At a talk I gave last week, I was asked whether it would be more effective to speak dispassionately or emotionally in court. Days later I realized I should have responded that the real emphasis in public speaking situations should always be on honesty and genuineness, not specific emotions. Even though it sounds counterintuitive, public speakers can get better at with practice, feedback, and relaxation techniques.
Every audience craves genuineness from a speaker and cannot abide being manipulated. Every speaker seeking to communicate or persuade is therefore duty-bound to ensure that whatever argument she presents is done so as honestly and genuinely as possible. The amount and kind of emotion broadcast and received in public speaking can make or break a speaker’s point.
Emotion is Everywhere
Emotion is one of the most underestimated and pervasive components in public speaking. The vast majority of meaning comes from the decoding the emotional signals broadcast by the speaker. By emotion, I am not only referring to the primary emotions of anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise, but also to more subtle variations and combinations. Even “dispassionateness” is a specific emotional communication that can be as overpowering as any.
Technically emotion is “a complex psychophysiological experience of an individual’s state of mind as interacting with biochemical (internal) and environmental (external) influences.” Informally, it’s human genuineness.
While at the heart of public speaking, emotionality is a pejorative used to undercut arguments or communications that seek to exploit this reality. To play on one’s heartstrings is to manipulate the power and omnipresence of the emotional elements.
Death by Manipulation
No one like being manipulated, especially jurors. The following are comments from an article about juror perceptions of attorneys I explored in a previous post. Note how both too much emotional appeal as well as too little emotionality had negative effects:
“…jurors felt was inappropriate in the opening statements was an exceptional amount of emotional appeal.”
“…resented extreme appeals to their sympathy.”
“The plaintiff’s attorney came across as more likable. He used an amount of emotional appeal that the jurors felt was appropriate in this particular case.”
“…tended to make the defense attorney appear unsympathetic to the plight of the severely injured victim. Throughout the interviews, the jurors described the defense attorney as ‘cold,’ ‘calculating,’ and ‘callous.’”
These are the stakes when one heads into a persuasive situation with an emotional agenda, a particular emotional state they either intend to communicate or illicit.
An audience that feels manipulated is both aware of the manipulation and unaccepting of the degree. Every communication and persuasion involves a degree of manipulation–the very framing of an argument manipulates perception. We watch movies, plays and read books wanting to be manipulated. The line between manipulation and persuasion is the line of genuineness.
The Power of Genuineness
The more focused a speaker is on the truth of a situation and topic–both its emotional and factual components–the more accepting the audience is. It’s a crapshoot whether or not an audience will agree with what you have to say, but it’s virtually certain that no audience will consider anything they perceive to be disingenuous.
The steps to guard against this whammy of a communicative roadblock are relatively simple to the point of common sense, yet rarely practiced to the degree necessary to avoid perceptions of manipulation.
Tip #1: Practice
Even the most heartfelt and honest of arguments can come off as disingenuous simply because the speaker is not comfortable presenting it. The threshold for believability is commanding your material. It’s almost impossible to convince someone of something that doesn’t sit well with you. To make your practice efficient begin with memorizing the core kernel of your argument as well as its key points.
Tip #2: Run it by Someone
The more removed this someone is from the actual audience you will be delivering your message to, the better. Frankness and honesty cuts across all fields so it’s productive to test out your story on your wife, your friend, even the bus driver.
Have them repeat back what you told them. Did what they say sound like what you said or wanted them to hear? If not, you need to focus and clarify your content.
Ask them if you seemed nervous, if they believed what you said, if they were distracted by what you said or how you said it. Use these comments to focus your rehearsals.
By focusing your argument and removing distractions, you permit more of yourself to shine through which resonates with audiences as real and true.
Tip #3: Relax
Before, during and after steps one and two, practice relaxation techniques beginning with deep breathing. While you may be able to convince yourself while practicing and even get favorable reviews from test audiences, the stress of performance can knock anyone off their game.
These three steps won’t necessarily guarantee success or even that you’ll hit the right balance of emotions and intensity. They will however drastically improve your chances of avoiding the failure of being perceived as manipulating. Think of it as genuine insurance.