Speaking To Elicit Emotion

by Stephen Boyd | April 11, 2008

In order for us to motivate people to action, we have to make them feel what we are talking about. There’s a story about the little boy who came crying to his father with the news that his turtle had died. His father looked at the recumbent creature in his son’s hand and thought fast.

“I know,” he said, “we’ll invite some of your friends over and have a big funeral. We’ll dig a little grave in the backyard and make a little coffin, and we’ll have a parade. I’ll speak some words over dead Herkimer there and…”

About that time, the father noticed that the turtle was moving. “Hey, son, look! Your turtle isn’t dead after all!”

The boy observed the now animated creature, then looked at this dad with a sly grin. “Let’s kill him!” he said.

This father may have elicited too many strong feelings. People, however, generally will not take action unless there is a feeling involved. We buy on emotion and justify with logic. Here are some suggestions for including emotion in your speaking.

With every action you want the audience to take, have a story to support the action. Stories are about emotion and feelings. A story has the human element that touches other humans who listen. When the story is relevant to the point, a connection is made.

For example, consider the point that we should celebrate at every opportunity. This story provides the needed feeling: I remember when our daughter was having trouble with fourth grade spelling. One day she came home with a 100% on a spelling test. We had recently received as a gift a red plate with white letters that said, “You are special today.” On a whim we decided to exchange this plate for the regular dinner plate at meal time.

When she saw it her place, she said, “What is this for?”

We answered, “We are celebrating your 100% on your spelling test.” That was the beginning of a tradition in our family. Any time a family member does something special, he or she gets the red plate at dinner. We sometimes do that for a dinner guest to show we appreciate their sharing a meal with us. Someone’s getting the red plate enhances the celebration.

Another way of making an audience feel is to describe a scene vividly. Rick Mears, a race driver at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said that racing there is like driving down the hallway in your house at 230 miles an hour and turning left into your closet. That made instantly clear the dangers and quick decisions required when driving a racecar. I would never want to be a racecar driver, but that description helps me feel the emotions involved.

You can be a very logical speaker and not be effective in moving people to action. The key is touching the feelings or emotions of the people in your audience.

About the Author

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at http://www.sboyd.com. To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

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