As much as we all like to pretend that we're rational thinkers, emotion governs alot of what people do. That's why harnessing it can be so potent in marketing, and one major way to do that is through storytelling.
Storytellers have been discussing how best to emotionally connect with their audiences for centuries, and we examined how their theories apply in brand storytelling with Gastón Tourn, CMO of Curio.
Ready to find out the power of pathos, how to leverage logos, concluding with catharsis, and more? Read on for all this and more.
Originally an episode of CMO Convo, you can read our full discussion below.
- Pathos: The emotional side of storytelling
- Logos: The pragmatic side of storytelling
- Ethos: Building trust through your stories
- Catharsis: The emotional release
- Where to learn storytelling from the masters
Pathos: The emotional side of storytelling
Hi Gastón. It's the series climax, and we’re going to be talking about climaxes as part of our discussion about catharsis – as well as talking about the building blocks of how storytellers connect with audiences emotionally: pathos, ethos, logos, and catharsis.
These persuasive techniques – all from Aristotle – have been used for well over 2000 years, so we should be paying attention to them when it comes to storytelling and marketing.
Yes, completely. Today’s topic is especially interesting because it’s all about emotions, and how important emotion is in storytelling. In any kind of discourse – not just advertising – you need to pay attention to the emotional side of your argument.
Even back in elementary school, you probably noticed that the kids who got the best grades weren’t necessarily the ones that studied the most, but the ones who were most persuasive in their speech. You could see this as proof that grades aren’t necessarily a reflection of how much people know, but actually, it’s a reflection of how we work as human beings.
It's not always the content that we pay attention to; it’s the way that it’s delivered and the emotions that are conveyed through any message. The emotional side of storytelling is incredibly important because as human beings, we communicate not just through rational arguments, but also through the emotions that are expressed around those arguments.
Particularly in western culture, emotional advertising, and being open with your emotions in general, has become more popular. It's the way society is moving. We're a lot more open with our emotions, so we expect to be emotionally engaged with our blog content and our advertising as well.
But let's rewind a bit and start at the top with some of these terms. Pathos is a very famous term when it comes to literature, but how would you define pathos in storytelling, Gastón?
The original meaning of pathos was about evoking some level of pity or sadness. In fact, it’s where we get the word pathetic from. Pathos has since evolved as a concept and nowadays it just means emotions or feelings in general. It's related to the more qualitative or subjective side of an argument. It's where you connect to it as a human being and the kind of emotional impact that a message has on you.
As you said, most markets now prioritize emotional advertising over the more rational, functional advertising that was prevalent before. However, as Aristotle described in Poetics, any communication needs to strike a balance between a clear rational logical argument and an emotional component – logos and pathos. Marketing nowadays can almost overbalance on the emotional side, but it's important not to forget about the logical part.
For me, storytelling doesn’t just mean emotions. Storytelling means persuasion, but in order to be persuasive, you need to have a solid argument – logos – and that starts with making sure that your argument doesn't have any holes in it. In other words, if you're promising something, your product needs to deliver it.
Those are the fundamentals of storytelling in advertising. Let's not forget about them because if not, you end up looking pathetic. That’s what pathos does if you don't have logos next to it.
We’ve seen some terrible examples of this – Theranos is a recent one. They did an incredible job when it comes to emotional storytelling. This idea of saving the world one drop of blood at a time really resonated emotionally. However, from a logical point of view, the product didn’t deliver, so of course it was going to fail.
The emotional and the rational need to go in parallel, and both are important elements of persuasion. In the end, people aren’t purely emotional or purely rational, and actually, most emotions are also quite rational – like the fact that when you see something that makes sense, that makes you feel trust in that brand. So yes, I would say use emotion, but don't overuse it because pathos without logos is going to make your brand feel pathetic.
That’s when you get bathos. Bathos is when pathos goes too far and it becomes ridiculous. It makes people switch off. Emotion has to be presented in a way that's relatable. People have to understand why that emotion is being shown on screen at that time, and why the story has certain emotional beats.
It has to come from a place of reality. If people are randomly bursting out laughing, it’s kind of creepy. On the opposite end of the scale, if someone stubs their toe and starts tearing out their hair and wailing at the sky, it looks ridiculous. It’s a fine line to walk, especially when you're trying to reach a large audience and have as many people as possible empathizing with the stories you're telling.
Logos: The pragmatic side of storytelling
Let's talk about logos. You see it as the rational side of the argument, Gastón. Do you want to expand on that?
When we say that something is logical, that term comes from logos, which is related to reason and the way that we process ideas or arguments.
For Greek philosophers, there were two main types of rational arguments: one was inductive; the other one was deductive. I'm not going to go into the details of that, but most of our rational thinking follows those kinds of patterns. You either induce a general conclusion based on specific observations, or you deduce a specific conclusion from some broader premises.
There are some logical ways of thinking that we don't always follow because of cognitive bias and our love of shortcuts, but usually logical arguments make you feel more inclined to trust or believe in a message. That’s why it’s important that whenever you’re trying to persuade, you follow some of those logical steps.
In advertising, the most common use case of logos is ensuring that you can deliver on your promises. Whenever it comes to brand identities and brand work, the first thing I do as a CMO is check the reasons to believe in this brand promise. If there’s too big a gap between what you promise and what you actually deliver, at some point, reality is going to catch up and you’re going to lose your customer’s trust.
You don't want to be the next Theranos. You don't want to be the next FTX. All those cases are related to brands that didn't look into the rational foundation of what they were promising.
For sure. We talked about this concept in a bit more detail in a previous conversation. If your messaging and positioning don't match the results you're producing for your customers, you’re gonna look ridiculous and it's gonna blow up in your face.
But logos doesn't have to be spelled out explicitly, does it? It can be almost a subliminal message behind your story. A good example of this is Mark Antony's “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech in Julius Caesar. At no point does he say, “Let's go f*** up Brutus.” He's keeping it all under the radar. In fact, he's praising Brutus and the conspirators.
There are loads of examples of this in advertising too. The very basis of advertising is having messages underneath the stories. That’s how we've done it for hundreds of years now.
Completely. One of the most important lessons I took away from Aristotle’s Poetics is that in order to be persuasive, you need to have a clear argument, but you should never ever explain your premises. Just give the conclusion.
When you just share the conclusion of your argument, rather than sharing all the premises, the person on the other side tries to understand what premises led to that conclusion, and when they figure it out, they feel smart. On the other hand, if you’re like, “This is premise A, this is premise B, and this is why I'm concluding X,” it becomes boring. You sound a bit like that school teacher we all remember who taught the most mind-numbing classes.
You should have a logical argument behind your advertising, but don't use it in your communications straight away. You should only show the tip of the iceberg, and that tip of the iceberg is the conclusion.
Spotify did this brilliantly in a Valentine's Day ad. It said, “Dear person who played ‘Sorry’ 42 times on Valentine's Day, what did you do?" That ad is the conclusion of a few premises. First of all, they checked what people were listening to on Valentine's Day. Secondly, listening to ‘Sorry’ means you probably did something wrong. But they're not explaining all those premises; they go straight to the conclusion. When you see the ad, you connect the dots and you feel smart.
Ethos: Building trust through your stories
So we've got pathos; we've got logos; let's talk about ethos and how that fits in. Ethos is about building trust, and that’s one of the fundamental principles of marketing, but how do you see it applied in rhetoric and persuasion, Gastón?
Ethos is kind of like ethics but in action. It’s not just your beliefs; it's your attitude and how you act based on your moral beliefs. That’s very important because it’s how you build trust.
We’ve discussed a few ways to do this. I think the first one is making sure that you don't overpromise. We all know that if you overpromise and underdeliver in your professional life, your career is not gonna go too far. It's the same with your brand. Why would you overpromise and underdeliver? It's not a great strategy. It’s not going to build your ethos and it's not going to build trust in you.
Still, overpromising and underdelivering happens a lot in marketing, which gives our industry a bad name. If you step outside of marketing circles and say, “That sounds like marketing,” that’s not usually positive. It means you're overpromising or, worse, you're lying. We're responsible for that. We are building our industry’s reputation.
I think it's important that we understand that there are no gains – not even short-term gains – in overpromising. Again, it's like in your professional career: it takes a long time to build a reputation, but just a moment to completely destroy it. You don't want to do the same with your brand.
Ethos is all about making sure that your brand personality has clear moral values and, most importantly, making sure that set of values is communicated through your habits, attitude, and behavior. It's not just about words; it's about what you do.
A lot of brands get this wrong. You see it all the time during Black History Month and Pride Month. There are a lot of brands doing performative support during those moments, but it's not going to get them very far. People spot it very quickly when that support is purely performative and there’s no real commitment to standing for those values.
Another fairly recent example of that in action came up with the controversy around the Qatar World Cup. A lot of brands that do Pride Month and purport to uphold inclusive values went and sponsored an event in Qatar, where you can be stoned to death for being a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Especially now, in the age of social media, it's very easy for people to find out what your company gets up to outside of what you present to them. That means as a CMO, you have to keep an eye on everything that's going on behind the scenes, even in departments that you don't have control over. It’s the only way to make sure you're being consistent with your messaging and the values you're putting out there.
Exactly. In the UK and the US and the markets we operate in, we see a lot of brands supporting the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month. However, when it comes to actually supporting trans rights – which are not great in the UK or the US – you don't see those brands standing up for that community, which is equally as important as the others.
I think a lot of these brands make decisions based on financial opportunity, and consumers are going to pick up that very quickly. If, for example, you support the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month, make sure that you do your due diligence. Especially if you're a big brand, you need to check that your company isn’t doing anything like donating money to politicians who oppose LGBTQ+ rights.
I appreciate that in big companies it's tricky because there are so many departments that you might not have full visibility, but don't go out there with a message unless you feel that it is authentic and you can stand for it. First of all, it's a question of being ethical, and second, it’s a question of being commercially prudent and maintaining your audience’s trust.
It can take so much to rebuild that trust. You only have to look at how much Facebook’s audience has declined since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. I think that's what tipped things out of balance for Facebook as a company. At the end of the day, they had to rename the company to Meta to try and get rid of the stink.
Or, coming back to the LGBTQ+ community, there’s Disney. They have always apparently stood up for the LGBTQ+ community, but when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights in Florida, it took them a while to make a clear statement. Of course, everybody noticed that, and I think that not just the LGBTQ+ community, but everyone who probably stands for liberal values should be concerned about those kinds of behaviors.
For sure. It's tough to see that from a beloved brand that you have an emotional connection with. Disney is one of those brands. You grow up with them, then you realize that it's not all magic and sparkles, and it's hard to get that magic back ever again. That emotional connection with the brand has been tarnished by poor behavior.
Catharsis: The emotional release
Let’s move on to the climax: catharsis. Aristotle described it as a form of cleansing at the end of a narrative. What do you think he meant by that, Gastón?
When it comes to creative expression – and marketing is a creative expression – there's always a buildup of emotions. As human beings, when we interact with a story, we build up emotions. At some point, we need to release those emotions because if we don't, it becomes almost painful. Imagine you watch a film and there's no ending to it – it's hard to absorb that story. Even a sad ending is better than no ending. Without a conclusion, people get frustrated.
The Dada school of theater in the early 20th century used to deliberately annoy people in that way. They would put on theatrical plays without catharsis. There would be this buildup of emotions, and then, out of nowhere, the play finished. Their aim was to make explicit how much we depend on these artificial devices to connect with a story, and people used to get so upset with those plays that they would throw stuff.
Catharsis is important because in most brand communications you're using emotions to connect with your audience. You need to know how to relieve that; otherwise, it can become too intense. People can go through sadness and happiness, but at some point, they need that moment of relief to go back to their everyday lives.
It can be any kind of emotion too – the audience doesn’t need to have tears welling up in their eyes to be ready for an emotional release. A joke needs to bring catharsis as well. If you don't have a punch line at the end of the joke, the audience’s expectations have been built up, and you send them back the other way. Rather than being ready for a laugh, they're annoyed.
That lack of resolution, that anticlimax, can be very damaging to people's connection with the story. No one watches a movie that has a bad ending twice. Endings are how you create an emotional connection with a film. When you're walking out of the theater, you talk about how amazing the ending was. It’s why filmmakers load in all those heavy emotions.
Storytellers have been doing it this way for thousands of years, and it makes sense for us to look at brand storytelling in the same way. You need that emotional release. You need that resolution. You need an end to the story.
Completely. Yes. And sometimes you can decide to break some rules. In fact, I think it's important in any good storytelling to consider how to break some rules. Just make sure you're doing it consciously.
Absolutely. Think about Picasso, for example. He learned to be an amazing painter, then he learned how to not be an amazing painter so he could break conventions and approach art in a different way. It's the same with storytelling. You can't defy conventions if you don't understand what those conventions are.
Completely. Great creativity always tries to break some rules, but don't break all of them at once because that’s going to make it very hard for people to understand what you're doing. There are expectations out there, and you need to be aware of them as a storyteller. Breaking some of those expectations is going to create some level of intrigue, but make sure that you have a clear reason for it.
Where to learn storytelling from the masters
Well Gastón, we're reaching the end of chapter four. To wrap things up, do you have any recommendations for books that people should take a look at to improve their storytelling?
I love Into The Woods by John Yorke. He was the screenwriter of Life on Mars, which was a very popular TV series in the UK. It’s written for screenwriters, not marketers, but it has the most useful advice that I have ever read on storytelling.
The rest of my reading list would be fiction. Go and read a lot of amazing fiction – it's the best way to understand how stories work. Of course, as a Latin American, I would especially recommend a lot of magical realism.
I love One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. It’s such an amazing story, and it uses a lot of the techniques that we’ve discussed today. The balance between logos and pathos is so well done – not just in One Hundred Years of Solitude but in magical realism in general.
It goes into some really weird, almost magical places, but at the same time, it's believable. The way that the writer immerses you into that world, the suspension of disbelief is so good that you never question what's going on in the story.
Another novel that I really recommend reading is Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar. It’s actually defined as the anti-novel. I'm from Argentina, and Cortázar is my favorite Argentinian writer. Everyone knows Borges, but Cortázar is, in my opinion, the best Argentinian writer, and that particular novel is amazing.
It's a novel that plays with the rules of what a novel should be like. You can read it in multiple ways. You can flick between chapters. You can start from the end and then go back to the beginning. The convention of sequential reading is not followed in Hopscotch. It’s such a beautiful book. He breaks some rules, but also he uses some rules in a very smart way to make it a really enjoyable read.
Gastón, it has been an absolute pleasure doing this series with you. We're all storytellers in marketing, but there are always ways to improve, so thank you very much for taking the time to share your storytelling knowledge.
Thank you so much for having me.
This is the final chapter of Story Masters with Gastón Tourn. Check out the previous chapters where you can uncover:
Looking for other ways to enhance your storytelling abilities? Our Storytelling Certified: Masters course is the perfect place to start.
Got stories on being a marketing leader to share? Join a global network of CMOs on the CMO Alliance Community Slack channel.