Gary Genard's

Speak for Success!

"Be a voice not an echo." - Albert Einstein

Emotion in Public Speaking: Why It Matters

If you're in the business of giving presentations, you're in the business of delivering emotion.

Every actor who has ever performed has understood this, as has every great speaker. To succeed in your own talks and presentations, you should understand it too. The good news is that this dynamic is an easy one to grasp and implement.

Want to combine your important content with a great performance? To speak with maximum impact and influence, download my free Insights article, "Great Speaking? It's About Performance Over Content!"

Emotion in Action

To illustrate how emotion works in performance, I'd like to use an unlikely example. It's from a recent TED talk which would seem at first to offer little in the way of an emotional connection. The talk is by Hugh Herr, and it's entitled "The New Bionics that Let Us Run, Climb, and Dance." Herr, a double amputee, discusses work he's doing as the head of the M.I.T. Media Lab’s Biomechatronics group.

As you might imagine, the lecture is highly technical. But as the TED description states, it is also "deeply personal," due to Herr's own story of legs lost to frostbite, and also because of that last word in the talk's title: "Dance." To illustrate how advanced and miraculous bionic limb replacement can be, at the end of his talk Herr brings on stage Adrianne Haslet-Davis, who lost her left leg in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Haslet-Davis was—and is—a ballroom dancer, and she performs with a partner once more for the first time on the TED stage. 

The emotional one-two punch provided by this woman's remarkable story, and her flowingly beautiful performance, is an excellent example of how strongly a performer can connect with an audience. Haslet-Davis herself breaks into tears near the dance's end.

Watch the TED talk—and the dance.


Emotions Can Transcend Content

This TED talk is a good example of another aspect of emotion and public speaking: the predictable way an audience's response can transcend subject matter. Always when we speak, the human element is present and operating powerfully, sometimes apart from what we actually say. The dry subject matter we're speaking about is always only part of the equation of Speaker + Topic = Influence.

With the clients I work with, I sometimes use this example: Imagine an esoteric topic; say, an astronomer speaking at a conference about non-planetary rings around asteroids (a topic that happened to be in the news this past week). To all of us non-astronomers, the subject would probably hold little interest. But the audience members at this conference would be just as passionate about new discoveries in their field as the speaker! So emotion is very much present and operating in this talk just like any other—and in a way that may transcend bare content.

Emotions Work Even if the Speaker Isn't Emotional

Apart from the highly technical nature of Hugh Herr's "New Bionics" talk, Herr himself isn't an emotional speaker. His uninflected and generally expressionless vocal delivery could have been a challenge to an audience's attentiveness, though his eye contact and physical inclusion of all sides of his audience are excellent.

(To achieve an actively interested audience in your own presentations, learn how to use your voice and body language when you speak.)

Yet we pay close attention to him! And as we've seen, we're hit with a freight train of emotion at the end of the talk.

Why do we stay attentive? Because the topic has interest for us all, I believe for two reasons. We can all contemplate how we ourselves would be challenged by the loss of a single or both limbs. And we have all shared in the trauma and horror of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Clearly, the way you develop your message and tap into emotional reservoirs has importance to your audience's emotional experience. The means by which you can achieve that emotional payoff is the subject of my next blog.

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Tags: public speaking training,storytelling,communication skills,influence,organizing a presentation,charisma,presence

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