Over the last 20 years, a growing body of scientific research suggests that people remember more if their emotions are engaged. Studies by William Cushman (2007) and Bradley et all (1992), for example, remind us that if we want people to remember what we are saying we need to tap into their emotional bank.
Here are eight ways to trigger emotional responses from your audience:
- Know your audience – Not everyone responds to certain emotional triggers with the same force. For example, if you are addressing a group of parents or grandparents, and you are speaking of the vulnerability of children and threats to them, you will elicit a stronger emotional response than if you speak to a group of teens who have yet to know the ingrained response of people protecting the life of their offspring. Analyze your audience in advance and figure out which emotions will trigger their responses.
- Build on emotional themes – Just as there are evergreen topics, those subjects that are perpetually interesting to the human condition, there are evergreen emotional themes. Conquering adversity, overcoming personal fears, protecting the innocence of children, fighting for freedom of the human spirit, experiencing outstanding heroism and spreading a sense of belonging are emotional themes which, when executed skillfully, cannot fail to strike a chord with an audience.
- Select emotive words – The English language has a wide selection of words that mean essentially the same thing but some evoke stronger emotions than others. In your presentation spend at least as long studying your word connotations as you do in composing your message. When governments wish to pass bills to spend millions on war budgets, for example, there is a reason they use the word “terrorists” and talk about sending troops abroad to “combat zones” to prevent “fighting a war on home soil.” Terrorists denote people spreading terror, not fighting wars. Zones indicate areas with borders around them, contained places, whereas home soil means right in our back yards. That conjures up a much more frightening emotional response. “Authentically produced” sounds more trustworthy than “factory-made.” “Day care” is more reassuring than “baby ” Make your words work towards achieving the maximum emotional response.
- Tell stories – No matter how complex your subject matter is, you can connect it emotionally to your audience if you present it in story form. We all remember Aesop’s Fables about the tortoise and the hair and the fox and the grapes, but most of us can’t recite a line from our Grade 12 world history text. That’s because we remember things when we can connect to them emotionally, not because they are significant in the grand scheme of things. We all know what it is like to be the slow person going up against the fast person, or the bitterness of having what we want eluding us. These are human emotional themes that never grow old. Make sure that the story you tell mirrors that.
- Use figures of speech – Create similes and metaphors and analogies to put everything you say into the context of what your audience will understand emotionally. If you talk about walking alone through Times Square without a penny in your pocket and hunger pains in your belly, and then you smell cinnamon wafting out of a bakery window and it takes you back to your mother’s apple pie, people will get the picture emotionally. If you say you were hungry in New York, they will understand you, but not really connect with you. When a politician is describing a new development they hope to have built in a community and they want people to be excited about it, instead of describing it in acres or hectares, they will talk it as being “the size of 10 football fields.” They know people can then form a mental picture and be surprised by the vastness of the project. Surprise is a great emotion to stir; it keeps people interested.
- Incorporate great visuals – Pictures, especially those that depict emotion (think stalwart firefighter carrying little puppy out of a burning building, or doe-eyed children staring from behind the barbed wire of a refugee camp) touch our hearts and haunt our emotions in ways deeper than words. Set aside some of the bar graphs and pie-charts and instead incorporate great photography into your presentation.
- Inject emotion into your voice – Your voice is an instrument to stir emotions all on its own. Its pitch, strength and timing beat out a message that depicts excitement or sadness and despair. A well-timed break in your tone can bring tears to people’s eyes. Practice ways to use your voice to reflect the story you are telling.
- Match your body language to the emotional mood – When you hold your body still and lower your head, you indicate sadness. When you stand straight and tall, you indicate pride and resolution. When you slouch at a podium, you indicate disinterest in what you are doing. Audiences are able to pick up these cues and respond to them emotionally. When you are sad, the empathetic people will immediately begin to feel sad with you. When you are resolute, you can count on an emotional response of inspiration and shared pride. When you are disinterested, you can count on an emotional response of boredom. Your body language and your delivery techniques are of paramount importance in your efforts to connect emotionally with your audience.