Add the Power of Emotion to Your Next Speech

by Steve Evans | Blog

Say It With Feeling!

This is a post about how you feel when you say the words of a speech or presentation.  This is important because if you want the audience to feel the emotional content of your speech, you have to feel those emotions, first.  They will mirror the emotions you are displaying.  How you feel when you say the words is one of the four elements of any speech or presentation and one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal.  A quick review: when you give a speech, you are actually giving four speeches simultaneously.

The words you say.

How you say the words.

How you look when you say the words.

How you feel when you say the words.

A Word or Two from Maya

At this point in any discussion of the emotional content of a speech, the quote by Maya Angelou usually comes up.  It’s overused but it perfectly encapsulates the importance of using emotions to get your message across and make it unforgettable. So, here it is, one more time…

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


How Do You Make Them Feel Something?

So, how do you make them feel the feelings you want them to feel?  It’s important to realize that you don’t somehow inject feelings into a crowd. They are already there.  We’re all born with them.  It’s your job as a speaker to trigger those feelings in your audience members with the words you say and how you feel when you say them.  How you feel will naturally affect how you say the words and, finally, how you look when you say them.  Confused? Let’s take a look at why all this works.

Mirror Neurons: A Powerful Speaking Tool

One of the most powerful tools you have as a speaker is something called Mirror Neurons which I covered in a previous post which you can read here – Mirror Neurons: A Powerful Speaking Tool 

As I say in the post, mirror neurons give you the power to lead the audience emotionally. Ask yourself how you want the audience to feel and behave?  You need to feel and behave that way first.  The audience will mirror your emotions and actions. If you want the audience to be relaxed, comfortable, open and enthusiastic (and who doesn’t?) you, as the speaker, need to be relaxed, comfortable, open and enthusiastic…first.

Monkey Mirror

What is a Mirror Neuron?

According to Wikipedia, “A mirror neuron, is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer was the one acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species.”  Like animals, we all have mirror neurons and that’s good news.  You really don’t need a knowledge of neuroscience to use this speaking tool.  Just remember the following:

How do you want the audience to feel and behave?  You need to feel and behave that way first. The audience will mirror your emotions and actions.

It’s Time to Give This a Try

Let’s do an exercise.  Read the following paragraph in a monotone with absolutely no emotions.

“I watched the doctor walk down the hall to join us in the waiting room.  This was it, I thought, the moment when we learn whether our young son had survived the accident or whether we were going to hear the worst words a parent can ever hear.  When he got close, time seemed to stop as we waited to hear what he was going to say.  He looked at us, smiled and said, “Johnny is going to be alright”.  Suddenly, tears streamed down our cheeks.  We were just overwhelmed with feelings of joy.”

Now, read it again feeling what the parents must have been feeling as this situation unfolded.  As you read it with feeling, notice how those emotions naturally inform your tone of voice, your facial expressions, your body language.  It all comes together in a natural, sincere recounting of the scene. 

Is This Acting?

Yes, in a sense we are performing as an actor does or at least, using the same tools to communicate.  An actor is acutely aware of how their character is feeling at any given moment in a scene and they will use their tools to communicate those feelings in a believable way to the audience.  You can use those same tools as a speaker to effectively get your message including the emotional content across to your audience, as well.

Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk

Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on body language has been viewed over 60,000,000 times.  I think one of the reasons is how she makes the audience feel.  There is a point in her talk when she is about to cry. It’s a moving moment.  We all feel it.  And, we feel how she feels as she recounts her conversation with one of her students.  Watch the talk and notice how she makes you feel at various times and how you will likely remember those moments.  It also contains some cool ideas about body language.

Don’t Forget to Write (with feeling)

The emotional content of your speech or presentation should be considered at the very beginning when you are writing your content. The words of Maya Angelou should be ringing in your ears when you sit down and start tapping away on your laptop: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  So, how are the words you are writing going to make your audience feel?

Guy Writing & Laptop

The Six Basic Emotions

Psychologist, Dr. Paul Ekman professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco is a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions.  The good doctor maintains that there are 6 basic universal emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust and anger.  Think about a favorite speech, maybe watch it again on YouTube.  How many of these emotions did you feel when you listened to the speaker? Was it memorable? Think about your last speech or presentation and ask yourself the same questions.

Tell Them a Story, or Two, or Three

People love to hear stories and it’s one of the best ways to engage your audience and have them remember you and your message.  It’s a powerful communication tool because stories trigger pictures and emotions and that’s how we think.  In his book Your Perfect Presentation, Bill Hoogterp puts it this way: “The human brain does not actually think in words or numbers. When we hear words and numbers, we convert them instantaneously into pictures and emotions so that we can process them, like a movie, in our heads.  Then, when we want to speak, we process and convert our thinking back into words and numbers”.  So, if you want to connect and engage an audience, the best and most direct way is to create word pictures and trigger emotions with stories.  You will be speaking their language.

Book Your Perfect Presentation

Tell a Story, Make a Point

When I graduated from high school, my Dad suggested we take a Dale Carnegie Course in Effective Speaking and Human Relations.  He thought learning a few things about How to Win Friends and Influence People (the title of Carnegie’s famous book) would help me out in the world I was about to enter.  He was right.  That course and our time together taking it is one of my favorite memories.  I learned a lot including a simple formula for making a speech.  It was this; Tell a story, make a point, tell another story, make another point.  As I remember, someone asked what they should do if they had to deliver a longer speech and the instructor said, “Tell more stories”. This technique is used by a lot of speakers even today because it works but it can become a little “formulaic”.  I would suggest using a variety of methods to support your points.  Good stories are a powerful way to illustrate a point specifically because they trigger pictures and emotions, but I would also sprinkle in a few things like examples, statistics and analogies just to mix things up.

How to Tell a Good Story

Obviously, this is a much bigger subject than we can cover in this blog post.  After all, people have been trying to tell good stories since we were all sitting around a fire in the cave and there are countless books, college courses and a Masterclass or two on the subject.  I may even write a blog post on the subject myself, just to add my two cents.  I would suggest Googling, “How to tell a good story” and begin your storytelling journey. Click on a few of the over 2.4 billion links that will pop up. Check out a few of the books that have been written including and maybe a Masterclass or two.  This will take some time.  It will always be a work in progress.

Back to the Maya Angelou Quote

We’re at the end of this post and I can’t help but wonder how I made you feel.  How did you feel about those crazy mirror neurons, Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk or the story of my Dad and I taking the Carnegie class? Hopefully, you feel you’ve learned a bit about one of the most important elements in public speaking, the emotional content of your message and are excited to incorporate this tool into your next speech or presentation.  So many times, we get hung up on just the words we’re delivering.  Remember that how you say, look and feel while you say them is just as important when giving a winning speech or presentation.

Steve Evans, Speech Enthusiast



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