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No matter the topic, find the emotion

Processes, rules, regulations - they don't exactly leap off the page as topics to inspire emotion.

But you're unlikely to get people to remember, let alone follow, them without generating some sort of emotional engagement.

So how do you draft and deliver a presentation that engages your audience's emotions, when your content is potentially as dry as toast? And you're pretty sure your audience has a set position anyway.

This was the problem facing participants on a presentation skills workshop I facilitated recently.

The argument for emotion comes from the principles of ancient Greek rhetoric, and an example of its power in action was reinforced from a modern story about vaccine resistance.

Three pillars on a temple in Athens
Temple in Athens, Tayla Bundschuh via Unsplash

Quick recap: According to the ancient Greeks, the three pillars of persuasive rhetoric are:

  • logos - the evidence, facts, and research that support your content

  • ethos - the credibility you have as a speaker, communicated through what you share about your experience and how you deliver your content

  • pathos - the emotion you trigger in your audience, most likely through stories, delivered in a way that demonstrates coherence between your style and the content.

The participants were strong on logos. They were mostly subject matter experts, so it was relatively easy to summarise, prioritise, and structure the content they wanted to deliver.

Their expertise meant they were able to populate a variety of structures: point and example, question and answer, problem and solution, time sequence, and (a personal favourite) the triple tell. That means tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you've told them.

Their strength in logos was strongly linked to ethos; being a subject matter expert also has advantages when it comes to credibility: experience, success, and the respect of peers. External factors help with credibility: the forum in which you are presenting, the way you are introduced, and the person who introduces you will all have an impact on the audience's expectations.

But your own words and the way in which you deliver them will impact the audience's experience.

We worked on getting the basics right: body language and stance, eye contact, vocal variety, and poise.

And then came pathos...

Participants were finding it hard to see how they could use emotion in presentations about their subject matter. They were sure that their audiences simply wanted facts from credible sources, and were reluctant to see how they could use stories.

On the morning of day two, I listened to a podcast as I walked the dog, and these words jumped out at me: " Emotions work for Democrats, we want facts."

Syringe and vaccine phial
Syringe and vaccine, Hakan Nural via Unsplash

The words were in story about a group of vaccine resistant Americans who also shared their support of Donald Trump. The group had been brought together in a Zoom call designed to sway them towards accepting the need for a Covid-19 vaccination.

The call was managed by pundit Frank Luntz. He'd assembled a line up of speakers that included senior health officials and Republican senators. Logos and ethos were well covered, and the audience claimed they were not prey to emotion (pathos) anyway.

But that statement marked the turning point, because a communicable disease expert was able to deliver five facts in a minute, framing them in a way that spoke to the audience's values as individualists, capitalists, and patriotic Americans.

Luntz then played the pathos card, having former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tell his story of contracting Covid-19 at the White House at the same time as President Trump and other members of the inner circle.

Christie's story is an amazing example of how all three pillars of rhetoric work together. His credibility came from his position. The facts of the story he told were known to the audience from news reports, but were presented from a new angle. And the pathos comes when he connects his experience of recovery to the experience of family members who passed away after catching the virus.

We started day two of the workshop listening to the five minutes where Christie is introduced and tells his story. Listen from about 44 minutes in.

None of the participants had a story quite as dramatic as Christie's. But we did hear some great personal stories that achieved emotional connection anchored in the logic and credibility of the content.

Tenancy agreements are more important when someone tells of their experience as a tenant.

Invasive pests are more threatening when we hear about how they are affecting a place someone loves. International meetings are more relevant when the impact of the group's actions is told in a personal story.

How can you speak to your audience's emotions the next time you make a presentation?


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