That’s Pathetic

Have you ever given a pathetic Apologetics speech?

I hope so. Because a pathetic speech is the second kind of Apologetics that would make Aristotle proud.

Our word pathetic comes from the Greek pathos, meaning “suffering.” You can understand the connection—deep, typically negative emotion.

Today we often use the word “pathetic” to describe whiny children and the like. But the original meaning is most apparent in sentences like, “The lost puppy looked so pathetic I just had to bring him home.”

Recall from the post on ethos that Aristotle put forward three modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. This post focuses on pathos, which Aristotle described as “putting the audience into a certain frame of mind.”

Here is his full comment in Rhetoric:

Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions. Our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile. It is towards producing these effects, as we maintain, that present-day writers on rhetoric direct the whole of their efforts.

Ethos pertains to a person’s character and credibility. Thus, it primarily concerns the speaker. In contrast, pathos deals with the emotions of the hearers.

Before we go any further, I want to dispel one common myth. (In the past I even believed it myself.) It’s the myth that all show of emotion is necessarily emotional manipulation. During my years of speech and debate, I prided myself on not resorting to emotional appeals. Since I am a very analytical individual, my desire was to justify my case based on the facts.

When I graduated and began judging, I carried this presupposition along with me. I looked with disfavor on speeches or debate cases (especially debate cases) that relied on emotion.

Thankfully, my perspective has matured slightly since then. I’ve leaned to distinguish emotional manipulation from genuine pathos. See, if what you are speaking about is important, then you should be emotional! Your lack of passion would give the judges permission to ignore you.

As Aristotle points out, “Our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile.” You know those days when everything is going wrong? Well, how do you react to just about anyone on those days? You bite their head off! Even if they had wonderful news, you judged them not worthy of any niceties.

In contrast, what about sunshiney days when all is wonderful? You are surely much more welcoming. Similarly, you want your judges to feel sunshiney. You want them to be positively disposed toward you and your speech.

This is true even when your speech is profoundly sad—and I have certainly heard my share of sad speeches over the years. In those cases, the speech’s emotional effect can still be welcome. I think it may be a form of catharsis: the release of strong emotions that ends in a feeling of relief. Responding with sadness to a pitiful story is right and good.

So how can you better include pathos in your speeches? Here are a few tips.

Leave “speech mode” behind.

Many inexperienced students go into “speech mode” upon entering a competition room. Their demeanor, movement, speech patterns, and tone change. Then they finish, walk outside, and are totally different with their friends.


Speech and debate is preparation for real life. You should strive to be yourself and act naturally as much as possible.

The solution here is to practice, practice, practice. Especially limited preparation speeches like Apologetics and Impromptu. Those categories like none other force you to adroitly address a topic off-the-cuff. The true you will be revealed.

Speak on topics you care about.

As much as you can, speak on topics you care about. This is easy when you get to pick your own topic. It’s a bit harder in Apologetics, where the topic choices are limited.

But keep in mind: All of the topics are about Ultimate Reality! This is God we’re talking about.

Shouldn’t we be a teeny bit excited?

I’ve explained this in detail in my article You Have to Care, so I won’t rehash matters here. You can check out that article for more.

Speak as a whole person.

You speak with your mouth, sure. But your entire person should be involved. Consider posture (which deserves a post of its own): What does it mean when a friend leans in toward you during conversation? That he or she is interested. What if they lean back out? Well, maybe they’re relaxing—or maybe they lost interest.

Same with Apologetics speeches. Your posture communicates nonverbally. Are you really getting into your topic? The tension in your body and force of your gestures should say so.

Gestures also deserve a post of their own. Accumulate a diverse library of gestures. Practice them until they become natural, then summon them at will. Don’t be like 12-year-old Caleb, who was told many times that his hands seemed to be bouncing basketballs. (Yes, me Caleb.)


Those are a few tips to start you off. Keep on studying and practicing Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion. Speak powerfully, enjoy Apologetics, and be pathetic!