could be.” Finally, she suggests that great communication ends with a call to action, and a promise that new, greater things are possible.

Duarte notes that his back and forth movement in rhetoric reflects what happens during a period of resonance. Resonance is a physics concept that describes a system “in which an abnormally large vibration is produced in response to an external stimulus, occurring when the frequency of the stimulus is the same, or nearly the same, as the natural vibration frequency of the system” (resonance, n.d.). To understand this, consider what happens to a crystal glass when exposed to a musical tone of the right pitch. That right pitch is its resonance frequency and the result is a shattered glass. Applying that to rhetoric, when our communication “resonates,” change happens.

How do we best create resonance? According to Duarte, we need to become a storyteller. Why? Storytelling utilizes multiple psychological and emotional triggers and creates an experience for the audience. “Creating desire in the audience and then showing how your ideas fill that desire moves people to adopt your perspective. This is the heart of a story” (Duarte, 2010, p. 27).

Why is that? Psychologists and scientists have come to understand that “the human mind, in its attempt to understand and remember, assembles the bits and pieces of experience into a story, beginning with a personal desire, a life objective, and then portraying the struggle against the forces that block that desire. Stories are how we remember; we tend to forget lists and bullet points.” (Fryer, 2003, para. 8)

Duarte’s thesis finds a commonality within the leadership writings of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. Authors of one of the longest continual research projects on leadership, their book The Leadership Challenge lays out five qualities of effective leaders. One of those five qualities is that great leaders inspire a shared vision. “Constituents want visions of the future that reflect their own aspirations. They want to hear how their dreams will come true and their hopes will be fulfilled,” the authors note in a Harvard Business Review article on the subject (Kouzes, & Posner, 2009).

Duarte as well as Kouzes and Posner seem to be saying the same thing:  show a person what could be and you can move them to action or help them believe something different. How do you do that? Neuroscience provides us with the answer: appeal to the emotions. Yet Aristotle would continue to whisper that the rhetorician also needs facts and information as well as character and credibility to effect change.

So is there a way each that of these elements can work together to create effective rhetoric? This author believes the answer is “Yes!” The answer to how will be expressed in the next post.