2-min Leadership Masterclass: Make Them Feel (then Make Them Think)
Look at this dog’s big, sad eyes. No matter how much you tell yourself Fido is not getting a piece of your sandwich (and logically you know this is good for his health too) the pull of the emotional engagement is hard to resist… which is why so many people have obese dogs. The ability of our emotions to overpower our logical, rational self is extremely powerful…
The power of emotional engagement
There was an experiment conducted in 2011 on parole judge rulings in Israel. 1100 parole hearings were logged against time. The results were startling, especially for the judges themselves — their rulings were influenced by mealtimes. See below:
What this experiment showed was even senior professionals like judges — who define themselves by being rational and guided by a set of codes enshrined in the legal statutes — were driven by irrational, unconscious factors like feeling hungry (or hangry) as mealtimes approached.
As we all know, your physical state affects your emotional state, and that in turn can affect your judgement, quite literally.
Using emotional tools to engage your audience
Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to easily accept information that supports their own beliefs without challenging it, but challenging information that contradicts their own beliefs. It’s very common, and perfectly normal. We all have it to a greater or lesser degree.
Emotional experiences can help overcome confirmation bias because it makes people feel, before they think. For example: You might be a dyed-in-the-wool blue voter or red voter, but a really powerful speech, a fresh-faced candidate who resembles your child, or a major economic disaster that causes your friends distress, can provide enough of an emotional connection to make you swap sides, despite your allegiances. Similarly, you might hate using emojis, but find yourself adopting them in social media chats with your emoji-loving grandchildren; or you might not like the idea of video calling at first, but a FaceTime with your kids while you are away on business can change your mind completely.
How to Engage Hearts Before Minds.
For well over three decades, most of the global scientific community have been aligned on the urgent need to address global warming and climate change. However, people were slow to react, change their habits or lobby politicians over it. There has been a distinct shift over the last two years in the traction that climate change messaging has achieved. People, corporations and politicians who were indifferent to issues regarding plastics or emissions are now engaging, why?
The answer is scientific papers and academics present information that can be deflected by cognitive bias. The classic being confusing weather with climate “how can it be getting warmer when we’re having a snowstorm?” Logic can be overwhelmed by faulty logic, like smokers who like telling tales of their granny who smoked forty per day and lived into her eighties.
However, films of whales choking on rubbish, islands of plastic, news stories of children and old people dying from pollution and young teenagers like Greta Grunberg addressing world leaders at the UN, engages us more effectively than graphs and data.
An image can provoke an emotional reaction that logic (and faulty logic) can’t deny. It makes people engage with the message on an emotional level, which makes them more open to changing their mind.
Combining emotional hooks with storytelling
Storytelling is an important mode through which humans learn, in fact, most of us learn everything through stories as children; think of the illustrated books that taught us words, mathematical concepts, abstract notions like time and emotional states like happy or sad.
Even more critically, stories are the mechanism by which we learn how to integrate into our communities — at home, at school, and eventually at work — by giving us a sense of right and wrong, through role models in the shape of heroes and the antisocial behaviour of their opposites, the villains.
This means humans engage with storytelling very effectively. However what makes storytelling special, is the fact that it often uses the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ or in other words, we learn through inference, exposition, metaphors and analogies as opposed to plain, unambiguous statements.
Why does show work better than tell?
Studies have shown that human brain activity is effected by structures called mirror neurons, that recreate the same kinds of sensations as the characters we read about or see on the screen. This explains why we feel excited when a famous actor pretends to be in a car chase; or we can be scared by actors in a studio pretending to be murdered by a computer-generated monster; or we might cry when a happily married actor has a pretend sad relationship with another happily married actor; or an actor pretends to die to save another actor from a pretend danger.
There have also been studies that show over the duration of a reading a book, your brain experiences improved data retention, you have more of the hormones that help you focus and feel empathy for others, and your brain activity is very similar to the brain activity observed from people while they are learning. The ability of stories to engage your brain’s learning mode is something you might recognise even if you haven’t necessarily realised it. For example:
- Most people in countries where Christianity is the oldest established religion are taught about the Bible at school. They remember the nativity story easily, but relatively few people can list the Ten Commandments.
- We all know Snow White was helped by seven dwarfs, but what were their names? Similarly, Father Christmas has a sled is pulled by magical reindeer, but what are their names?
- History is full of famous names like Julius Caesar, Boudicca, William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, George Washington, Napoleon (etc.) but relatively few people can recall who preceded them or succeeded them. Our sense of history is dominated by stories, rather than a continuous timeline of people and events.
Harnessing storytelling techniques, and combining them with emotional triggers help leaders communicate very effectively, and build support for their ideas.
Five practical tips for better — emotional — storytelling:
- Who is the audience, why are you talking to them? Thinking about the sorts of examples, metaphors and memes your audience will relate to best will help you steer the message towards something they will engage with. Do you have empathy for their situation, what would have engaged you if your roles were reversed?
- What do you want them to think, feel and do? In this post we want you to think about using these tips in your communications. We want you to feel confident that creating an emotional connection and using storytelling will be effective. What we want you to do, is develop your own personal approach to communicating.
- What is your headline? Remember “The new office recycling initiative” is not as effective as “Sperm whales are going extinct, let’s recycle!”Emotional hooks make people stop and listen.
- Think of three key messages you need to convey (stories work well with a beginning, middle and end, normally progressing through stages, but not too many). For each key message, think of a proof point to support it, or a story that illustrates why it is important. This is an excellent time to refer to your own experience of similar situations, events that influenced your career, advice and wisdom from mentors. By using your own personal narrative in the story, you create a connection with the audience that makes your message more emotional and relatable. Compare telling children about generic road safety with the story of the time you got run over and broke your leg. The personal narrative engages more effectively.
- What is your parting thought, or call to action? Every great story ends with a parting thought that leaves you thinking about the story, connects you to the events and makes you remember the book or film. Adverts also use this to connect our moods with products. Leadership messaging is the same. One of the strongest calls to action is “join me”, “help me / us / the team / the whales” etc. A good call to action is something that makes people put themselves into your story, and feel part of the journey you are making, which is the essence of great leadership communications.