Using Personal Examples

Effective Uses of Personal Examples

The following video addresses the most effective ways to use personal examples in a persuasive essay, and shows what this looks like in action.

Note: the video discusses a particular persuasive essay situation, the Advanced Placement timed essay. The same advice also applies more broadly to other persuasive writing tasks, however.

Click here to download the transcript for this video

Personal Examples as Pathos

Though personal examples in persuasive writing can serve multiple purposes, they most often (and most powerfully) tend to underscore emotional appeals to readers. Emotional arguments are known by the term pathos, and serve as a way to help convince readers to agree with your thesis.

A good synonym for pathos is “presence,” by which we mean the extent to which a writer tries to create a feeling of actual, physical proximity. It’s very difficult to make writing like speech: one of the clear differences is that, in speech, the one making the argument and the audience are in the same space, whether actual or virtual. Writing takes away that necessity of shared space, which has clear advantages but also some distinct drawbacks: a writer just doesn’t have the same resources available. So, writers interested in pathos have to get inventive to make audiences/readers feel like they’re really encountering an appeal.

Several time-honored strategies can enhance your pathos appeal in many arguments:

  • Use vivid, concrete language and details. It might be a good idea to look at one or two of the style-related chapters for a start here: clear grammatical
    subjects and action-oriented verbs are extremely useful. So are parallel sentence elements. The advice, “show—don’t tell” may be something you’ve heard before, but it’s definitely valuable, so try not to let claims go by without clear, relatable examples when you’re emphasizing pathos.
  • Tell stories. It seems like every election cycle—especially the four-year presidential ones—at least one candidate will tell a story about Person X, a working-class resident of a small Midwestern town who’s trying to raise a family on a small salary and who doesn’t have good health insurance. It’s a strategy that repeats itself because it can be effective: it encourages audience members to identify with someone “like them,” and it does so in a way that uses one of the most basic human rhetorical strategies: narrative. But note that it can be effective: it isn’t always. If, for example, a politician uses the same story over and over again, it can clearly lose its effect. If the story seems too conveniently matched to an argument, it can seem self serving and overly manipulated. If it’s too dramatic or graphic, it can put some listeners or readers off. So, be careful here: try out your story on a variety of potential readers.
  • Remember connotations, not just denotations. Connotation refers to informal but still powerful definitions of a word, term, or phrase. It doesn’t matter what the denotation or “dictionary” meaning might be if an audience has a particular reaction to your word choice. For example, the Utah governor’s plan to sue the national government to reclaim federally owned land in the state may be a “sound economic decision” to some people but a “fatally flawed land grab” to others. Depending on the audience, one phrase might be very welcome, but the other might be fighting words.
  • Consider images and other visually diverse material. Photographs, charts, graphs, and other visual elements can condense a lot of what would otherwise be writing into a compact space with dramatic effects. While you may not have too much latitude to use images in traditional academic writing, the conventions are changing, so it’s worth talking about with your instructors/professors. To be sure, in other kinds of writing for broader/more popular and even professional audiences, images can be extremely important.
  • THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!! It’s amazing how many pathos appeals involve children. And, for that matter, the elderly. We would definitely never claim that there are a lot of “universal” appeals that work across political persuasions, ages, genders, and cultures, but these seem to be at the top of that very short list. This isn’t to tell you to rope in children whenever, because it may feel forced, depending on the context. But, at the very least, be alert as you notice pathos appeals in the rhetoric around you to the prevalence of sensitive or vulnerable populations.