Eliciting Emotions in Communication

Think of the most memorable experiences in your life, say, the day you got married, had your first child, or won a long sought for award. What separates these memories from other, more mundane ones is their inherent emotionality – momentous events, often recollected in stirring detail, are deeply seated in our minds precisely due to the feelings that arose at the time[1]. The same is true of words: advice from a mentor during a period of distress, or hurtful condemnation from a parent for misbehavior, is far more accurately and readily remembered than a routine communication. It is precisely such stirring language, in remaining with us for the longer term, that effects the greatest impact on our thoughts and actions.

Today it’s become a bit of a societal trope that changing someone’s thought pattern by, for example, convincing them of an opposing viewpoint, is a task so challenging, it can feel like climbing Mt. Everest – regardless of the carefully extracted data that is presented, the other party almost always remains rigidly adherent to their original perspective. The information provided is just as quickly forgotten, and no lasting impact is reached. To be sure, such an outcome is not in the least perplexing or surprising: our minds are fundamentally wired to forget and discard input that bears little emotional weight or personal consequence[2].

Yet all too often we find ourselves mired in the fruitless, repetitive task of attempting unimpactful communication – everything from ordering our kids to clean up after themselves (for the thousandth time) to persuading potential clients of the utility of a new product by focusing exclusively on its technical features. To break from this mold, and to truly reach others irrespective of context, we must change the focus of our communication. Rather than speaking from authority or pure factual technicality, we should aim to better understand the individual or group we’re addressing, and then, to reach them emotionally. Old methods of communication that rely solely on pedantic data or logical rigor are fundamentally ineffective. We can and should communicate with a specific focus on creating an emotional response. This approach will better the chances that an audience genuinely considers our words and commits them to memory – setting the stage for genuine action and transformation.

In short, communication is a matter of the heart. As Maya Angelou famously said, “the desire to reach the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.”

[1] Hertel, P., & Reisberg, D. (2010). In Memory and Emotion (pp. 4–5). Essay, Oxford Univ. Press. [2] Spear, N.E. (2014). In Processing of Memories (PLE Memory): Forgetting and Retention. Volume 23 (pp. 47-50). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.