Proceed With Caution – Emotions at Work
Harnessing the power of emotion in marketing communication
I let myself down this week.
My emotions got the better of me at a conference breakout session on how we can best use the personal stories of our lives in the workplace. Fearing public tears and that I’d make fellow delegates feel awkward and, because of the utter shame of it all, I excused myself from the room. Thus I missed out on one of the main reasons I’d signed up to go to the event in the first place.
But maybe all was not lost – because the session and my experience of it made me think about how and why we use emotional touchpoints in our communication, and what we’re really trying to achieve.
Bringing our personal stories to the workplace helps us to better connect with our colleagues, prospects and clients; readers, listeners and viewers. But our stories are often highly charged things, infused with all sorts of feelings. Sharing the personal and emotional at work can lead us into tricky territory and we need to navigate with care.
Emotion triggers connection
Why do we think it’s a good idea to bring a personal narrative to things that could otherwise remain dry and process-driven, product, service or transaction based?
Because we know that people – our audiences – are curious. We all want to feel that there is, or could be, some sort of connection beyond the merely transactional. Our personal experiences may be unique to us but they also resonate with others. The infusion of genuine, close-to-the-bone lived experience adds interest and helps us connect those magic dot-to-dots of affinity and build rapport and relationships.
Quite simply, our personal stories can leap the distance between people and help us operate more effectively.
But when we’re at work, when there’s a communications job to be done, we should tread that fragile tightrope woven of our feelings, with care.
As we craft a personal story to add human interest and accentuate a point in say, a presentation, pitch or blog post, we should be aware that in doing so we’re processing our emotions around that event. We’ve brought reason to bear and we’ve come up with the feeling we want to get across. That feeling will hopefully trigger an emotional response in our audience, opening them up to the possibility of identifying with us, better understanding what we’re saying and acting (if that’s applicable) on our words.
Focus on your purpose
However, before we start to share, we need to have absolute clarity on why we’re choosing to reveal a particular personal story in support of a marketing message.
We need to keep our focus firmly on what we’re hoping to achieve, making the story serve its purpose by taking our audience willingly with us. What we mustn’t allow is for the story to take over, for our emotion-fuelled, feelings-driven small part to become bigger than the message we need to deliver.
Similar to the advice often given to allay musicians’ nerves: ‘you as an individual are not the focus, you’re the means of getting the music, (i.e. the message), across.’
Avoid the overwhelm
By keeping focused we also avoid another pitfall that can get in the way of getting the job done – a personal story that overwhelms our audience and drowns out our purpose.
In copywriting, the benefits of ‘the rule of three’ are well documented but in telling personal stories, follow the other much vaunted maxim of ‘less being more.’ ‘Less,’ in this case say, one story, gives your audience the space to recognise themselves.
I remember a conference keynote I heard a while back where, although the speaker couldn’t be faulted on his well-rehearsed, professional delivery, his back story, which was meant to empower delegates, ended up making large pockets of the audience feel dissociated. Many were in awe of his achievements but his experiences, one piled relentlessly on top of the other, were so far removed from their lives that they felt bad for the speaker and comparatively inadequate themselves. Instead of the promised inspiration, inertia set in.
It’s about them, stupid!
We all want to be understood; when we keep our stories focused and fitting for the job in hand, we’re advancing understanding. Our audiences feel we ‘get’ them not that we’re blasting them with a particular form of oneupmanship.
When we’re recounting a personal story that has caused us pain, we have to remember that we all have pain and that we all react differently to pain. We should never assume just because we have a platform (be it conference stage, blog or sales meeting) that we’re the most pained person in the room. We need to get our job done as effectively as possible without our very act of sharing needing validation, admiration or congratulation. Having said that, these may sometimes be ‘nice-to-have’ by-products that can start further conversation and bring about a closer connection.
But it’s about you too
Sometimes there are instances where we may feel unsure about whether to share something. Wavering, havering and weighing up are good signs. They mean we want to feel at one with what we’re putting out there.
Our own state of being comfortable with what we share is communicated in so many subtle ways to our audience. Presentations where the speaker overwhelms an audience and is then overcome him or herself, can cause unease and obscure the message.
“If you’ve been affected…”
Much is said these days about how we do our best when we bring our whole selves to work, when we’re not afraid of showing vulnerability and when we acknowledge our shared humanity.
Psychotherapist, Philippa Perry has identified some of the less savoury aspects of this as The Age of Emotion (the title of her excellent radio 4 programme broadcast earlier this year), where how we feel about an experience seems to have become more important than the facts.
This has delivered the emotion-led ‘marketing’ successes of Brexit and the Trump presidency, as well as making us seemingly less able to navigate the everyday difficulties of life.
Perry urges us to be ever mindful of our capacity for reason and marry it up with the current predilection for the easier, ‘sugar-hit’ of emotion.
A recent article in The Guardian about the CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, provides a great example of an emotional touchpoint in action. It’s the sort of thing that works well in marketing communication, illuminating About pages and bringing sales literature and presentations to life.
Pichai is seen largely in a positive light mainly due to how he’s positioned in the opening lines. The piece opens with him, a child in south-east India and shows how the installation of a telephone and fridge in the family home, items we would’ve taken for granted in the UK at the same time, changed his and his family’s life. Growing up, Pichai…:
“…had to make regular trips to the hospital to pick up his mother’s blood-test results. It took an hour and 20 minutes by bus, and when he got there he would have to stand and queue for an hour, often to be told the results weren’t ready.
It took five years for his family to get their first rotary telephone, when Pichai was 12. It was a landmark moment. “It would take me 10 minutes to call the hospital, and maybe they’d tell me, ‘No, come back tomorrow’,” Pichai says. “We waited a long time to get a refrigerator, too, and I saw how my mom’s life changed: she didn’t need to cook every day, she could spend more time with us. So there is a side of me that has viscerally seen how technology can make a difference, and I still feel it. I feel the optimism and energy, and the moral imperative to accelerate that progress.”
Pichai’s beginnings and his motivation are beautifully human and relatable. This plays out in stark contrast to the power of Google today, enabling the writer, Jemima Kiss, to then take the article in any number of directions.
Go easy on yourself
Kiss’s writing is effective because it’s a purposeful and deliberate use of emotional seasoning, it leaves space for the reader to understand and draw his or her own conclusions as well as follow the story.
We do better when we align personal stories with the over-arching purpose of our message, making them appropriate for our audiences and bearable, or at least, manageable, in their retelling, for ourselves.
Photo: courtesy of John Harvey, The Samphire Club