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Tapping Emotions

Like it or not, we are emotional beings. Logic is necessary, but rarely sufficient when presenting. We must appeal to “the right brains” as well. The need to appeal to people’s emotions is fundamental, yet often neglected. Here’s what the authors of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots (Free Press, 2005) say:

In business, our natural instincts are always left-brained. We create tight arguments and knock the audience into submission with facts, figures, historical graphs, and logic.... The bad news is that the barrage of facts often works against you. My facts against your experiences, emotions, and perceptual filters. Not a fair fight—facts will lose every time.

Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky

As presenters, we truly have a difficult job in trying to convince people to change their thinking or take new action. People tend to over-interpret their own personal and vivid experiences, and may ignore or remain very skeptical of new information—no matter how scientific or objective—that is contrary to their current beliefs.

Professor Richard Brislin from the University of Hawaii touches on a very similar phenomenon in his book Understanding Culture’s Influence on Behavior (Wadsworth Publishing, 1999). Dr. Brislin discusses why people make dubious conclusions in spite of evidence to the contrary. For example, let’s say you read many reports in respectable periodicals that conclude Seattle is a very good place for young graphic designers to find high-paying jobs. Complete with this evidence, you begin sending off your resume, contacting companies, and looking into housing in the Seattle area. Later, when you tell a friend, Lisa, about your desire to relocate to Seattle, she becomes practically apoplectic. “What?” she says. “My brother has a design degree from Berkeley and has been up in Seattle for over a year without finding a full-time design gig!” Lisa tells her brother’s horror story of Seattle. So now you have the word of one friend versus loads of factual, detailed, documented information that runs contrary to your friend’s opinion. Who do you believe? Citing early work on social cognition, Brislin suggests that it is highly likely you will be more persuaded by your friend’s testimony, which was personal and more colorful, emotional, and vivid compared to the reading of labor reports in periodicals. And the fact that Lisa is “telling her story” about her brother makes her information more memorable.

We really have our work cut out for us. Our audiences bring their own emotions, experiences, biases, and perceptual filters that are no match for data and facts alone. We must be careful not to make the mistake of thinking that data can speak for itself, no matter how convincing, obvious, or solid it may seem to us. We may indeed have the best product or solid research, but if we plan a dull, dispassionate, “death by PowerPoint” snooze-fest, we will lose. The best presenters target both the logical left and the emotional right brains—that is, “the whole mind.”

Emotions and memory

If you can arouse the emotions of your audience with a relevant story, image, or piece of data that is unexpected or surprising—or sad or touching and so on—your material will be better remembered. When a member of your audience experiences an emotionally charged event in your presentation, the amygdala in the limbic system of the brain releases dopamine into that person’s system. And dopamine, says, Dr. John Medina, “greatly helps with memory and information processing.”

You can see the appeal to emotion in TV advertisements. A fantastic example of a 60-second spot that makes an impact and gets its message across by tapping into many different emotions is the award-winning Apple commercial called “1984.” Regarded by many as the best and most memorable TV ad of all time, it ran during Super Bowl XVIII and introduced the Macintosh for the first time. Rather than trying to persuade the viewers with a logical argument that explains the benefits of the new type of computer, the commercial features an athletic heroine running to save the world from the scourge of conformity, which is represented by an Orwellian Big Brother talking head projected on a large screen in front of row after row of lifeless conforming subjects. While security guards close in on her, she is able to throw a sledgehammer over the heads of the seated conformists. The sledgehammer crashes into the screen, causing it to explode. The setting is industrial with dark blue and gray colors that contrast with the heroine’s bright red running shorts and clean, white tank top featuring a subtle graphic of the Macintosh computer. The 60-second commercial exhibits solid conflict and contrasts and is filled with emotions ranging from sex appeal to threat to fear and surprise.

While your situation is not the same as making a 60-second advertisement, there is something to learn here. Ask yourself, for example, what it is that you’re really selling. It is not the features or the thing itself. It’s the experience of the thing and all the emotions related to it that you are really selling. Use stories and examples that are vivid and bring people’s emotions into your narrative.

The power of emotional contagion

During a business trip to Denmark a couple of years ago, my friends and I spent a few hours in Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. This famous amusement park, built in 1843, apparently inspired Walt Disney when he was dreaming up his own famous amusement park. While in Tivoli Gardens, I received a strong reminder of something we all know but too often forget: that emotions are contagious and our emotional displays can and do influence those around us, often in ways we’re not even aware of. We spent several minutes in an area of the park under and next to white-knuckle rides complete with screams and shrills—mostly of joy and excitement, but mixed with a touch of, perhaps, terror. Everyone on the ground was having a great time just watching the fun the other people were having on the attractions.

It was a surprisingly enjoyable atmosphere; I could have spent much more time just sitting and watching the smiles, laughter, and displays of exhilaration of complete strangers. A grandmother sitting next to me got a real kick out of watching her teenage granddaughter and listening to her scream with excitement every time the ride whizzed by our heads. The grandmother was absolutely delighted. So was I. The remarkable thing was, even though I was not actually experiencing the excitement these strangers were having on the scary rides, I was feeling completely amused and happy by the displays of excitement and joy all around. The giddy emotion was utterly infectious and everyone in the crowd felt it. What we were experiencing that sunny afternoon in Copenhagen was a form of emotional contagion, which is the tendency to feel the emotions others are feeling and even mimic their facial expressions and moods.

Mirror neurons

In the last decade, based on earlier work at the University of Parma, Italy, researchers have gained good insights into something called mirror neurons. A mirror neuron is a neuron in the brain that fires both when you do something and when you simply see someone else doing the same behavior—even though you have not moved. It’s almost as if you, the observer, are actually engaging in the same behavior as the person you are watching. Perhaps this is why watching sports is so captivating and compelling for most people. In a sense, we feel what the athletes are feeling. Watching something and doing something are not the same, of course, but as far as our brains are concerned, they’re pretty darn close. We learn from watching others; we even learn bad habits from watching others. Mirror neurons fire when we see a behavior and also when we perform that behavior. So before we imitate a new behavior, our mirror neurons have already re-created that behavior in our brain.

Our brains are good at imitating actions, but just as importantly, they are really good at feeling what others are feeling. Mirror neurons may be involved in empathy as well. This is a crucial survival skill. Research has shown that the same area of the brain that lights up when a person experiences an emotion also activates when that person only sees someone else experiencing that emotion. When we see someone express passion, joy, concern, and so on, experts believe that the mirror neurons send messages to the limbic region of the brain, the area associated with emotion. In a sense, there is a place in the brain that seems to be responsible for living inside other people’s brains—that is, to feel what they are feeling.

If our brains are activated by the movements and feelings of others, what does this suggest for the way we should present to a group of people? If we are wired to feel what others feel, is it any wonder that people get bored and disinterested when listening to someone who seems bored and disinterested themselves—even though the content may be useful? Is it any wonder why we feel stiff and uncomfortable while watching someone on stage barely move a muscle except for the muscles that make their mouth open and close?

We learn by watching and then by doing, but we also learn by feeling what others feel. Empathy and putting ourselves in another person’s shoes allows a connection, and it is this connection that helps us to understand and learn. Yet much of presenting today in the overly formal, static, and didactic style removes the visual component, including the visual messages of our movements and the displays of our emotions. An animated, natural display of emotions surely enriches our narrative as it stimulates others to unconsciously feel what we feel. When you are passionate, for example, as long as it is perceived as genuine, most people to various degrees will mirror that emotion back.

The content of your message is crucial, of course, but others in the audience pick up on all sorts of other signals related to your emotional state. The best content in the world—with the best visuals in the world—can still be sabotaged by our emotions, that is, in how we influence others to feel. I have seen some technical presentations fail this year not because the content was irrelevant or disorganized, but because the presenter, due to inexperience or nerves, looked and sounded more like he was giving a particularly depressing eulogy rather than the results of an interesting piece of research. After 10 to 15 minutes of monotone and dispassionate narration, it becomes very difficult to stay with any speaker, regardless of the topic. Your story and your evidence matter, but the genuine emotions you project have a direct and strong influence—for good and bad—on the message your audience ultimately receives and remembers.

Power of the smile

For most presentation topics, a sincere smile can go a long way in helping to engage an audience. During a recent night in Osaka, Japan, I realized again the power a genuine smile has for connecting emotionally with an audience. I was inspired, in fact, by the person’s smile, as were others in the audience—whether they were conscious of it or not. I was inspired not by a presenter but by a performer, Yoshida Miwa, half of the legendary Japanese duo Dreams Come True. Yoshida Miwa is the 46-year-old diva who fronts the group, a pop star with a great voice and a wide range with clear soul, funk, and jazz influences. Music aside, though, what I remember most about the three-hour concert was the infectious smiles of both Miwa Yoshida and her partner Masa Nakamura, the other half of the duo.

Smiles are indeed infectious. But the smile cannot be faked or forced. You can try to fake a smile, but people can tell when you don’t mean it. In fact, some studies show that if you give an insincere smile, audiences may perceive you as untrustworthy or hypocritical.

Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness (Free Press, 2004) says there are essentially two types of smiles: the “Duchenne smile” and the “Pan American.” The Duchenne smile is the genuine smile, characterized by movement of the muscles around the mouth and also the eyes. You can tell a real smile by how the skin around the eyes wrinkles up a bit. The Pan American smile is the “fake” smile and involves voluntary movement around the mouth only. This is the polite smile you may see from someone in the service industry who is doing their best but not having a great day. We all can recognize an insincere smile. But a presenter or entertainer who actually looks like she is happy to be there—because she really is—is well on her way to engaging her audience naturally. A genuine smile shows that we are happy to be there. And since people in our audience can feel what we feel, why wouldn’t we want them to feel at ease?

Some scientists, medical doctors, engineers, and others presenting on technical matters at a conference may dismiss the importance of the natural smile. They might say that smiling, rapport, and engagement are fine for marketers and general presenters, but serious people must be serious. Well, there is nothing unserious about smiling. Whether or not you use slides in your live presentation, your talk is still visual. And while you may think it’s only your words that people should remember, the audience in fact will recall much of what they saw (including your facial expressions) and what they felt.

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